Conference conversations: Alexandra Rojas, Executive Director of the Justice Democrats


Alexandra Rojas got involved in US politics during the Bernie Sanders campaign and is now Executive Director of the Justice Democrats, a progressive political action committee. Renewal met her after she spoke on a panel at The World Transformed to discuss organising, campaigning and international solidarity.

James Stafford: If you come in to a town or area where there’s no presence for your movement what do you do? What’s the first step when the Justice Democrats arrive in a town?

Alexandra Rojas: One of the reasons we picked a lot of our candidates is that they have connections. Organising 101 is you ‘power map’ your community, you need a list of influencers, and people that you know in general. You start with that and you grow from there. That is paramount to any type of organising.

In the United States you’re able to get a ‘public voter file’, depending on what state you’re in. It can be extremely expensive, especially in more regressive states that cut off access to a lot of our Justice Democrats because they’re challenging Democrats. Sometimes you have to pay up to $15,000 just to get access to what we call VAN, the voter file.

JS: So that’s the equivalent of our electoral register, with people’s names and addresses?

AR: Yeah, and it’s public information. You can purchase it in VoteBuilder which is software where you can play with the data and create lists and all of that, or, for free, which we’ve had to do too, get the whole list via the process of going to your board of elections. If you’re able to afford a peer-to-peer text messaging system that’s huge. Because now we have the ability to reach thousands of people very, very quickly, versus just email. Not everybody opens their email, it’s not the fastest way to communicate. And especially for the demographic that we’re going after as progressive candidates, between 18-35, they’re going to be on their phones. 

So we use peer-to-peer text messaging, where we can upload a file into the system and invite those people to the event, and record their responses. Once you confirm them at least through text message, you can actually give them a call. And nothing beats, I think, traditional phone banking. We don’t even have to manually dial any more, we can upload a list into an auto-dialler and you just wait for calls to come to you. 

On the Bernie [Sanders] campaign, which is where we developed this model, and where my job was to get volunteers to host these, the energy and excitement turned people out. It was the same with Alexandria [Ocasio-Cortez], where we would send an email or just a simple text message blast, and at least 100 people would show up. 

It’s not the case everywhere. We have the traditional organising, but if you have a movement, or a really charismatic and inspiring candidate, it becomes easier. So that’s the recruitment.

JS: Would you do that process multiple times to recruit more people during a campaign?

AR:Yes, absolutely. When you’re texting that voter file or you’re calling through it you have to talk to people that you’ve never spoken to before, and trying to gauge their interests. So you might ask them what are the issues that they care about and then lead into a support question. You keep building onto your campaign, inviting them to more and more stuff, and at the same time reaching out to new people. It’s sort of the traditional organising of just constant follow up. As soon as you have them in you need to keep them engaged, whether that’s inviting them back to more events, having them volunteer at that event, some entry-level thing that gets them hooked. And it’s rinse and repeat from there.

But the actual event is really important. It’s an interesting model. A barnstorm is an organising rally that funnels the entire room into some sort of voter contact. With Bernie sometimes that would manifest into teams. Sometimes it would be asking people to host their own phone banks. And in that same meeting asking them to attend those phone banks. 

The structure starts with an introduction. It’s kind of like when you go to church, there’s an introduction, a sermon – maybe that’s a controversial comparison. You get people to introduce themselves to each other, and that creates accountability and solidarity amongst the people that are there. I usually ask them to share why they’re here, why they bothered to come. 

JS: So what sort of size are these meetings? You get 500 people and you ask everybody to introduce themselves to the whole room?

AR: You can tailor it, so if it’s a small group and it’s really intimate – say ten people – you can have everybody introduce themselves. But I’ve done events of about 500 people and I say, “Look to your left, look to your right, and say why you’re fired up”. 

That’s where the speaker is really important. They have to be really compelling. You walk through the entire strategy of the campaign; you need people to really buy into the idea that you have a plan to win. The only way you can defeat big money is with big organising. It’s by tapping into each and every one of your resources, which is time, which is money if you’ve got it, but most importantly its your volunteer efforts and spreading the word.

So it’s introduction, strategy to win, and then you launch into what I call the ‘hard ask’. You need everyone in there to step up to host a phone bank. Hopefully your campaign is well organised and you can say you have an entire team that is going to follow up with you, that’s going to have all the resources available for you to host your own event, but this is what we need right now if we want to contact every single person in this district – we need hundreds of phone banks. 

