Larry Scanlon: A Progressive Battler
The progressive community lost one of its toughest and smartest fighters yesterday. Larry died in a car crash on a trip to Florida, and all of us who had the honor of being his friend will miss him greatly.
Larry’s long tenure as political director of AFSCME brought them to a whole new level of political effectiveness. He was constantly innovating, constantly looking to be creative in how the union did its political work. He played a big role in the development, formation, and renewal of a whole series of organizations that have added to progressive infrastructure.
He and I worked together on a series of projects in the 1990s and first decade of this century that made a big difference in Democratic politics. In 1998, the conventional wisdom was overwhelmingly in favor of Democrats being blown out in the mid-terms because of the Lewinsky scandal, but Larry and I (I was the political director at People For the American Way at the time) were part of a group who came up with a strategy to overturn that conventional wisdom. On election day we surprised everyone: instead of losing 30 seats in the House like a lot of people were predicting, we picked up 5 — and would have picked up a lot more and a majority in the House if Democratic strategists at the party committees had listened to us.
We also won some big Senate and Governor races we weren’t supposed to win as well– one I remembered well was in Iowa. When Tom Vilsack was 20 points down a month out, Larry and I were the only ones in DC who still thought that race could be won and kept investing resources there, and Vilsack won that race, going on to become the best Governor Iowa ever had.
The issue group American Family Voices (AFV), which I founded in 2000 and still chair, was the result of a series of conversations with Larry and his colleagues at AFSCME about the fact that there were tons of single issue organizations in progressive politics but not nearly enough which had the flexibility to take on issues that were important but that no one else was talking about, take on special projects that needed to be done but no one wanted to take on, and to innovate in terms of new ways to communicate and target messages to working class voters. In 2000, we did a series of ads and phone calling that, among other things, targeted unmarried women voters. We were the first group to ever do that, and now that demographic group is one of the core parts of the Democratic base.
Another project Larry and I cooked up together was a project AFV took on in 2005 called the Campaign for a Cleaner Congress. George W Bush had just won re-election, Karl Rove was crowing about a permanent Republican majority, and Democrats were in a pessimistic mood- when I wrote a memo to some donors suggesting that it would be possible to take the House back in 2006, I got an angry from a top person at the DCCC who told me I needed to stop raising expectations, that there was no way we could take the House back. But Larry and I and a bunch of other great people figured out a strategy to drive home the corrupt Republican Congress message and create a Democratic wave. Larry was also in the middle of putting together a new organization to fight Bush’s Social Security privatization plan, which not only won that fight but was also key to defeating the Republicans in 2006, when we took back the House. That organization, which after the Social Security fight changed its name to Americans United for Change (which, full disclosure, I am on the board of) and is still doing great work at furthering the progressive cause.
Larry had some health problems a few years and had retired from AFSCME, but as his health had come back, he had started consulting again. I have no doubt he was cooking up some great new ideas to help further the cause. It is a bad blow to all of us who worked with him. He will always be remembered fondly.