Funnel the money: Progressive operative feeds grassroots efforts to mobilize overlooked voters

  • Hands showing, John Flajnik, operations director, Billy Wimsatt, executive director, and Robbie Dunning, operations associate, work in the small Northampton office of Movement Voter Project. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Billy Wimsatt, executive director of Movement Voter Project, talks about the work the organization does. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Larry Hott, a volunteer with Movement Voter Project, talks about the work the organization does. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Micky McKinley, a volunteer, and Robbie Dunning, operations associate at Movement Voter Project, look over an email in the Northampton office. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/27/2019 7:02:01 AM

NORTHAMPTON — In a backroom office at the Pioneer Valley Workers Center is the headquarters of the Movement Voter Project, or MVP. The space is around the size of a typical college dorm room, but it’s the center of a major effort to deliver $100 million to groups looking to mobilize voter turnout to advance progressive candidates and causes in the 2020 election. So far, $10 million has been raised toward this goal.

MVP was founded before the 2016 election by Billy Wimsatt, who serves as the organization’s executive director. Wimsatt, 46, is a voter mobilization veteran — his political street cred includes working for Rock the Vote and President Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

A native of Chicago who now lives in Northampton with his wife and two children, Wimsatt got his start as a graffiti artist and a journalist covering hip-hop for publications such as The Source. He’s also the author of three books: “Bomb the Suburbs,” “No More Prisons” and “Please Don’t Bomb the Suburbs.”

“Bomb the Suburbs,” which the Chicago Reader dubbed “an examination of hip-hop culture from a white kid’s perspective,” won acclaim from scholar Cornel West, while a mutual friend told Wimsatt it was Tupac Shakur’s favorite book that he read in prison.

When he left Chicago in the mid-1990s, Wimsatt said his initial idea was to bring resources back to the South Side community. “There’s a world of pain there. I wasn’t thinking politically at that point. I was thinking, ‘I have a lot of friends who are dying, going to jail, in a world of struggle,’” Wimsatt said.

Although he was involved with community organizing at that time, “I didn’t really believe in voting and big-P Politics,” he said. “I didn’t vote until I was 27. I was one of those kids who was like, ‘f--k voting, f--k the system, f--k the Democratic Party.’” 

After he wrote his 1999 book “No More Prisons,” Wimsatt was part of an effort to stop a project to double the size of the county jail in Wake County, North Carolina, where he was living at the time. But he recognized that stopping the jail expansion would require people to vote.

The 2000 bond measure to double the size of the county jail won by a small margin the same year that President George W. Bush won Florida, and thus election to the presidency, by 537 votes.

It was a turning point for Wimsatt, who realized, “ ‘Oh my God, there’s a whole generation of us who don’t believe in politics,’” he recalled. “My friends and I could have gone to Florida and flipped the entire presidential election. And suddenly it clicked for me: National elections matter.”

He soon parlayed his community organizing work into political organizing, with the idea that “there are all these groups all over the country no one’s ever heard of that have tremendous vitality,” he said, naming the Pioneer Valley Workers Center as one example. “If we can fund them to get out the vote, to do electoral work, they can not only be more powerful working on their issues, they can also possibly flip a presidential election.”

Where the money flows

Wimsatt describes himself as an artist who transitioned into political organizing as an art form. He and his wife, Lenore Palladino, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, settled in Northampton in part because she grew up in Amherst and her parents are still in the area.

“My father-in-law has a joke that he bought the ‘Bomb the Suburbs’ guy a lawnmower,” Wimsatt said.

In addition to MVP, Wimsatt is the co-founder of numerous other political organizations, including the League of Young Voters (originally called the League of Pissed Off Voters) and Ready for Warren, which helped draft Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, into her ultimately successful 2012 run for U.S. Senate.

Wimsatt said the idea for the Movement Voter Project came to him in 2014, when he had a list of grassroots organizations that he acquired over the years as a political organizer. He initially began passing the list around to friends and acquaintances, and around $400,000 was raised for these organizations as a result.