And you just wait. It’s awkward. Usually you get a few people, and people laugh and you wait and then it’s half the room. And you give them a round of applause. You get people right then and there to give their information, but also the date they’re going to host the event. You invite them to come up to the front of the room.

And then you do a secondary ask. We say, “But you can’t leave them hanging out to dry. Now we need all of you who did not step up to host phone banks to sign up to attend.”

You say, introduce yourself in one minute; you get a chance to pitch why people should come to your phone bank. Maybe you have a cute dog or a cat that’s really fluffy, or you’ll give them beer. Again it’s solidarity building. And usually if you do it right, those people that didn’t sign up to host then sign up to attend. It’s an almost 100 per cent conversion rate.  

So that’s the model. And the reason that’s important is because all this stuff I was saying to get people to that event, we just did in one night. You collect all of the papers with people’s names, and then enter that data in that night, so that everybody that signed up we follow up with.

JS: So it’s a late night…

AR: It’s an extremely late night, yeah, if you have a campaign that’s crazy. But a big problem on campaigns is they never do that. They just lose it. And it’s meaningless. If you don’t follow up with these people, the entire event was meaningless. It’s for that data.

Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite: How do you get people in the position where they can have meaningful conversations with the people they’re speaking to, and feel confident in persuasive conversation?

AR: Training. In an ideal situation, like on the Bernie campaign, you would have an event support team, and even if you didn’t have the resources to be present and have campaign offices in every part of your district, you can still call people up and walk them through everything that they need. We would have a training guide; you’d make it available to print. You’d get on the phone, and have a conversation and do role-play. 

If you’re hosting a phone bank it’s really important for people to know about the campaign. For example for us in Delaware it was really important to pronounce Newark right! It’s sort of like the South in that way. If you’re coming into that state and you’re not from that state they’re going to hang up on you. They’re going to know right away if you mispronounce a certain town. There’s a cultural aspect, and you need to write this out for people to explicitly do. And then I think a big part of those deeper conversations is training people to ask questions about what people care about, and that’s going to vary depending on the state. 

But it’s a balance because you also have so many people to contact that you don’t want to spend forever on the phone in the beginning. 

JS: So you would put your demands to them and see what they bite on? You’d mention Medicare for all or the jobs guarantee.

AR: Yeah. In the Delaware race, say we started a year ago and we had the time I would have incorporated into the phone banking asking people what issues mattered to them. And the script would have to be worked out a little bit, but saying some of the things we’re running on like a green new deal, expanded and improved Medicare for all, a federal jobs guarantee, a living wage, fighting Trump; what appeals to you? Some people will say all; some will say one thing, like women’s rights. That was big in the Delaware race, we found out, huge. And if you can utilise that later on during the election you can tailor your literature, so when you follow up with them you can do a specialised response that specifically talks about the issue that they care about. You can have the candidate, if it’s an undecided person, actually write something for them or give them a phone call.

JS: And this is in primary campaigns?

AR: This is in the primaries, but also you can do the general election too, I think.

JS: I’m just thinking about experiences doing phone banking for Labour or for Remain. When you ask people that kind of open-ended question they might say they’re worried about a border wall or illegal immigration, or something that’s not your campaign’s priority or even very much something you’re against.

AR: Yeah that’s why you have a note section. If you have a good field team you track that data and start to respond to it. Let’s say you make 25,000 phone calls in a day, which with an auto-dialler is possible if you have five or ten people doing it, and you’re shifting through notes and you’re like ‘Oh shit, immigration was not an option, I’m going to incorporate it as an option.’

JS: But some of the options won’t work for your campaign.

AR: No matter what, we have to lean into our integrity, as a progressive campaign you tackle that head on by leaning into whatever your position is. I don’t believe in staying away from issues just because your electorate doesn’t agree with them. It depends on the district. If you’re in a Democratic district, especially if you’re that far out, I would mark them as not supportive. But say you’re in a red district, which many of our candidates are, when you have to do that persuasion, and I think that’s what you’re talking about, that’s a different thing to identifying people. 

In one race, Jess King out in Pennsylvania, they have to convert and persuade to their side half of the independents and about a third of the Republicans if they want to win. And they’re doing it. And they’re doing it with their script because they did all that work in the beginning, and they’ve looked at that data. They’ve found they can disagree on immigration, but they agree on corporate money. And their particular congressperson is in lock step with Trump, which works for him, but what doesn’t work for him is the ‘draining of the swamp’, because he’s the most bought out by pharmaceutical companies, which that region has absolutely decimated. People die from not being able to afford their insulin.

