Bus Riders Won a Huge, $2.1 Billion, Surprise Victory In Charleston

The voters of Charleston had the opportunity to vote to improve public transportation.  Then, the referendum was severely damaged by a hurricane, DC Metro train fires and a local, double-dealing politician (revealed on a secretly recorded tape).  Despite high level defections from a major environmental group, the League of Women Voters and the NAACP, the local bus riders union, pulled out a major, surprise victory.  Keep reading to find out how we used grassroots organizing to save the day and how this victory gives us some hints of how we can win even during the Trump Presidency.  This is a good #ThanksgivingRead .    

Americans for Transit has been in a reboot stage since June when they hired Sigute “Siggy” Melius as our Senior Organizer and me, Fabricio Rodriguez, as the Executive Director.

Since that time, Siggy and I have been talking with public transit activists and bus riders union members all around the country, seeking an opportunity to make a difference. 

Of more than 75 transit-related referendums on ballots this year, we found three that we though had the critical elements: 1. Bus driver union support 2. Organized riders playing a leading role 3. Grassroots organizing could make the difference for a victory.

We played a support or leading role in 3 cities; Sacramento, Indianapolis and Charleston, SC.

Sacramento voters were being asked to support Measure B, a tax increase to fund transit and other infrastructure improvements.  In Indianapolis, voters were being asked to vote for a tax increase to triple the size of their transit system.  Finally, in Charleston, likewise, voters were being asked to support a tax increase to pay for infrastructure and transit. 

In Sacramento, I helped connect a few dots between the local grassroots riders’ organization, the ATU Local union and the AFL-CIO.  We didn’t play a bigger role there because they had enough local capacity and sophistication to run the campaign themselves (the measure lost 65.5% YES  because 67.7% is required).  They worked hard, but it is a high bar.

In Indianapolis, IndyCan (PICO Affiliate), was leading the charge.  They are a powerful faith-based organization that had several seasons of voter engagement under their belt. IndyCAN didn’t have ties to organized labor, so we went up there for a week with ATU staff to try to nudge the union locals to support the effort.  The local ATU soon pledged to help out the effort, as did the SEIU Local.  There was nothing more for us to do than get out of the way.

The Indianapolis Referendum passed by 57.8%.

THE BEST FRIENDS OF LOW COUNTRY TRANSIT

In Charleston, the language of the referendum was voted down by County Council on August then suddenly revived a few weeks later. 

William “Jack” Hamilton, the Executive Director of the Best Friends of Low Country Transit, had been a dedicated advocate for transit for decades. 

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Jack is an attorney and often relies on transit because he is legally blind. Jack has inspired a community with his sense of moral outrage at the struggles that low-income riders and drivers face in the region every day.

Though, Charleston is still a relatively small city, its roads and highways are a snarl of traffic congestion for at least 5 hours each day. Due to the coastal geography, the area is beautifully spotted with rivers, marshes, and tidal ocean basins. In truth, the traffic in this region cannot be mitigated in the future by more roads without sacrificing the unique natural surroundings. Transit is the only solution for Charleston.

CARTA, the transit authority, however, is an agency stuck in a mass transit system death spiral. Due to decades of neglect and cutbacks, it has eroded to the point where it is not a viable mode of transport. Since there has been no investment in the system in a decade, the old bus stock is inefficient and unreliable. The schedules don’t run often enough (it is common for most buses to run once per hour) and are usually late due to breakdowns or traffic. Fewer reliable buses leads to lower ridership. The loss of ridership leads to lower revenue.  Lower revenue leads to further cutbacks and fare increases.  This pushes more people to find alternatives and abandon the bus. Therefore, more people end up in cars, increasing traffic. The classic mass transit death spiral.

The only way to reverse the trend is to make transit affordable, reliable, and frequent enough so that people can depend on it instead of a car.

Jack had been ringing this alarm for a long time.

Jack points out how the workers of the area miss out on job opportunities and are prisoners to the grid lock. He tells anyone who will listen about how the car enforces racial segregation, leaving poor black families without access to good jobs, downtown services, or the famous beaches. 

Though Jack was well-known as an activist in town, his small advocacy organization, The Best Friends of Low Country Transit (The Best Friends), did not have the capacity to run a field operation powerful enough to win the referendum. 