Now a national organization that’s based in Northampton, MVP is funded by individual donors and family foundations, with 100 percent of all contributions for its mobilization efforts going to the organizations it funds. On the website at https://movement.vote, groups are categorized by theme, such as climate justice and immigrant power.

MVP directs donor money toward organizations that engage and mobilize voters to help elect progressive candidates and pass progressive ballot measures. Some of the organizations focus entirely on getting voters to the polls, while others also try to influence voters on what issues and candidates to get behind. MVP prioritizes groups mobilizing voters of color and young voters, as conventional campaigns don’t typically target these groups. “They’re the unlikely progressive electorate,” he said.

On a recent afternoon, Wimsatt could be found in his crowded office full of volunteers and staffers who have been working to funnel money to these grassroots organizations. In 2018, MVP directed $14 million to 354 groups in 42 states for mobilization and engagement. 

For the 2020 election, Wimsatt said MVP is on track to deliver $30 to $50 million to grassroots organizations; the ultimate target is $100 million. 

The organization is trying to create goals for its local groups in order to hit the $100 million goal, Wimsatt said. For example, at house parties across the country and in this region, volunteers share stories about MVP’s efforts to those in attendance, after which attendees are asked to contribute.

In total, MVP has about 30 employees spread out across 13 states, as well as contractors and numerous volunteers.

“It’s kind of grown into an organic grassroots movement across the country,” Wimsatt said.

‘A better strategy’

One MVP volunteer in Northampton is Ruthie Oland-Stuckey. She said she donated to a lot of progressive candidates in the past, and that many of them did not win.

“Nothing was built that remained,” she said.

Even with the candidates who did win, there wasn’t the base to buoy them.

Oland-Stuckey, who has been involved with MVP since 2016, said what appealed to her about giving to grassroots groups is that they would still be around after an election, win or lose, supporting candidates and holding them accountable.

“It just feels like such a better strategy,” she said.

One of the successes Wimsatt points to was the 2016 U.S. Senate race in New Hampshire.  MVP moved $188,000 there to four grassroots groups whose members contacted 85,000 voters, with a focus on unlikely voters. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-New Hampshire, ended up winning election to the Senate that year by just over 1,000 votes.

Another example Wimsatt highlighted is Black Voters Matter, for which MVP provided seed funding. Beffore the 2017 special U.S. Senate election in Alabama, MVP gave $100,000 to Black Voters Matter, which sought to increase the turnout of black voters in the state. The high turnout in the black community was a key reason that Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, won election that year. Since then, MVP has given Black Voters Matter money to take the model across the South.

“It’s like a dream funding situation,” Wimsatt said.

Larry Hott, another volunteer with MVP, cited the Black Voters Matter project as the story that got him involved with the organization. In previous election years, he traveled to New York and New Hampshire to knock on doors for political campaigns, he said, adding that he views MVP as a “force multiplier.” 

“One’s time can only go so far,” he said. 

Donating to MVP, Hott said, allows more people to do work in places where it is most needed. 

“I know that that money is going to be used in a county or a neighborhood that I wouldn’t be able to get to,” he said.

Wimsatt said the groups that MVP funds target unlikely voters, which means that they’re typically more receptive, as they aren’t often reached by conventional campaigns.

The organizations funded by MVP range from small to large and include, for example, the Michigan Student Power Network and the Florida Immigrant Coalition. MVP vets these groups and checks in on their performances, subjecting those it has donated significant money to to greater scrutiny, which sometimes involves being in contact with organizations on a daily basis.

The range of donations that go to or are facilitated by MVP range from $5 to millions of dollars, Wimsatt said. The majority of donations, he said, come from “blue hub” areas, such as Western Massachusetts and Boston.

In the race for control of the U.S. Senate in 2020, MVP is now focusing on efforts in Maine, Alabama, North Carolina, Iowa, Arizona and Colorado, with an eye on Georgia, Kentucky and Kansas as well.

For the presidential election, MVP is zeroing in on Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona and Florida. It also is supporting mobilization efforts around the control of legislative chambers, although it is not making significant efforts toward expanding the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.


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