We put people into those buckets we talked about; people who automatically supported us, people that lean support, those undecided, and then there are just some people that you know when you talk to them, they’re going to tell you flat out that they will never support you.

Time is everything. I wouldn’t want to waste time on someone who isn’t even open to the idea of talking to you.

I’m sorry, I’m very long-winded!

JS: No you’re not at all! You’re so clear about the mechanics, which is so useful because frankly there’s a lot of enthusiasm here for American-style organising techniques, but nobody really knows what they are.

AR: I think it’s helpful because I don’t come from that sort of jargon, so it makes sense to me if I explain it in my own words. 

JS: I have an interesting question from my wife in Germany. You’re not just organising against big money, you’re organising against a far-right that is armed and is willing to contemplate violence. This is something that’s very live in Germany right now because there are neo-Nazis in the streets. How does that come up as in issue in your organising?

AR: That’s why we do it. The rise of fascism in the US is absolutely frightening. Organising itself and talking to people is the thing that we need to do year round as a preventative. There’s a whole bunch of systemic undertones with our history of racism and slavery, which have trickled into all of our institutions. And in addition right now, an administration that is intentionally race baiting.

One of the only ways to combat it is by having these more difficult conversations with people. In the electoral sense you don’t want to waste time; but in the issue-based sense, and I think this is where Alexandria and candidates like ours are movement candidates, they combine it with the more deep canvassing methods. You have to have candidates going to protests and speaking out. 

The way that we are currently fighting it, at least within the Justice Democrats, is by having those conversations and shifting the national discussion, through running in a lot of primaries and talking about things like the abolition of ICE and putting that into the mainstream. 

JS: One of the things I’m always amazed by about American politics is that there are these incredible movements and organising efforts, there’s a big eco-system there, but the political system, not just at the level of money but at the level of the constitution, is kind of rigged. To what extent are you working the system the best you can, and to what extent is the new American left interested in changing the constitution?

AR: It’s not easy. Constitutional reform requires the entire body of Congress, in the Senate and the House, to agree on it. Even then it can go to the Executive Branch and get vetoed. That’s where again we go back to the organising part. For example the campaign to end Citizens United, which said that corporations are people and that they can spend unlimited amounts of money in our elections. One of the big movements on the left is to pass a constitutional amendment to stop that. That is really difficult to imagine happening in my lifetime at the rate we’re at right now. But in the interim we also need all of our candidates to flat absolutely reject it, to reject corporate money and corporate contributions.

The Supreme Court is more difficult and more depressing to think about right now. Again, that’s where the movement work that’s happening right now, and direct action as another method, goes alongside the electoral piece. You have to have people to literally not let them talk about Kavanaugh and get him in, to delay it as much as we can.

These movements need to happen at multiple levels: an electoral movement, a direct action movement, issue advocacy work need to happen in tandem. Even though the left is fragmented, we are working all of those avenues and pushing it forward. It’s just the way the system is – I don’t know how else to change it. But you have to give it a national platform, and I think candidates can do that. Direct action needs to stop things like what’s happening with the Supreme Court as quickly as possible. 

We also can’t forget about the local level. A lot of the gerrymandering happens at a state legislature level. The Democratic Party has done such a terrible job that we’ve lost most state legislatures, the House, the Senate, and the presidency to the Republicans. Everyone calls it the ‘far-left’, but the common sense wing of the Democratic Party is fighting to stop that.

George Morris: What do you think of The World Transformed? Not just in terms of what you think you’ll take back to America with you, because obviously the situation is quite different. But what’s your perspective on what you’ve seen of the left in Britain?

AR: I’m so sappy, but the international solidarity and people’s hunger to learn from not just the US but elsewhere is amazing. After Jeremy Corbyn spoke a democratic socialist leader from Turkey [Ertuğrul Kürkçü, honorary president of the HDP] spoke. So what I’m taking away is that as someone who hasn’t been outside of the US for so long, to have seen that first hand, the fact that that exists is incredible to me. I’m so deep in the weeds of the electoral stuff, and sometimes you forget about the international movement.

And in terms of actual techniques and organising – I can read about Momentum from afar, but actually being here talking to some of the founders is a whole other thing. I’ve learned a bunch of literal things and techniques that I can use and take back there. The networks and the knowledge of all of these struggles that are interconnected. The organisers did a really good job; we don’t have anything like this in the US left.

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