In late August, I flew into the city to meet with the local progressive community to gage their support for the issue. We got a positive reception at meetings with the AFL-CIO, Charleston Moves (bike riders), the Democratic Party, the ATU Local, and the most powerful progressive non-profit in town, Coastal Conservation League.

A local communications firm, NP Strategies, had been hired by the builders’ association and the Chamber of Commerce to support it passage of a ½ cent sale tax increase which would raise $2.1 billion for infrastructure including $600,000,000 for public transit and a new bus rapid transit route. They had named the campaign “Complete the Penny,” in reference to a 1994 tax increase that had similarly improved Charleston infrastructure, including the construction of the iconic Ravenel Bridge.

Amanda Loveday led the communications effort for this coalition. She informed me that their private polling had revealed that at that time 57% of the public supported this in concept.

This support for the referendum was “ok” but not as good as transit referendums are usually viewed by the public.  Grassroots organizing with a focus on mass transportation could be the decisive element in a victory.

We figured that with the support of the progressive movement we could win (against expected Tea-Party “no more taxes + can’t trust politicians” opposition), build a strong riders’ union in the heat of the campaign, and define one of the key functions of Americans for Transit.

Siggy and I decided that we could play a meaningful role in Charleston and were ready to land in early October to settle in for a long campaign.

THE STORM IN CHARLESTON AND IN DC

My plans to return were derailed by Hurricane Matthew which forced Charleston residents to evacuate during the first week of October.

Meanwhile, trouble was brewing in Washington DC. WMATA Metro, our home transit agency, was proposing cuts to late-night and weekend service.

We had been canvassing WMATA Metro for a couple weeks, talking with riders about the prospects of these cut backs, when the agency finally posted the date and time of the first critical meeting.

We decided it was better for Siggy to stay in Washington DC to attend this meeting.

I was unable to fly into Charleston until October 11th.  Siggy wouldn’t arrive until October 21st. Election day was November 8th.

By the time I arrived, Jack and other members of the Best Friends of Low Country Transit had already canvased several community events and had phone banked their activist list.

Jack had hired Nicolas “Nico” Bell to lead his field operation. Nico is a talented organizer with some experience organizing riders in Charleston and with the Bernie Sanders campaign.

Nicolas Bell lead the field operation for the Best Freinds

Just as we were about to purchase voter lists management services and begin ramping up the voter outreach program, we were walloped by a political storm none of us could have foreseen. 

Elliot Summey, the Chairman of Charleston County Council, a self-serving businessman and land speculator, was caught saying embarrassing and racially-tinged remarks on a secretly recorded tape.

Councilman Elliott Summey was the primary sponsor of the referendum.

The recordings were made by and during his conversations with Dana Beech, the Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation League.

They revealed that Summey hoped to leverage (not to use the new money but to leverage it to gain a loan for the i526 Extension) the money raised by the ½ Cent Sales Tax referendum to get the Transportation Investment Bank to make a loan for the Interstate 526 Extension (i526).

The i526 Extension is a stretch of highway that is so controversial, it seems to loom over every political conversation in the county. Everyone you meet is either strongly for it or against it. The progressive and African-American communities are (mostly) opposed to it as it would cut into some precious green space and disrupt a historic African-American community. It is a road proposal that has been mired in controversy for more than a decade.

Despite Councilman Summey’s public opposition to the i526 project, on the tape he declared his support for the project. After the release of the tapes, he demurred and stated he opposed the i526 project. Just a couple days later in a statement on a local website he officially declared his support for the project (which had nothing to do with the referendum). 

 

In reaction to the racial comments against African-American elected officials and the i526 Extension on the secret tapes, the local chapters of the National Action Network and the NAACP came out in opposition the sales tax referendum during the week of October 17th.

Both organizations were opposed to the project because it appeared to have a connection with completing the i526 Extension (it in fact did not have any connection to it) which would run through a historic African-American community and because they couldn’t support giving Summey control of the money, which he would have IF he remained the Chairman of County Council. 

Leaders of the African-American community indicated their desire to support the transit upgrades upon the resignation of Summey from the Chairman position in council.

