The outcome of the 2016 elections shocked many progressive Americans, including Lala Wu. A lawyer living in the solidly blue Bay Area, she recalls feeling a sense of helplessness. “It was so frustrating that we couldn’t do more from where we lived in this resource-rich area,” Wu explained. Along with four other like-minded women, she started brainstorming. “We thought to ourselves: What if we could connect up these powerful resources with elections elsewhere that could actually make a really big impact and that would enable us to move the national needle?” That was the beginning of the Sister District Project.
Borrowing from the concept of sister cities, the non-profit endorses a portfolio of progressive Democratic candidates running for state legislatures and connects them to an extensive network of volunteers, composed of over 65 teams across the country with a total of nearly 27,000 volunteers. Each team works directly with the campaigns to which they’ve been “sistered,” reaching out to voters by fundraising, phone banking, text banking, sending postcards, and knocking on doors if travel is possible. The Sister District headquarters in the Bay Area, for which Wu serves as the Director of Engagements and Partnerships, coordinates with the campaigns to ensure that the volunteers have all of the materials they need to make the greatest impact. Most of the team at headquarters, including Wu, quit their previous jobs to work full-time on the project.
The focus on the state level is one of the most unique aspects of Sister District. Typically, state elections are overshadowed by national ones and receive little attention. Yet they play a key role in shaping the political landscape. In 37 states, state legislatures are in charge of redrawing congressional as well as state district lines and thereby hold the power to gerrymander. Many Democrats are worried that, as of 2018, Republicans control 68 of the 99 state legislative chambers (Nebraska is the only state to have a unicameral legislature). State legislatures also pass laws that directly impact people’s daily lives, dealing with issues like education, minimum wage, and healthcare. It is therefore critical to start at the state level to build strong, lasting progressive policies and leaders, according to Wu.
On a practical level, the smaller scale of state elections also makes them more manageable. “They tend to be undernourished and under-resourced, so we’re able to make a really big impact,” Wu said. Sister District believes that they have indeed made a considerable impact. In 2017 – the project’s inaugural election cycle – they sponsored 17 candidates in four states. “All of them were successful except for one, which came down to a single vote. It was a loss, then it was a recount, then it was a tie, and in the end, they literally just picked a name of a hat,” Wu recollected.
This success has further energized the project. In 2018, 87 state legislature chambers are holding elections. Sister District is actively supporting 24 candidates in six states. To select these races, they built a portfolio composed of three categories of states. The first are states where Democrats are in the minority by only a few seats, making it possible for them to gain control in that chamber. The second consists of states where Democrats have a slim majority, meaning it is important to defend that chamber and hold on to their advantage. The third category involves a multi-cycle strategy for the states in which Democrats face strong disadvantages. Wu explained, “These states are very badly gerrymandered, but we need to make some critical inroads now.”
After identifying states that fit into these categories, Sister District's headquarters uses a mix of quantitative and qualitative tools to determine their final list of candidates. To date, Sister District’s local teams have raised a collective $590,000 in grassroots donations that go directly to candidates, with an average donation of about $33. They have also made 150,000 calls, knocked on 35,000 doors, sent 185,000 text messages, and sent 180,000 handwritten postcards to voters.
In between election cycles, Sister District continues working. “We believe in year-long engagement,” Wu told me. “What we try to do is build an organization with hubs of civic engagement that are local, enduring, and stick around from year to year to year.” Headquarters actively seeks to keep their volunteers involved. “We really think of ourselves as organizers, and we are very hands-on with our volunteers,” Wu explained. They also encourage teams to work on other issues that are important to them, from women’s rights to health care to the environment. Wu asserted, “We know that what’s really going to keep people engaged is that there’s a feeling of self-direction as well as being part of a larger strategic goal.”
When asked what Sister District’s plans for the future are, Wu laughed. “When we started this project, we did not have a plan. But now we are definitely aiming to build something that is long term. We think that this is filling a gap that has not been filled before in the progressive space – in particular, this idea that we have all of this energy in deep blue places and we can connect it in a meaningful way with action items and issues elsewhere where we could actually make a difference.”