Progressive House candidate Derek Marshall on winning rural votes

Progressive Derek Marshall is challenging freshman GOP Congressman Jay Obernolte in the new CA-23 Congressional District, which comprises much of exurban and rural San Bernardino County. A former Bernie Sanders campaign staffer, Marshall has a deep background as a progressive organizer in more rural areas. Plus as a first-time candidate, the 39-year-old Victorville resident has surprised many by raising more than a half million dollars through the end of March – even outraising Obernolte in Q1 2022 while taking no corporate donations.

Demographically, the new CA-23 largely overlaps with Obernolte’s current CA-8. According to the most-recent April 8 figures released by the California Secretary of State, Republicans have the same 3-point GOP registration advantage (36.5% versus 33.6% for Dems). However a large 30% share are registered no party preference or third party (NPP/Indy), and in 2020, Obernolte won this category by about 10 points. But Marshall pointed to some shifting, under-the-radar dynamics that – combined with his proven organizing skills – could put this district in play come November. Share a little about your history as an activist and community organizer.

Derek Marshall: I have been involved in community service basically since I was a child. When I was growing up, my parents ran a soup-to-go program on the weekends out of our church. So a lot of my weekends as a kid was spent helping feed and give kits to the homeless. In college, I studied international relations and politics. Then I started an international youth initiative focused on transparency in the United Nations information system. . For this, we were all full-time volunteers. I did that for a number of years and then started getting involved in electoral work.

The first campaign I ever got involved in was Obama in ’08. Since then, I have worked for or volunteered in dozens of campaigns. Most recently, I was a staffer on the Bernie Sanders 2020 presidential campaign. In a volunteer capacity, I also helped to staff some of the teams that registered 70,000 voters in four weeks before the 2021 Georgia Senate runoff elections [that narrowly elected Democratic Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff]. I have also done city council races here in California and rural organizing.

S/P: Tell me more about your rural organizing. This seems important to the district you are running in now, as well as an area the Democrats have been quite slow to emphasize.

DM: Definitely. For awhile, the Democratic Party has not been as front and center as we should be in exurban and rural areas. We are missing a huge opportunity to be able to win in some of these suburban/exurban/rural areas, particularly in California and particularly in this moment. Because what we are seeing is this exodus leaving cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, and they aren’t moving that far. By and large, they are just moving out to less expensive areas like the high desert here in the Inland Empire. We have seen a huge uptick in new voters. This has opened up a lot of opportunities for Democrats to be able to organize.

And the organizing work we have been doing since the end of 2020 for my campaign has been just knocking on doors and being like, “Hey, by the way, you are not alone. Here’s a printout of how many Democrats are in your neighborhood.” People are completely shocked the first time they see a PDI map, and they see all of the blue dots around them. They can’t believe it, and I say, “Yes, we just need to activate them.” So a lot of the work we are doing is helping people overcome their apathy and say “Hey, this is winnable.” They aren’t loud. We just need to activate them.

S/P: The new CA-23 features just a 3-point GOP registration advantage (36.5% versus 33.6%) but with about 30% NPP/Indy. This is similar to when Jay Obernolte won in 2020 by 12 points over a well-funded Democratic challenger, Chris Bubser. How do you see reversing that this time?

DM: If you take a look at the trend line of how Democrats have performed in this area, you see strong improvements. In 2016, the Democrat in the Congressional race lost by 28 points. Two years later in 2018, two Republicans did advance, but if you look at the Assembly race with Obernolte going up against the Democrat Socorro Cisneros, it was a 20-point spread. So you can see this trend line where the Democrats picked up 8 points. Then in 2020, Bubser lost by 12 so that was another 8-point gain. So [Democrats] went from 28 to 20 to 12.

So when we were forecasting out for this race, we said, “Hey, we seem to be picking up 4 points year-on-year. That gives us another 8 and leaves us with a hole of 4 points to close.” With redistricting, it looks like we picked up a couple percentage points. So now you are in flipping territory. With the recent articles in the L.A. Times and New York Times, we now have statistical evidence of what we have been seeing on the ground. From July of 2020 and July 1 of 2021, L.A. lost about 70,000 people, and they didn’t go far. They went to the San Bernardino/Riverside area, which is why our region has become the fifth-fastest growing metropolitan area in the nation.

So we are really building out the case that something extra-ordinary is happening here. There is an extra-ordinary population shift that’s happening into the high desert. In the pandemic, it has actually gotten even bigger and is continuing to expand because people are just not able to pay the rents in Los Angeles. I would say the majority of people moving out here are coming for rent and cost-of-living considerations. The other contingent are wealthier creatives who are moving to Joshua Tree, Big Bear and Crestline, where there is an absolute explosion of those people. And we are seeing movement in the Republican registration advantage shrinking. I watch that metric constantly. For example, the Republican registration advantage was 3.5% in March, and now it is down to 2.5%.

S/P: As mail-in ballots reach voters, what issues do you find are most on voters’ minds right now?