Shortly after releasing the tapes of himself and Summey disagreeing on their own backroom deal, Beech and the Coastal Conservation League Land Use Attorney, Natalie Olson, publicly opposed the referendum.

Despite the fact that all 8 of 9 County Council people had voted in favor of the referendum, the Coastal Conservation League declared that “County Council has lost our trust.”

The League of Women Voters followed suit, citing similar distrust, but vowed to monitor to make sure that all the money ended up where is was supposed if the referendum passed against their opposition, highlighting exactly the type of vigilance that citizens will have to exercise to ensure the success of the transit referendum.

Within the week, the Coastal Conservation League took out paid advertisements on two radio stations advising voters to oppose the referendum.

 

TURNING AROUND

We were struggling to get enough volunteers to attend phone banks and canvases. The secret tapes took even more wind out of our sails.

Nico, the only paid staff person of the Best Friends, had been operating out of public libraries, borrowed office space, and living rooms. Most of our work would soon shift from living rooms to parking lots. But then, local developer and owner of the Chicora Life Center, Jeremy Blackburn, decided to support our campaign by giving us office space and Wi-Fi

Around the same time, on October 23 Anthony Garland, an experienced organizer from ATU International, landed on. Anthony saw that we were missing an opportunity in the early voting sites. I had visited one the previous week but it didn’t seem like a priority as hardly any voters had come while I was there (most were still evacuated from Hurricane Matthew). 

He and Siggy set up a voter canvas at the early polling site in North Charleston. They were busy all day.  We then knew that we had to set up team at the Mt. Pleasant and West Ashley polling sites, both hosted by the Seacoast Church.  Soon we were sending staff and volunteers to the early voting site which were clearly a gold mine of voters.

This would prove more difficult than we thought it would be.

We kept getting kicked out of the Seacoast Church. The church had made it clear to us that they opposed the referendum. One staff person explained that some powerful people were opposed to it, and the church needed these opponents to approve licenses for the construction of their new churches, therefore, we had to leave and stop talking to voters.

After several of days of us getting kicked out and coming back and negotiating with church staff and the police, the Chairman of the Committee of Elections finally settled the matter.  We were allowed to talk with voters outside of an agreed-upon line, but we could not show any visual indication (signs or t-shirts) of our support of the referendum.

With less than one and a half week to go, we had staff and volunteers talking with voters at all three early voting locations, and not a moment too soon.

In the final week of absentee/early voting, 1/3 of all votes were cast. We spoke with almost every voter that came in at that time. We had our people at the polls from 7:30 am until 5 pm for five days straight.  Additionally, we had phone banks Monday-Thursday from 6 pm – 9 pm and door-to-door canvases every Saturday from 10 am – 4 pm and Sunday from 2 pm – 6 pm.

We were gathering a lot of momentum.

We had been joined by an inspiring crew of transit riders.

Larry had joined the effort because of his deep concern for our planet. He said that every time he had to ride in a car, he felt like he was personally poisoning the earth. Larry finished the campaign as our all time, one-night leader, gathering 25 Yes voters in a single phone bank.

One of our strongest face-to-face canvassers was Emily. Emily was a table server who just the week before had been fired from her job because she had been late too many times getting to work. The principle roadblock she hit? Late buses.

Jena and Dante were a cheerful young couple who were struggling to get their kids back from social services. They worked really hard, often 16 hours per day. They were always the first to show up and the last to leave. Later, I came to realize that they often came to work having not eaten breakfast, only a tiny snack for lunch. This was because they were homeless. They were organizing with us (on a stipend) because the unreliable bus system made it impossible for them to juggle meetings with social workers, court appointments, and jobs.  All they needed was a chance and a reliable bus.

Matt was amazing at getting strangers to talk to him. Matt was a server and a caterer who often had to forgo catering jobs that ended after 9 pm because he would have no way to get home.  Most CARTA routes stop at 9.

Mary, perhaps our most cheerful and energetic phone-banker, spent more than 20 hours per week commuting to college on the bus.  She pointed out that it was like having a second job.

The ATU Union professionals also jumped in to help us build more energy.

Anthony Garland found us a gold mine of voters

Robert Becker, a consultant to the ATU International reached out to see how we were doing. I told him that we were being hit from all sides on the media front.

