America is in a state of extreme unrest, and leadership has been virtually nonexistent.
Emotions are heightened, as is confusion, and eyes will inevitably turn to elected leadership to frame the deluge of horrors that have befallen the country and to build some sort of levee to stop them, yet Washington has been slow to act.
Democratic officials, meanwhile, say that the best chance of instituting real change is by voting this November—five months from now.
“The best way we can change things in the United States is through utilizing the Democratic process,” former presidential candidate and secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro told Fortune. “If we’re going to change things for the better for all of those people who are experiencing pain and displaying that out there on the streets, it means that we need to get to the voting booth.”
But how do Democrats channel momentum that is demanding immediate action into an event nearly half a year away?
A global pandemic has killed more than 100,000 people in the United States, and over 40 million are unemployed. Many newly unemployed Americans can’t afford to pay rent and don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
The death of George Floyd, a black man, by excessive police force has led to nationwide protests and marches against racial inequality and police brutality. These have often turned violent: Police cars drove into masses of protesters; rubber bullets were shot at journalists; tear gas and pepper spray, known to worsen the spread of COVID-19, were used to disperse crowds. Major cities, including New York and Los Angeles, are under curfew.
Black people in America are twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than white people, and less than 50% of black adults now have a job. Systematic failures and institutionalized racism have contributed to those numbers, and many in Congress acknowledge that. The House Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on police brutality next week and will look through 40 proposals for policy action. Still, much of this is action in optics only: The full body of Congress will remain out of session until at least June 30, and no actual legislation can be voted on until then.
On a Monday call with Democratic leadership, a “day of mourning” or a march was proposed but no agreements on policy changes were made. Senate aides, meanwhile, have indicated that Republican leader Mitch McConnell will continue his focus on nominating conservative judges to the bench.
“For a while now there’s been a logjam in Congress,” said Castro, “but at every single level of government, elected officials that care about making a difference in the lives of their constituents and in drawing in more people to vote have an incentive to make these things real by making progress on policy. So Congress isn’t the only place where the action is.”
By bringing attention to local politics for the time being, said Castro, Democrats can work to draw in young protesters and show them that policy can be quickly enacted and effective. They can then leverage those successes nationally as November draws closer.
“On this issue of police reform there are a lot of young people watching, and what happens here will determine if people get involved in the democratic process,” he said. “You have mayors and city council members across the United States that today can introduce local legislation that will pass to change disciplinary procedures, to change use-of-force standards, to change recruiting and promotion policy for police departments.”
The Biden campaign, he said, needs to work on messaging, targeting, and mobilizing the vote, but it also needs to show that it’s working with local officials on “real policy outcomes that people can see and that impact their lives.” Those actions, he said, will also bring in voters who feel alienated by the political process in general.
Partnering with local governments to enact social change too progressive for Congress, said Castro, was a tactic used regularly in the Obama White House and one that Biden is familiar with. “When we wanted to raise the minimum wage or wanted to see marriage equality come to pass, we worked on gaining the support of Congress, but it was also [done by] working with local and state officials across the country,” Castro explained, “to try and get [things] done [by] hospitable states or receptive mayors and city councils.”
At the highest level of government, President Donald Trump has responded to protesters by threatening military force and walking to St. John’s Church, which had been damaged in D.C. protests, to take photos holding a Bible. Before his walk, the National Guard used pepper spray and chemicals similar to tear gas on peaceful protesters to disperse them from his path.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, meanwhile, delivered a speech in Philadelphia condemning Trump and his actions on Tuesday afternoon. “I won’t traffic in fear and division. I won’t fan the flames of hate. I’ll seek to heal the racial wounds that have long plagued our country, not use them for political gain. I’ll do my job and I’ll take responsibility—I won’t blame others,” Biden said.
The former vice president pressured Congress to outlaw police choke holds, ban the transfer of “weapons of war” to police departments, and increase police accountability overall. He also promised to create a national police oversight task force within 100 days of taking office.
The comments come one week after Biden went on popular radio show The Breakfast Club and said to host Charlamagne tha God that “if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” The comments led to an immediate backlash, and Biden eventually walked them back by apologizing for being “cavalier” and a “wise guy.”
Still, Castro is optimistic about November. “I believe the things that we’re going through in this country right now make people more likely to vote, not less likely. It provides us with fertile ground out there with those resources to reach out and register people, to act on what they feel with their heart and see with their own eyes across the country,” he said. “I feel good about the next few months in terms of the viability of getting more people registered to vote because they’re ready to go.”
Biden, who often compares himself with and speaks of his close associations with President Barack Obama, has seen a surge in fundraising in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Sources say a fundraiser featuring both Obama and Biden is in the works. A Real Clear Politics average of polling shows Biden currently beating Trump by eight points.
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