In 2016, Paul Gibson and Roxanne Barber formed Retake Our Democracy, an all-volunteer 501c4 organization, with the goal of making it easier for individuals concerned about our future to become better informed and to learn effective advocacy. To advance that work, we publish an educational blog 3-5 days a week focused on issues of national, state, and regional import. We also moderate a weekly radio show on KSFR, where we interview legislators, advocates, and experts on a wide range of issues. Our newest strategy (begun March 2020) is our Zoominar series focusing on specific topics and featuring interviews with panels of experts and Q & A with attendees and panelists.
Retake has also built a statewide activist network with 2,500 members who receive our Action Alerts focused on legislation supported by Retake as those bills move through the legislative session. Alerts are designed to make it easier for individuals to raise their voice effectively. They include bill summaries, speaking points, and contact info for legislators hearing the bill. This year we also coordinated 25+ volunteers to use an online tool to observe 112 legislative hearings, documenting comments and concerns and recording votes on the bill we support.
This year (2021) we added a new feature to our legislative advocacy, organizing advocacy teams in Senate districts held by Democrats. Constituents met by Zoom with legislators once before the session and in some cases again during the session. The Senate-Constituent Zooms were effective in identifying bills where legislators were either misinformed or needed more information, enabling Retake to connect the bill sponsors with the legislators to clarify the bill. We also moderated weekly “huddles” with advocates to discuss what had occurred, what was coming, and where to target our energy.
Retake has become an influential force in the legislature and we have formed strong alliances with legislators and community organizations. But we see two important reasons to develop a 501c3:
- As the work has expanded and more people look to Retake to coordinate and lead advocacy efforts, there is a critical need for a small paid staff. While there are dozens of volunteers who play roles in Retake advocacy, the vast majority of the work is performed by the two founders, Roxanne and Paul. To make Retake a sustainable organization that will continue without the founders, a staff is needed.
- To date, the work has been largely reactive. Retake considers ideas and bills developed by legislators and, together with allies, reacts to them. If we create a 501c3 and garner funding, this will enable us to hire staff, research our own ideas and bills, and proactively educate legislators and our community about the viability of these ideas.
We will keep our 501c4 so that we can continue to partner with allies like Working Families Party, Indivisible, Progressive Democrat Alliance, Adelante Progressive Caucus, and others to organize primary election challenges to offer voters alternatives to Democrat legislators who are inconsistent in supporting the Party platform and progressive legislation. While some of our partners secure and distribute donations to support candidates, Retake’s role is more educational, gathering information on candidates and publishing information about how voters can support candidates, make calls, send texts and emails, attend events and (post-COVID) participate in canvassing.
Eighty percent of Retake’s work could be performed legally in a 501c3 because it is either educational in nature or supporting citizen advocates, and the latter consumes a fraction of Retake’s total scope of work. Our plan is to migrate most of the work to our new 501c3, Rethink Our Democracy, while continuing our election activities under Retake.
Rethink Our Democracy – Needs Statement
The COVID-19 pandemic, the resurgence of anti-racism protests, the collapse of the gas and oil industry, and climate change disasters have put a spotlight on the damaging impact of our current way of life across the world. Working-class Americans have suffered through the pandemic while the stock market, Wall Street, and wealthy Americans thrive. The need for a swift, just transition away from fossil fuels is obvious, yet our government actions are slow and timid, at best. Millions of Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck, suffering from food insecurity and lacking healthcare. Systemic racism underlies much of this, with communities of color most vulnerable to COVID, climate disruptions, poverty, hunger, and healthcare crises. This dramatic moment in human history provides the impetus and opportunity to begin reinventing our relationships with the natural world and with each other––how we think, how we act, how we live.
New Mexico ranks 48th to 50th in virtually every economic, health, and social indicator. We face severe environmental challenges, with diminishing rainfall and snowpack in a region that has long been prone to draught. In addition, while making rapid progress in transitioning our energy use to renewables, we are an international leader in methane emissions, with little regulation. We need a rapid transition to a more just and sustainable economy. Our survival as a species and our survival as a democracy requires more than just a few modest reforms.
Despite so many indicators that meaningful change is needed, the legislative process and our citizen legislature are artifacts from a prior century. Legislative sessions are too short; legislators are unpaid and have no paid staff; and industry lobbyists have far too much influence.
The state is further hamstrung by being inordinately tied to fiscally conservative policymaking:
- The state agencies responsible for investing NM’s immense wealth hold those funds tightly, refusing to invest in local economies, preferring to lure out-of-state business and industry and big box stores and franchised outlets, which pay low wages, most often without benefits, and extract profits from local economies instead of recycling those profits.
- The state agencies that are supposed to regulate our environment and mining and gas and oil extraction are hopelessly underfunded and slow to implement meaningful regulations.