He flew into town to help. Soon the ATU had ads up on the same to radio stations, had fired off 16,000 robocalls and was running Facebook ads.

We hadn’t expected to have to fight against the main environmental organization on a referendum that would confront the biggest threat to the environment (the car), but if we had to, at least we had enough support to justify getting in the ring.

Amy Loveday from Complete the Penny informed us that voter support had dropped to 52%.

With just one week left to go, we finally got some good news.  Elliot Summey had announced that he would not run again for Council Chair (but not give up his council seat). His term would end in January 2017. He would lose significant power and control over the money.

The South Carolina Transportation Investment Bank declined his Hail-Mary request for a loan to pay for the i526 Extension.

Although very few people that we talked too on the street were aware to the political controversies, after Summey’s announcement it felt as though a cursed albatross had been lifted from our collective necks.

We knew it was going to be close. We had to fight for every vote.

Sunday, November 6th was our final door canvas. 

Anthony flew home after standing for more than 100 hours in a parking lot, under the hot Charleston sun with his knees swollen and his back aching.

 

Siggy and local volunteers headed to the last absentee voting site in North Charleston and canvased thousands of voters.

In the one day I had off in three weeks, I popped into the Redux art studio. Todd Anderson, a local artist, had set me up with a silk screen. I spent a few hours making art inspired by some of the people I had met in Charleston. I made 41 silk screens on some discarded, vintage Charleston tax maps that I had found on the side of the road after the storm.

  

ELECTION NIGHT

On Tuesday, November 8th, Nico and Jack had done all that they could to have us at peak volunteer and staffing levels. We had volunteers at 17 voting sites that day from dawn till dusk.

After the polls closed, we gathered at AJ’s Bar in North Charleston to watch the results.

We had done all that we could. Complete the Penny spent tens of thousands of dollars on ads and mailers. Americans for Transit had put all of our available staff time into it. The ATU had put in a lot of money and time. Most importantly, though, the Best Friends of Low Country Transit had put in everything.

We had had the support of wealthy CEOs and small business owners. We had the support of restaurant owners and table servers. We had the support of the retired, recently fired, the unemployed, and people who live on the streets. Bus drivers joined us. But, most of all, it was the bus riders that had, by the dozens, volunteered and courageously told their stories that proved the dust in the balance.

We knew what it would take. We strived and had made 60,000 voter contacts in just three and a half weeks. We knew that we delivered at least 6,000 YES votes to the polls that would not have otherwise shown up. Now, all we could do was sit back and see if our work would be enough.

All night, the vote tally flip-flopped from us being up and us being down. At one point, we were losing by 500 votes, the widest spread of the night. At the next refresh, we were up 50 votes.

At the end of the night, with just two more precincts reporting, we were down by 80 votes.

We refreshed and suddenly we were up by 4,000 votes!

Once more refresh and we were up by 5,364 votes! 

Little did we know that the last two precincts were the early voting and absentee ballots.

We won!

 

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LOOKING AHEAD

The Best Friends will need to reconnect with the National Action Network, the NAACP, the Coastal Conservation League, and The League of Women Voters. The next part of this process requires the entire community to push to insure that the transit upgrades happen in a transparent and timely manner.  The Best Friends will need more friends to achieve this full victory.

This campaign tells me something about the people who voted for Donald Trump.  Many of the people that I met that voted for a better bus system also voted for Donald Trump.  I know that I campaigned beside people that supported Donald Trump.  How can that be?

Many of Trump’s voters were motivated by some ignoble things, you can be sure of that.  But, many of them voted for him because he at least acknowledged that their pain was not being addressed in an honest way by either party.  Too many people in this country have been left standing by the side of the road.  Too many have been ignored while opportunities slipped by them while they waited for the help that would never arrive.  People are sick of paying full fair and getting half service. 

Given the opportunity to take some power in their hands, to be an agent of change, to make some good happen in this world, people will do it.  They are the only solution.

I am excited about my new opportunities as the Executive Director of Americans for Transit. The campaigns in Sacramento, Indianapolis, and especially Charleston taught me a lot. These struggles have given me energy and ideas that will help me refine and reboot Americans for Transit. 

I think that with the new strategic vision of Americans for Transit, we will be able to make a meaningful contribution to the years of struggle that lie ahead.

 


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