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Electoral Organizing in North Carolina: An Interview with Tomás Garduño

Kate Selden interviews Tomás Garduño, a social-justice organizer, about his work in Lenoir County, North Carolina, leading up to the 2020 general election and the importance of organizing in rural areas. A lightly edited transcript of their conversation is published below.

Kate Selden: My name is Kate Selden, I’m an urban planner in Brooklyn, and I work in affordable housing development.

I’m here with Tomás, who I will let introduce himself.

Tomás Garduño: My name is Tomás Garduño, I’m originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico. I’ve lived in Brooklyn for seven years and I am a social justice organizer focusing on the intersection of electoral politics and social change.

Kate: Can you tell me about the work that you’re doing right now, and especially the organizing, leading up to the presidential election?

Tomás: Up to about a month and a half ago, I was the National Field Director for an organization called Mijente, which is a Latinx social justice organization. And I left that that position because I identified a gap in that work, particularly in the South, and in particular in North Carolina, which is where we are right now.

Because of the electoral college, which was created many years ago by slave owners to ensure that rural and southern states had an overrepresentation in the choosing of the presidency, we have this antiquated system that essentially pits urban poor against rural poor and unites urban rich and rural rich.

Kate: As you said, we’re in North Carolina right now doing a project. Can you talk a little bit about how you identify the specific county in North Carolina and what relevance it has in the election?

Tomás: My almost 20 years of electoral organizing experience has taught me to try to be the biggest fish in the smallest pond, and that means trying to find a place where there are a multi layer of races from, as they say, top to down ballot races, and where the margins are tight, and also where there’s not a lot of other folks organizing and working. We identified Lenoir County, with the county seat being in Kinston, North Carolina, which is where we find ourselves currently.

And the reason we chose this county is because obviously North Carolina is a very important swing state for the federal election, both for presidency and for a very hotly contested Senate seat here. But then there’s also a local State Senate race that’s highly contested where the Democrats could potentially flip the seat for the first time in a generation, along with a few other state legislative seats that could potentially flip the North Carolina legislature. If we’re lucky and effective and our work pays off, we could be part of a much larger effort to flip the North Carolina legislature, the Senate, and also the presidency.

Kate: What is your specific approach to canvassing? You talked a little bit about the gap—how are you approaching it?

Tomás: I have the most experience in door knocking and field strategies in general. As you can imagine, this year has been particularly difficult with Covid‑19, and the limited abilities to be able to speak to people face to face. Because we still believe that ultimately, even in the era of social media and technology, the best way to get a voter to get out and vote is to speak to them face to face, whether that’s at their workplace or at their home.

And so most organizations around the country, especially on the progressive left, including the Democratic Party, have chosen up until very recently to not door-knock for the entire spring and summer and early fall. So now they’re scrambling.

We have been building this plan, creating safety protocols, identifying neighborhoods, etc. for almost a month now, and we’ve been on the ground here for several days, and plan to be here through almost election day during the early voting period.

Kate: You mentioned the urban–rural dynamic. In your opinion, why should urban-based organizers focus on rural counties, and what are the differences?

Tomás: This country has a very interesting makeup. I think that a lot of the dynamics I mentioned earlier have created a sort of urban–rural divide.

The results have been sort of a writing off of each other. I would argue that we actually try to create more of a top-down divide, which is actually where the divide is, and then we begin to build an analysis and then also have an identity around being working people, around being poor people, and challenging rich people. I think that is the main reason why we need to bridge the urban-rural divide and why urban organizers need to see common cause with folks in rural America.

Kate: Will doing this work in rural areas impact policy in urban areas?

Tomás: Absolutely. In fact, the current senator Thom Tillis in North Carolina, who’s in a very contested race with Cal Cunningham, the Democratic opposition. Thom Tillis is famous for voting with Trump 90% of the time and, in particular, fighting any type of renewable energy. The Green New Deal in particular has been a pet project of his to sort of fight tooth and nail, and he uses that in his campaign ads as sort of a boogeyman to rural America.

I think that that’s a perfect example of where folks like us in New York State have been able to pass a statewide Green New Deal or something very similar, and for obvious reasons we think that that’s going to create a bunch of jobs for working people and also include the environment and address issues of climate change. Somebody like Thom Tillis, if he stays in office, is going to prevent something like the Green New Deal from happening.

Kate: In terms of tactics and how we do door knocking, what are some of the differences in how you would do that in Brooklyn versus here in rural North Carolina?

Tomás: It’s first and foremost about informing voters, which isn’t starkly different from New York necessarily, depending on what city you’re in. But definitely the terrain, the discussion, etc., are different. We’re focused on just encouraging people to get out and vote for the Democrats. And we’re not getting into a lot of detail about that question because whereas in New York I think our focus politically is often trying to push the Democratic Party to the left, and often it’s the progressive Democrat against the sort of corporate Democrat.

Here, frankly, we’re in a position to take seats from the Republican Party. On a tactical level, it’s mostly single-family homes or small housing projects, so the way that you go about door knocking is just different. And then I think the last thing that is unique about our project is that we’re actually offering people rides to the polls, because in this moment in this place in North Carolina—which is also why we chose it—during the early voting period from October 15–31 you can both register same day and vote. So it’s a huge opportunity effectively reopening the registration period for 17 days.

Kate: What lessons do you take from the last election, and how has that informed your work this time around?

Tomás: Definitely don’t ever take anything for granted. And make sure to do as much as you can in the places that make the most sense. I think the Democratic Party has a lot to learn from the progressive movement and from working people around not listening to our interests and our needs. Hopefully they’ve learned some of that lesson. But certainly, there is no excuse for and no substitute for actually talking directly to people—and that goes for candidates, progressive organizations, and for organizers. We need to be out there talking to people. And from those experiences, devise strategy, not the other way around.

We often hang around with each other and think that we represent America, and that’s not the case. And the result is a Clinton campaign.

Kate: How does this moment and this strategy of electoral organizing fit into a longer-term movement strategy? What should we be doing in the broader movement?

Tomás: We need as many independent progressive organizations as possible that are functioning within but also outside of the Democratic Party. Perhaps it’s an unpopular opinion, but I think the Democratic Party is our is our electoral vehicle for the foreseeable future, which doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t also invest in building other infrastructure like the Working Families Party, and other independent grassroots social justice organizations. That’s what I’ve been involved in the last 20 years. We need to engage in the Democratic Party and move it to the left.

They say, “demographics is destiny.” Well, that has not really panned out so well for us. And that’s because of things like the electoral college and a lack of understanding of how the rules function in this country, which are highly anti-democratic and incredibly unfair, and they are what we have to work with. I think moving forward, the role of the movement is to inspire the imagination of the masses of people to begin to think beyond what currently exists so that we’re not fighting on the same terrain forever, and the election is in two weeks. We’re not going to change the electoral college or the way that the census reapportions and redistributes districts, and that’s why this election is so important. And that’s why all progressive, all leftists, all organizers urban, rural and otherwise need to ensure that they’re doing everything they can to ensure that Donald Trump is defeated and that the Democrats win the Senate.

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To cite this article:

Tomás Garduño & Kate Selden, “Electoral Organizing in North Carolina: An Interview with Tomás Garduño”, Metropolitics, 27 October 2020. URL :

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