The Blog

Court Nominations and the Most Important Victory of My Career

In 2003, nine months into our campaign, Miguel Estrada withdrew his name from consideration for an appeals court. Bush accepted his withdrawal. For the first time since 9/11, the Democrats had won.
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(Cross-posted at DailyKos)

President Obama's nomination today of Elena Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court brings to mind the story of the biggest victory of my career. Last week, in my post "Why I'll Be a Better Governor for California than Jerry Brown", I touched on this story, but I didn't tell it fully. This story is important, because it shows how I've demonstrated leadership at key moments, and how I've used substantial power to win an important victory for regular people and common-sense values. Leadership and appropriate exercise of power are, in my view, the most important parts of the job of Governor.

(For any who don't know, I am running in the Democratic primary for Governor of California. Voting by mail began today; the official primary election day is June 8th, 4 weeks away. Please support my progressive track record and vision for California with your vote.)

The winter of 2002-2003 was arguably the darkest hour in our country's recent history. President George W. Bush had exploited the tragedy of 9/11 and lied about intelligence information to scare America into war with Iraq.

Elected Democrats in Washington were utterly intimidated, giving up our constitutional rights with the Patriot Act and then caving in to Bush's drive for war just before the 2002 elections, afraid to be seen opposing the President. Then Republicans won those elections, taking over the House and the Senate -- giving them more control than ever. The stage was set for an era of Republican dominance and destruction of common-sense values like nothing we'd ever seen. We were on track to losing literally everything.

Instead, we stood up, fought back, and won.

Those of us who cared about civil liberties and common-sense government knew we had to stand and fight somewhere. We also knew the Republicans' top priority would be to grab more power. We were confident that, feeling their oats with new Congressional majorities, they'd reach for control of America's top courts. Lifetime appointments to our courts would shape our country for decades to come. Appellate court seats could be filled with right-wing ideologues with short resumes, on the assumption that nobody would pay attention to nominations below the Supreme Court level. Then, soon afterward, these same right-wing judges could be elevated to fill Supreme Court vacancies that were expected with the anticipated departures of justices Sandra Day O'Connor, William Rehnquist, and potentially John Paul Stevens. Senators would have already voted to confirm these same judges at the appellate level before being asked to vote on them again for the Supreme Court. And then there was the Clarence Thomas gambit: pick a right-winger with very little track record who is also an ethnic minority. I was pretty sure they'd run this play again.

Sure enough, they did, by nominating Miguel Estrada, a right-wing lawyer who had never served as a judge, so he had no paper trail. In hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Estrada even refused to answer Senators' questions on his views. The Republicans were giving our Senators almost no basis on which to fight, doing their best to intimidate our side into submission.

I believed that by standing up and fighting, we could teach our Senators how to do the same.

As the Executive Director at at the time, I took a leadership role by committing our organization to fight this Republican power grab. I also recruited the organizational partners we needed, and personally led the coalition campaign over the months that followed.

We geared up immediately after the 2002 elections. We built a coalition, working with expert Washington groups like the Alliance for Justice and People for the American Way to be sure of our facts and to keep posted on the latest developments. Other coalition partners like True Majority and Working Assets helped organize meetings with key Senators over the holiday, and together we filled them with progressive constituents urging our Senators to block Estrada's confirmation.

Senator Feinstein was our first hurdle: as the weakest Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, her vote was make-or-break. If she folded, there was no chance we'd win. Only if Committee Democrats stood together was there a chance that Democrats would do the same on the floor of the full Senate. We worked her office hard, mobilizing tens of thousands of MoveOn members in California to call her office and to write letters to their newspaper editors. I met with Senator Feinstein personally, accompanied by other MoveOn leaders, and pointed out two key things: (1) the right to reproductive choice, which is very important to her, depends on the courts more than anything else, and (2) if we let the Republicans roll over us on this, their first priority, there'd be no stopping them on anything. Feinstein was reluctant to lead -- she kept us guessing, and working, and worrying about her, for weeks. But ultimately, when the time came, our effort paid off: she voted with progressives, and against Miguel Estrada and the Republicans.

Now the game was on at a whole new level. Our target now was the full U.S. Senate and its Democratic leadership -- Senators Tom Daschle and Harry Reid. I went to Washington and met personally with both of them, and with the offices of unreliable Democrats like Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. I made the same case to them -- that if we let the Republicans win on this, their first priority, there would be no stopping them on anything. Democrats might as well go home.

Again we geared up the calls, the letters, and the meetings -- this time targeting dozens of Democratic Senators around the country. Again our coalition partners played their key roles, while led the way.

The Senators were stunned. Never before had they seen such an outpouring of grassroots energy on appellate court nominations. They didn't know what to make of it, but we had their attention.

In mid-February, Senators Daschle and Reid decided to go for it. Calling Estrada's refusal to answer questions "a new height of arrogance", Senator Daschle announced that the Democrats would filibuster the Estrada nomination. Instantly, everyone in the room was on their feet and cheering this bold leadership stand.

They launched the filibuster, finally defending America's core constitutional principles for the first time since 9/11. The filibuster held all spring and summer, in the face of all manner of threats and intimidation from the Republicans. Our Democratic Senators stood up for us, because they saw us standing up for ourselves.

Finally, in September, 2003, nine months into our campaign, Miguel Estrada withdrew his name from consideration. President Bush accepted his withdrawal, admitting defeat.

For the first time since 9/11, the Democrats had won. They won by standing up strongly, together, and fighting for our common values. And they won because progressives everywhere stood with them and supported their bold stand.

Fundamentally, we won because we fought.

More than anyone else outside the Senate, I called that fight, and ran it. I still feel my pulse race, re-telling the story now. The whole point of public service, including public interest organizing, is to win victories like this, victories that stop the right wing and the corporations, and make life better for regular people instead.

I've been fortunate to contribute to several such victories over my nearly twenty years in public interest organizing, but this was my most important one.

It sheds light on how I think power -- like MoveOn's, or like a Governor's -- should be used: strategically and decisively at key moments, and boldly, not timidly. We win when we fight, not when we run from a fight.

My role in organizing this pivotal victory shows, better than any other example I can think of, the kind of leadership I'd bring to the California Governor's office.

It's also the kind of leadership that Jerry Brown has taken pains to avoid showing us during this campaign.

If you agree that California needs the kind of Governor who will fight for us as I did on the Estrada nomination, please support my campaign:

* With your vote, any time between now and June 8th;
* On Facebook, at:
* On my website, at:

Thank you!

- Peter