Capitol Hill is undoubtedly a small-c conservative place. It has more traditions than a British boarding school and a stricter dress code, too (at least in the House).
When Jacob Wilson got there, he felt a little lost. “I was coming straight from the peace movement,” says the grassroots organizer turned congressional staffer.
Looking around the hallways, he saw lots of people who had been groomed for Congress by law schools, grad programs and think tanks. But not many staffers had taken his path — something he’s hoping to change. This month Wilson and others launched the Congressional Progressive Staff Association, which aims to provide a safe space amid all the gray suits and inspire more activists to work on the Hill.
“It is so hard to get a job in Congress, we all know that, and it can be especially difficult if you have … big bold ideas,” he says.
The new group already has more than 250 members, including nearly 100 senior staffers, according to Wilson.
That should both excite and worry Democrats. For left-wing organizations in Washington, long overshadowed by better-funded industry lobbyists, it means a sympathetic ear at the Capitol. For lawmakers, it means pressure from their own employees, right as they debate the electoral pros and cons of embracing progressive policy goals.
The idea for the group started before he even got to the Hill, Wilson says. As a Maryland-based organizer for Peace Action, a grassroots group opposed to war and nuclear proliferation, he would find himself struggling to get indifferent staff to listen to his pacific pleas.
“I often found myself meeting with congressional staffers on the Hill who either were unfamiliar with the issues I was working on, or at times not receptive to the arguments I was presenting,” says Wilson, who now serves as press secretary for Democratic Rep. Andy Levin of Michigan.
He got the sense that staff on the Hill were mostly allergic to progressive ideals. But after he made the jump to the Hill himself and started networking with peers — grabbing coffee with at least 70 staffers as an intern — that perception changed.
“I realized that, as an advocate, I simply hadn’t been interacting with the people who were going to be most receptive to my ideas, and it became clear to me that there also wasn’t really a place to find those people easily,” he says.
So, toward the end of those networking coffees in the Longworth Dunkin’ Donuts, Wilson started making a pitch to the chiefs of staff and legislative directors who had taken the time to meet with a lowly intern: What if we start a progressive staff association?
“Without fail, every time I brought this up, the responses were so positive,” Wilson says.
Organizing on the inside
Along with co-founders Courtney Laudick, a fellow Levin aide, and Philip Bennett, a scheduler for Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Wilson started organizing in earnest, racing to get the group up and running amid Donald Trump’s first impeachment and increased bellicosity between the U.S. and Iran. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they delayed the official launch, instead focusing on recruiting more staffers to sign up before going public.
The group has three main goals, says Wilson. To serve current staff, it will make room for progressive thought and create a space for networking. The third goal is simply to get more progressives in congressional offices.
“We want to bring activists, organizers, faith leaders, people from the labor movement,” says Wilson. “So often those folks, their job has been to interact and interface with congressional staff, and I think the question we’re trying to answer is: Why can’t they be congressional staff?”
To do that, they want to work with their natural allies at the lawmaker level, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, on how to recruit and hire more activists. There are also plans for a resume bank.
If successful, the staff association will make Capitol Hill more fertile for progressive policy ideas trying to take root, which could ultimately shift congressional Democrats to the left. At a time when voters base their decisions more on their views toward the national party than an individual candidate’s characteristics, that could unnerve swing-district Democrats.
After losing 10 House seats in 2020, moderate Democrats like Pennsylvania’s Conor Lamb and Virginia’s Abigail Spanberger criticized their more left-wing colleagues for embracing rhetoric like “defund the police” that helped the GOP’s “radical socialist” labels stick.
Voters tend to punish policy overreach, said University of Texas at El Paso political science professor Carlos Algara, describing his new paper on how voters judge Congress on a recent podcast. “If Democrats go too far to the left in terms of advocating their agenda, they’re going to drive up congressional disapproval,” Algara said. “And that can be very damaging as they look toward 2022 and as they look to hold their congressional majorities.”
Wilson rejects these arguments, saying voters will reward the party that delivers policies they want. “The ideas that progressives are championing are oftentimes broadly popular with the American public,” he says.
He points to progressive proposals that have polled well, even among Republicans, and the difference between the anemic fiscal response to the 2008 recession and the trillions Congress has spent inoculating the economy against the pandemic.
“That is the work of progressive activists and organizers on the ground, who for years have been saying: We must protect working families when the economy crashes. The only way to protect ‘the economy’ is to protect working people,” Wilson says.