DM: The No. 1 issue we are hearing at the doors – and I try to get out for four or five hours every weekend – is inflation and cost of living. The median income of our district is $24,000 a year. This is at a time when rent prices are $1,500-2,000. So a lot of people are underwater, and they are struggling. With where gas prices are, we have more have 50% or 90,000 of the people in the high desert commuting “down hill,” as we say, which means going into Los Angeles or out of the district. It’s costly. It costs $20-$30 for one back-and-forth commute by SUV going up and down 3,000 feet of elevation. It’s a lot.

People ask what the solution is. I am totally supportive of gas cards, as there needs to be relief. I also have a conversation with them about the gas tax. Republicans want to focus on the taxes, but my answer to that is “51 cents.” They say, “What is that?” I say, that is the size of the California gas tax on every gallon. It’s not for nothing, but where’s the other three and four bucks coming from. It’s coming from price gauging. That is a message that has been working at the doors. People are like, “That’s right. It’s corporate greed.”

Another way I talk about fighting inflation is by helping people shore up their kitchen-table budgets. There are certain line items that I don’t think should be there. For example, anything related to medical, whether it is deductibles, premiums or prescription drug prices, I am definitely in favor of capping them. But I am also in favor of the government paying for it. There are different policies out there, but Medicare for All helps to remove that line item.

Another thing is universal pre-K and tuition-free public education through college. It should go from pre-K all the way up to grade 16, which would include college and trade schools. I think a lot of people are staying out of the work force right now because if it costs $1,000 per month to have their child looked after, then it is cheaper for them to stay home with a child.

S/P: In the 2020 primary, the GOP candidates combined for just under 60% of the vote. So it this shifts to less than 55% this primary, this would say quite a bit about a Democrat’s chances and how motivated Democratic turnout is. How do you see that?

DM: It is definitely possible. Without committing to any numbers, I expect us to do quite well. We have built a good team. We have had a lot of volunteers, and we are doing the progressive organizing thing of knocking on doors and making thousands of phone calls.

S/P: What really caught my attention was your fundraising. For a first-time Progressive candidate to raise more than a half million dollars by the end of Q1 is impressive. What do you attribute this to?

DM: I think honestly the success of our fundraising is just I have a lot of energy and I work my butt off. [Laughs.] I am very disciplined about being on call time. It is sacred, and it is even more sacred on a Progressive campaign when you aren’t accepting corporate donations and can count on those big donations. And I feel it is really starting to pay off. We have started to activate a group of repeat small-dollar donors which is the sweet spot that every successful Progressive campaign likes to have churning. This is great because the less time I spend fundraising, the more time I spend talking to voters and organizing.

S/P: I see about 60% of your donations are from out of state. Are you plugged into any national fundraising networks?

DM: Yes. Again, the challenge in our district is it is a large working-class district with a median income of $24,000. People are underwater and struggling so we have had to lean into the national network of donors in order to get support.

It starts off like most campaigns with friends and family, and then it quickly pivoted to just cold calling. Then you sit there with your lists and make your pitch like a salesman.

S/P: I’ve observed how many California Progressives despise the current campaign finance system, but love to say no Progressive can beat an incumbent without a comparable pile of cash. As an organizer, you understand the multiplier effect of grassroots support. How do Californian Progressives get out of this mindset, especially as they are now the largest part of the California Democratic Party?

DM: My insider organizer perspective on this is that [non-Progressives] have the money, and we have the talent and the organizers. There is definitely a quantifiable value to people who are volunteering and knocking on doors. I think it is important to always remember that when you’ve got a bunch of people who are volunteering and helping you, it is worth its weight in gold.

Yes, certainly getting on the radar of the Democratic Party and different organizations requires showing cash in the bank. But there is an important component of being able to activate an organizing army to complement the funds being raised. I would even go so far and say you need both – the treasure and the talent – to oust, in my case, a freshman Trump-backed Republican.

S/P: Along these lines, I saw you have invested a lot into your staffing versus spending on the typical outside campaign consultants.

DM: We definitely have a Progressive model in terms of investing in organizers, who are our consultants. This is setting us up for success by being able to activate the organizing prowess.

S/P: Any final thoughts or words to voters?

DM: Yes, do not forget the rural and exurban parts of California. In every single community, there are Progressives, and there are Progressive activists. There are also many who with just a little bit of surface scratching you will be able to activate. It is really, really important that we have a 52-Congressional-district strategy in the state of California. We should be organizing in every single Congressional district in this state.

And the keys to [Democrats] holding the House of Representatives after 2022 is really up to California. We’ve got 8-9 seats that we should be able to flip because of the unique nature of this particular election. We have some political tail winds with [the expected overturning of] Roe and Ukraine. There’s also the unique factor here in California in which the top of the ticket could feature a lot of Democrat-on-Democrat races. I think this will increase Democratic turnout and suppress Republican turnout. So it is just important we remember there is no area in this state that we shouldn’t be organizing in.