Comment: Credit grass-roots with Perez’s ‘upset’ win for Congress

If her win in southwest Washington seemed a surprise, it wasn’t to those who have worked for it.

By Roxana Norouzi / For The Herald

Following Marie Gluesenkamp Perez’s seemingly unlikely Democratic win in Washington’s 3rd Congressional District, the media’s explanation was clear: the 2022 midterms were a resounding defeat of extremism. This narrative, however, misses a critical piece of the story: the power of grass-roots organizing.

Crediting Perez’s win solely to her opponent’s extremism erases the efforts of grass-roots organizations: multi-lingual outreach, community education, civic engagement, year-round voter contact, candidate development, and broader movement building. Perez’s win is a tipping point; one that occurred after years of powerbuilding from community organizations.

We are one of those organizations. At OneAmerica Votes, we’ve been organizing immigrants to fight for justice through building electoral power. Grass-roots leaders are at the heart of our work, one of whom is Elizabeth.

In 2009, Elizabeth was picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) because of her undocumented status, and detained in Tacoma. Soon after, her family started organizing on the outside with OneAmerica for her release.

After two months, Elizabeth was released. Since then, she has dedicated her life to righting this wrong. Elizabeth is fighting to change who’s in power so we can end immigration detention and win a path to citizenship.

For Elizabeth, organizing to unseat former Republican Congresswoman Jaime Herrera-Buetler and elect someone in the 3rd Congressional district who represented our communities was not just about political numbers or party control. It was about transforming her own experiences of trauma and pain into real change.

For 10 years, she has led rallies, phone banked, knocked doors, and talked to hundreds of new American and immigrant voters. Each time we did not succeed in flipping that seat, she and dozens of dedicated volunteers recommitted to building more power, organizing more volunteers, and contacting more voters.

Finally, this year our collective work paid off.

OneAmerica Votes has been organizing with people like Elizabeth for a decade to build a base of unlikely voters in Vancouver, Wash.: immigrants, people of color and youth. We organize year-round — not just during election cycles — to win on the issues that matter to our communities.

We fought for candidates in the 3rd Congressional District over the last three election cycles, seeing our communities’ inch closer to power. This year we talked to 20,000 voters in the southwest Washington district, knocking on their door, calling them on the phone, or sending them information in the mail. Every day, we are reaching immigrants and new Americans, a segment of voters who have been ignored by mainstream campaigns.

Pundits, the Democratic Party, and mainstream organizations gave up on the 3rd District. The polling website FiveThirtyEight gave Perez only a 2 percent chance of winning the election. But we knew our chances were better, because our work showed that our community had the heart, energy and power to get Perez elected.

Engaging the people furthest from power isn’t about candidates or parties; both have failed communities of color. We organize based on values; on the future we want to build.

Our message to voter centers on a shared vision for the world we want: a place where immigrants thrive and are integrated into the fabric of our communities. This proactive message, when delivered to “low-propensity” voters by someone who looks like them, speaks their language, and talks about issues not just candidates is what engages people in movements that have the power to win elections.

This win belongs to the community; to organizations and leaders like Elizabeth, who have poured decades of work into shifting political power in a region by building long-lasting people power. Ignoring that critical piece of this year’s political puzzle leaves out thousands of crucial and powerful players in the future of our multi-racial democracy.

Roxana Norouzi is the executive director for OneAmerica, Washington state’s largest immigrant rights organization, where she has worked for the last decade, and a 2022 Aspen Institute Ascend Fellow.

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