- An urban-rural, liberal-conservative divide hinders efforts to form consensus around policies that work and advance the goals that we share, regardless of party or region of the state.
In 1878, Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Lew Wallace as Governor of the territory of New Mexico. Wallace famously stated that: “Every calculation based on experience elsewhere fails in New Mexico.” That quote is as apt today as it was nearly 150 years ago. Too often change is viewed as a repudiation of our historic cultures and the New Mexican way of life. As a result, New Mexicans are reluctant to embrace bold change, transformation, or even modest changes in how things get done. This makes it difficult to learn from other states or nations, as they are viewed as interlopers who don’t “get” New Mexico.
But a choice between innovation or transformation and respect for our state’s cultural heritage, is a false choice. Ironically, one aspect of the transformation we seek is a return to some of our cultural traditions and practices that have been lost to us, especially as relates to land and water use, agriculture and other environmental traditions.
Voters and legislators are all part of this cultural reluctance to embrace new ideas, with skepticism greeting every innovation, making even modest change difficult. Sen. Peter Wirth has often said that it can take 4-5 sessions to get a new idea through the legislature and into law. Consider that the Health Security Act was first introduced in 1993; an increase in permanent fund distribution to early childhood took ten years to get to voters; small loan lending rates remain at 175%; and despite advances in our energy consumption, we are spewing methane recklessly with little change in regulation, despite a Democratically controlled House and Senate and a Democratic Governor.
Taking all this into account, we need to rethink our systems and policies, we need to find language that makes change less threatening to voters and elected officials, and we need to build an urban-rural alliance comprised of people throughout NM who understand the need for dramatic change and believe in its possibility. The primary purpose of Rethink Our Democracy will be to examine those systems and policies, develop the language to discuss them, research successful alternative policies, initiatives, and legislation, and conduct widespread education outreach to legislators and the public.
We envision a swift transition to a sustainable, just, and truly democratic future for New Mexico.
This vision will evolve from research-based systems reforms, policies, and legislation that foster innovation and cultivate understanding across cultures and regions of our state. Implementation of this vision will enable us to protect and restore our land, water, and air, and ensure that all New Mexicans thrive.
We will study how the New Mexico governing structures and systems regulate, produce, and deliver services, supports, resources, and goods in our state and how they accelerate or delay our progress toward achieving the needed transition.
We will be guided by research and science as well as the wisdom and experience of communities, states, and nations that have successfully reformed structures and systems or otherwise implemented model initiatives that advance the kind of transition we seek. We will honor and learn from the Indigenous and Hispanic peoples and cultures of our state and from communities of color who have been both under-served and disproportionately impacted by the system failures being studied.
Scope of Work: A Focus on Research, Education, and Advocacy
Rethink will employ staff and interns who work with allies and volunteers to identify proven innovative practices and share them with voters through our blog and with legislators at constituent Zoom meetings and in one-on-one meetings. We will seek to work with legislators to draft legislation for future sessions, allowing us to introduce new ideas rather than reacting to stale ones. While we will continue to study legislature-generated bills, react to and critique them, publish lists of bills we support, and send advocacy alerts, we will also seek partnership with legislators to share our ideas and engage in conversations that must happen if a swift, just transition is to occur. We are considering the following areas of study, but will need to stage the work, as obviously we can’t research all of this at once.
The first eight below are tentatively our top priority at this point, the first four address systemic issues, the role of government and how to pay for it. And issues five through eight area policy areas that we feel could unify urban-rural and conservative-liberal divides.
- Election, Legislative, and Governance Reform. We will examine how to encourage and increase voting and how to reduce the influence of corporate donations in the election process. We will examine how to reduce the influence of lobbyists in the legislative process and how to improve the legislature with paid legislators, paid staff, and longer sessions. We will also examine the fiscally conservative assumptions that create an entrenched “scarcity” mentality and reluctance to invest resources in infrastructure, local economic development, and children. Finally, we will examine our governing structures, the state departments that invest our resources, regulate industry, protect our environment, deliver our health services, educate our children, and support our families.
- Progressive Tax and Revenue Reform. We will examine tax systems in other countries and states where significantly more progressive taxation generates the revenues to make transformation possible. We believe that tax and revenue decisions are moral decisions. We will study how changes in our tax and revenue systems could direct resources to individuals, small businesses, and communities that need investments to thrive. We will examine how tax and revenue reform can generate far more state revenue to fully fund the services, supports, and infrastructure upon which we all rely. We believe that to address the immense challenges posed by the looming climate catastrophe and extreme wealth inequality in New Mexico, our state government needs more resources. Past tax giveaways need to be rescinded and our tax and revenue system needs to be more progressive.
