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Populism in Action BY BRETT CAMPBELL FOUR HUNDRED Texas progressives gathered in Austin September 8 and 9 to try to bring one out of many, as the Texas Populist Alliance held its first meeting. The group was founded by Jim Hightower with the stated aim of uniting Texas progressive groups in an “organized, focused, and lasting grassroots movement for economic opportunity and social justice.” Despite a shaky start, the Alliance appears to be on track and to have arrived there by means of the very principles it proposes to inject into politics. The initiators of the project \(including, among others, Hightower, veteran consumer lobbyist Rebecca Lightsey, Houston National Democratic Committeewoman Billie Carr, Travis County Attorney Ken Oden, Lubbock months been soliciting the participation of various progressive and grass-roots groups; Lightsey had traveled across the state making personal contacts for weeks before this organizing meeting. The attendance over 400 people, instead of the 250 anticipated demonstrated that people around the state felt the need existed for such an umbrella group, according to Lightsey. The meeting included presentations and panel discussions by a number of progressive leaders, including Congressmen John Bryant and Craig Washington. While most of the remarks were inspiring, much of this was preaching to the choir. The most urgent question was: How to instigate the changes everyone there recognized needed to be made? The first day’s afternoon panel provided a few answers. Instead of politicians and public interest group leaders, Hightower \(making his only appearance of the conferactivists who are making a difference in people’s daily lives. Deloyd Parker of Houston’s SHAPE has been successful at organizing his inner-city community to accomplish social change; Sandy Mayeaux, president of People Organized to Win Envirecalcitrant state agencies to attend to her Highlands neighborhood’s concern about toxic wastes; Janet Miller recounted how Tyler textile workers refused to accept the closing of a Levi Strauss clothing plant; they bought the plant and are now running it successfully themselves as Colt Enterprises. \(The afternoon panel featured a speech by Duke University populist scholar Larry Goodwyn, reprinted on the following local groups had taken their destinies in their own hands, instead of leaving things up to the politicians. Most important, they started at the bottom, at the grassroots level, and worked up. As Parker put it, “People’s victories aren’t going to happen unless they’re rooted in the people.” IT WAS AT THE “Town Meeting,” planned to begin shaping the TPA, that the foundling group was almost betrayed by its owns ideals. The original organizers were determined not to dominate the proceedings, to make this initial meeting an exemplar of the populist principles of democracy and openness. But while it sounds good to “let the group decide” its goals and methods, diverse groups of strong-willed people seldom produce coherence out of anarchy. It usually requires a core group with an agenda in mind to get anything done, as James Madison understood when he introduced the Virginia Plan in the Constitutional Convention. And, almost predictably, the second speaker to rise when the meeting was thrown open was a LaRouchite. After an hour or so of wheel-spinning, order began to emerge from the chaos. Don Gardner of the Texas Campaign for Global Security called for the election of an organizing committee and the participants agreed to scrap the next day’s scheduled issue forums and get on with organizing. The following afternoon, more than 100 people showed up for the organizing session, which got off to a muddled start. Group leaders failed to clarify the purpose and focus of the floor discussion, and to establish procedural rules. No one could agree on what to do first: develop a mission statement? An organizing structure? Concrete proposals? The meeting briefly teetered on the verge of collapse and it seemed a case of populism inaction. But democracy somehow worked in spite of itself. The Rev. Jew Don Boney of Houston rose to make a motion, then began orchestrating the discussion of it so smoothly that Solis turned over the chairmanship to him. Boney \(who chairs the Houston chapter navigated the narrow strait between allowing everyone his or her say, and keeping the meeting going efficiently. Other participants displayed admirable patience, respect, and initiative, and the group settled on some broad principles, such as working for economic and social justice, voter participation, equal rights, and protecting the environment. Finally, the group sought nominations to the steering committee, and allowed all 16 people nominated to serve. About ten slots were left open to be filled with members who could redress the imbalances in racial, gender, and geographic makeup. \(There were too few black and brown faces, and Lightsey conceded that until money is available to pay for travel expenses, poor and non-urban elemittee is charged with devising a mission statement and goals for the group. Their first meeting is scheduled for late October. A few members \(those who wanted a true third party, for example, and members of the San Antonio Progressive Democrats who objected to the organizers’ reversal of a previous decision to organize local Alliance offered, and some accepted, nomination to the steering committee. According to Lightsey, who tallied the 125 or so evaluation sheets filled out by the participants, “Only five thought it was boring, and only one said it left them cold.” Lightsey said the higherthan-expected attendance, the spontaneous decision to change the agenda, and the fact that over a hundred people \(many from out of Sunday afternoon in order to get things moving reflected a real desire for an entity like the TPA. Having overcome its labor pains, whither the Alliance? That will be determined in meetings over the next year. Despite the noble-sounding ideal of uniting all progressive groups, the advantages of forming a coalition of many groups, each with its own agenda and overworked staff, aren’t immediately obvious. However, if the various component organizations can find a common ground, then by sharing resources \(such as difference in Texas politics. In the end, the first meeting of the Populist Alliance revealed all the perils and promise of populism itself. A movement that represents the heterogeneous faces of the people \(especially in a trouble achieving a coherent set of goals. On the other hand, a group willing to tolerate even embrace such diversity might be able to draw on as broad a base of resources as exists in this state. The fact that the Alliance was able to make some progress despite an almost anarchistic setting is promising. The Texas Populist Alliance has surmounted its first high hurdle: setting the stage, getting its act together. As one decidedly anti-populist, alleged Texan is fond of saying … stay tuned. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 13