Published on May 7th, 2018 | by Terra Goodnight


Ohio’s 12th District Features Grassroots Leader Turned Candidate

One of many things I’ll be watching in Tuesday’s primary is whether there are signs of the Blue Wave so many are hoping will sweep Democrats into office in November. If the wave happens, it will be built on the backs of newly-energized voters, many of whom were jolted by the results of the 2016 elections to form or join with others in grassroots groups like those that are part of the Indivisible movement. Tuesday offers a sneak preview of the potential “Indivisible” effect, and nowhere more so than in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District.

While the Democratic primary features several more better known candidates, including Franklin County Recorder Danny O’Connor and former Franklin County Sheriff Zach Scott, one local grassroots leader is also in the mix. John Russell, an organic farmer and small business owner from Galena, announced his candidacy in December, but has been, for the most part, overlooked by mainstream political pundits.

But Russell may have a hidden advantage that goes beyond name recognition: he was one of the founders of the 4,000-person “indivisible” group organized in the 12th Congressional District–recently abandoned by Republican Congressman-turned-lobbyist Pat Tiberi. On Tuesday, John Russell will try to translate his grassroots activism into electoral success. Even in a loss, if Russell outperforms expectations by besting Scott, for instance, it could be a harbinger of the power of newly-activated grassroots movement.

Russell has been involved in the so-called Resistance since its beginning. In January, 2017, Russell launched a petition campaign to ask Rep Tiberi to hold a town hall on the Affordable Care Act, which Congressional Republicans had promised to repeal. When polite requests failed, Russell and members of the newly-formed Indivisible District 12 group planned their own town hall, and it was Russell who personally delivered an oversized invitation to Tiberi’s staff. 😃

As suggested by his intense effort to save the ACA, healthcare is a top issue for Russell, who supports a move toward a single-payer system. As he explains it, “The Affordable Care Act played a key role in helping me start my small business. I was able to keep my coverage under my parents’ plan until I turned 26. Over three years, I saved about $8,000, which I was able to invest in the business.”

Just a month after Pat Tiberi’s unexpected resignation, Russell announced his candidacy, laying out a progressive agenda:

“I’m running for Congress to fight for our healthcare, to fight for our paychecks. I’m running to make sure that we all have the opportunity to make a decent living. I’m running to fight against an opiate epidemic that has destroyed countless lives. I’m running to get money out of politics and fight for a system where our work and our votes count for something. I’m running to be a voice for everyone in our district, in a time where we need representation the most.” 

It’s not Russell’s first run for office. In addition to working in the New York State legislature, he has worked on campaigns for Sherrod Brown and Ted Strickland and even ran unsuccessfully for the Ohio House in 2016, a long-shot district to begin with in what became a blowout year for Democrats.

To Russell, being responsive to and engaged with voters is non-negotiable: “This town hall meeting is one of the simplest things you can do, it’s in Tiberi’s job description to listen to his constituents.”

If he’s elected, Russell  says he will hold frequent town halls to listen to voters. As a candidate, has been all over the district knocking on doors and holding listening sessions in every corner of the district to hear the concerns of local residents.

One thing we’ll be watching Tuesday is how well Russell and other activists-turned-candidates can leverage their grassroots connections and organizing experience into votes. Early indications are good: The campaign says their internal polling looks good. While 2nd in overall fundraising to O’Connor, Russell leads the Democratic field in contributions under $200, which he says represents “50 and 100 bucks at a time from people I fought shoulder to shoulder with last year to save healthcare.” And, with over 500 offers of volunteer assistance, Russell has been able to depend on a core team of about 50 volunteers, including many members of the Indivisible 12 group, to knock on doors, make calls, write postcards. That has allowed the campaign to make well over 20,000 voter contacts. Whether that will result in a better-than-expected showing Tuesday remains to be seen.

Other activists-turned-candidates will be on the ballot Tuesday, though very few have competitive primaries. One to watch is Juanita Brent, leader of Ohio’s District 11 Indivisible group, who is competing in a crowded field to represent Democrats in the fall in Cuyahoga County’s House District 12. We’ll recap after the primary how our activist candidates fared and look at what it might mean for a Blue Wave.

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About the Author

Terra Goodnight does Policy Research and Digital Organizing for Innovation Ohio, a progressive-leaning research and advocacy nonprofit in Columbus. She also runs a few Twitter accounts and had earlier careers in state and local government and private sector technology consulting.

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