- The Proper Role of Government. Beginning in the 1980s, conservative politicians and foundations–supported by ultra-wealthy individuals, big business, and conservative media– have sung the same refrain: Government is the problem, not the solution. Continuous tax cuts have robbed government of the resources needed to deliver essential services and supports. We will study the positive benefits that accrue from an active, well-funded, research- and science-informed government.
- Reversing Privatization and Exploring the Public Option. We will explore ways in which privatization of public services can be reversed and demonstrate the benefits of public ownership and management of community services. For example:
- A Public Bank: A public bank would allow the state to deposit billions of dollars that are currently in Wall St. banks into a state public bank that manages and invests funds in our state infrastructure, renewable energy grid, large capital improvements, water systems, and other economic development initiatives.
- Public Transportation. We will study options for publicly owned and operated transportation systems.
- Public Energy Generation, Storage, and Transmission. Piecemeal efforts to achieve this end are evident in both Community Solar and Local Choice Energy. But a truly public option would create a state energy authority that replaces PNM and other private utility monopolies.
- Eliminate Private Prisons. This would require rethinking our entire approach to criminal justice, punishment, restitution, and rehabilitation.
- Community Wealth Building. As noted in the needs statement above, our state’s investment policy leans toward luring large out-of-state industries, big-box stores, and retail franchises, all of which extract local wealth and exploit workers and communities, often with tax breaks and state investment to boost their profits. We will examine an array of investment strategies that facilitate growth of locally owned small businesses whose profits remain in the community.
- Infrastructure & Economic Development in Rural and Indigenous Communities: Rural communities across the state suffer from collapsing roads, inequitable access to broadband, and lack of access to critical health and human services supports. We will examine ways in which public banks and other resources can expedite addressing these inequities.
- Local Food Production & Distribution. COVID has exposed our food insecurity, as food chains have collapsed and prices have soared. But well before COVID, the need for locally controlled, sustainable food systems emerged. We will explore how other communities have stimulated local food production, processing, and distribution.
- Democratizing the Workplace. We need much stronger protection of workers overall, including living wages, decent benefits (until we can make health benefits not dependent on peoples’ jobs), healthy working conditions, and workers’ participation in company decisions. Worker-owned co-ops are one example of how this can be achieved. We will explore Mondragon in Spain, the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Cooperatives, the Democracy Collaborative, the Evergreen Collective, and others who have pioneered this more democratic means of organizing work and production.
- Environmental Justice and the Climate Catastrophe. Our air, water, land, and food are routinely poisoned because we are unable to create a system to regulate our relationship with these vital resources. What would sustainable stewardship of these resources look like?
- Healthcare and Public Health. COVID has exposed our vulnerablity to a disjointed health system that leaves millions of Americans at risk of health bankruptcy and no coverage. We will examine alternative forms of universal healthcare, focusing on our own Health Security for New Mexicans Campaign, while also exploring other community-based health promotion and disease prevention strategies.
- Criminal Justice. Our prisons focus far too much on punishment and too little on rehabilitation and successful reentry into society. Similar to the energy and utility industries, private prisons are focused on profit rather than rehabilitation. We will study a range of criminal justice strategies that emphasize prevention and rehabilitation rather than punishment.
- Public Safety. Beyond prisons, we will examine how to transform our public safety systems and the larger criminal justice framework that relies on arrest and punishment. We will examine more proactive and community building initiatives to provide expanded education, drug treatment, and economic opportunity.
- Sustainable and Affordable Housing. We will explore community land trusts, live-work developments, housing collectives, and other local and state strategies that promote development of sustainably affordable housing and neighborhoods and that resist gentrification.
- Renewable Energy. Part of a just energy transition is to allow local control of energy by cities, counties, and tribal communities. We will explore how other states and countries have developed local energy generation and distribution systems. We also want to shift the conversation from a focus on NM energy consumption to NM energy generation and a transition from reliance on producing gas and oil to one where we invest in development of large-scale wind and solar power for export to other states.
- Re-Imagining Education. Our education system doesn’t prepare students for careers, relationships, parenting, or critical thinking skills necessary to good decision-making in most spheres of life, especially civic engagement. How can we do this differently?
- Anti-Racism. It isn’t enough to not be racist, we need to be actively anti-racist and construct public policy that values and supports those behaviors. We need to find language that counters the “cancel culture” characterization from the right. What could this look like?
- Social Safety Net. Many of the issues above address issues of poverty, employment, housing, and other factors central to avoiding the need for a social safety net. But not everyone will immediately be able to benefit from those resources and may need supports temporarily or, for those with some chronic conditions, for their lifetime. What would a human-centered, dignified, and empowering system look like? Social Security is America’s most popular government program. Is it time to explore a guaranteed minimum income? What other policy options might be explored?
In solidarity and hope,
To find out how you can get involved with this work, click here to explore the volunteer roles you could play. Some require rigorous research and writing, but most can be accomplished quite easily while also contributing in important ways.
Paul & Roxanne