The 30 Netroots Nation attendees that POLITICO spoke to say they are not motivated to see big names on stage, though some undoubtedly describe themselves as AOC “fangirls.”
“Everyone is going local because that’s how you make the most impact,” said Jess Moore Matthews of Backbone Digital Leaders. “I think it’s a departure from the influential politician.”
Not that there’s anyone on the stage: Reps. Greg Casar of Texas, Maxwell Alejandro of Florida, Summer Lee of Pennsylvania, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia of Illinois, and Pramila Jayapal of Washington are big names on the left.
Attendees said their focus is on broader issues related to voter organizing. The convention, which has drawn more than 2,900 attendees, its second-highest attendance ever, runs through Saturday.
Ruby Powell-Dennis from Tennessee was even more forceful. “Look, black women aren’t looking for Bernie Sanders from Vermont or AOC from New York. This is a movement, and movements don’t need saviors,” she said after hearing Johnson speak Thursday.
When Netroots started nearly two decades ago, it was trying to build credibility, so names mattered, said Markos Moulitsas, who started the progressive blog Daily Kos and helped with conference spinoff Netroots Nation. Now, the group is less focused on blogging and more on organization.
Initially, “there was a lot of fear and mistrust about our efforts,” Moulitsas said Friday between radio interviews from the conference. “Some thought that we would somehow push the party too far to the left. So make people like it [former Senate Majority Leader] The appearance of Harry Reid was to validate the move and a signal to the party establishment in general that we were not dangerous.
The conference had a tendency to create news. Warren, who last took the stage in 2019, wowed the crowd and got his presidential bid off the ground early. And who can forget the controversy created in 2015 when Sanders was carried offstage for his version of Black Lives Matter?
Despite the controversial origins, Netroots organizers said they are more focused on drawing attention to the issues their attendees care about.
The move away from big names “is an indication of all the different fronts that we’re dealing with at the same time as progressives,” Netroots Nation CEO Eric Thut told POLITICO, pointing to issues such as gun violence and recent Supreme Court decisions on everything. from affirmative action to student loan forgiveness to abortion. “We have a lot of people and a lot of things to talk about and a lot of voices to amplify.”
Panel discussions examine AIvs’ impact on the organization, “what’s next for student debt,” “how to debunk abortion misinformation,” and the challenge women candidates face in “navigating the threat of misinformation.”
The role of states in government also gets some airtime. “States are being used by the Republican Party to silence people they disagree with and stall progress on important issues. And we are starting to see setbacks, like in Tennessee,” Thut said. Tennessee state representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson appear as panelists.
Just because this year’s speakers don’t have the national name recognition of an AOC, doesn’t mean there’s any less enthusiasm for national Democrats, Moulitsas said.
It’s just a different vibe with a Democrat already in the White House and other issues drawing national attention. “When I started, everyone was obsessed with who was at the top of the ballot. The president was the only choice that mattered,” Moulitsas recalled. “We couldn’t get people to care about racing at the state level. And it was frustrating.”