By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media

VINELANDWill Cunningham’s Congressional campaign may be over this year, but the grassroots progressive campaigns the South Jersey native ran over the past two political cycles may have sparked a movement that will build a lasting legacy for him in the new Make Room Political Action Committee.

Make Room started in August, made up of Brown University students who worked on Cunningham’s House of Representatives District 2 campaign. Cunningham fought for a second time to capture the Democratic primary for the right to take on incumbent Republican Jeff Van Drew in the November general election.

While Cunningham came in third — losing to Amy Kennedy, the wife of former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, and behind New Jersey Democratic Party endorsed candidate Brigid Callahan Harrison —?Cunningham’s campaign team was still determined.

“They were inspired by the campaign,” said Cunningham, the Vineland High School graduate who earned his bachelor’s degree from Brown University in 2007. “When things didn’t work out in our favor, they weren’t done fighting.”

Dylan Douglas, Max Pushkin and Ben Lipson — all current Brown students — came together to start Make Room.

Inspired by Cunningham

“I was a true believer of [Cunningham] as a politician, candidate and as a person,” Douglas told Front Runner New Jersey. “He’s an amazing person, a generational leader and a progressive. We thought the progressive wing of the Democratic movement would be there for us and would be able to push us over the top.

“That wasn’t the case. We weren’t able to get the endorsements of a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, people were mission critical key in getting grassroot candidates elected,” he added.

Will Cunningham speaks to a group in Linwood during his campaign this year. Photo courtesy of Will Cunningham.

Douglas, Pushkin and Lipson learned some cruel realities during the campaign season.

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Cunningham had a compelling story that progressives should have loved: growing up poor at times homeless in Vineland, pushing himself to attend Brown University, earning a law degree from the University of Texas and working as a chief investigator on Capitol Hill for the House Oversight Committee.

Mainstreaming Progressivism

But up against the endorsed party nominee and another candidate with an entrenched political family history, it was incredibly difficult to get their grassroots campaign to break through in the media, along with the kind of endorsements that would have legitimized their run.

Dylan Douglas, former Will Cunningham campaign staffer and co-founder of Make Room PAC. Photo courtesy of Dylan Douglas.

They also learned that the word “progressive” had become mainstreamed in the Democratic Party.

“Progressive had become so mainstreamed that it was now built into the Democratic platform,” Douglas said. “Now every Democrat defines themselves in some way as progressive. One of the things we took away from this was, there is now progressives who have become established in Democratic politics. Will’s campaign was just not on the radar of the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. For better or worse, we have this movement but not everyone in the party represents the entire movement at heart.”

Identifying True Progressives

Make Room would go about identifying those who they believe are staying true to the meaning of being a progressive and supporting critical issues like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. For Douglas, he is passionate about campaign finance reform.

“Being a progressive is not about being left or right,” Douglas said. “It’s about looking forward. It’s about finding bold, new strategies for the future. It’s about not looking at the past rulebook for solutions.”

Make Room PAC logo. Photo courtesy of Make Room PAC.

Make Room has already worked with lists of progressive candidates around the country, including Mia Mason in MD-1, Keeda Haynes in TN-5, Robin Wilt in NY-25, Jerry Dickinson in PA-18, Melanie D’Arrigo in NY-3, Hector Oseguera in NJ-8, Russ Cirincione in NJ-6, and Zainab Mohsini in VA-11.

Make Room has endorsed and is working with Jen Perelman in FL-23, Cindy Banyai in FL-19, Adam Christensen in FL-3, and Richard Thripp in FL-6. The PAC, though, is not taking a position in the presidential race.

Amplifying Voices

Douglas said while Make Room is just in the infancy stage of building its financial war chest, what they can offer candidates right now are ways to amplify their voice. He said that alone is critical with many in the media not yet taking young progressive candidates seriously.

“We will help with influencing and branding on social media along with writing stories about the candidates we endorse,” Douglas said. “We will target Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We have candidates who have won primaries and not one newspaper has called to ask for their story. It’s ludicrous. So we need to get their voices out.”

Cunningham said he plays the role of adviser for Make Room but stressed it’s the Brown students who are running the show.

Heather Robinson is Make Room’s director of communications, Akilesh Raman is the development director and Manuel Camarillo heads up media and web development.

Douglass stressed, though, that they are not interested in a “top-down” approach to campaigning and supporting candidates. He said progressivism is a movement, and not a moment or organization.

“Some are so focused on the top office that they don’t realize that’s not where you make bold new changes,” Douglas said. “You have to start at the state level and in Congress.”

He said one of Make Room’s biggest challenges is breaking a “group-think” mentality that often leads to “establishment” choices instead of taking chances on progressives in new ideas. Douglas said hopes to start melting away that kind of thinking in hopes to open doors — along with critical finances and endorsements for progressive candidates.

“They have a righteous impatience,” Cunningham said. “They want results now and we need to make changes to make those things happen quicker than normal. They are young, but they are ready to make a difference. We shouldn’t tell them they have to stand in line and wait.”

In a short period of time, Make Room is already taking lessons learned from Cunningham’s campaign to “make room” for those changes to happen on their own terms.

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