Recently New Kentucky sat with Arnold Farr, a socialist who ran for Fayette County School Board in 2020, and Kristin Pack, a leader in Lexington DSA’s electoral work. Arnold lost the race this time around but his organization remains intact and he is going to fight another day. We tried to find out from these grassroots leaders of our movement what socialists can learn from Arnold’s run for office.
New Kentucky: How did you all decide to get involved in running a socialist for the Fayette County School Board? Arnold, why did you decide to run for office? Kristin, why did you decide to help him and work to get the Lexington Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (“Lex DSA”) involved?
Arnold Farr: I decided to run for Fayette County School Board in March of 2020. There are several reasons for my decision to run. First, as a university professor I noticed the degree to which many of my students were not properly prepared for college. This lack of preparedness could often be connected to the school system that educated the student prior to his or her entrance into college. I was also troubled by the degree of inequity in our public school system. It was clear to me that the pathologies that permeate our society also impact our public schools. As one who is committed to justice, fairness and equity, I thought that my work, ideas, and commitment might make a difference in our public schools. I also campaigned for a friend who ran for school board last year. While working with her I was made aware of some of the internal problems with the school board which I wanted to help with.
Kristin Pack: Arnold decided to run for School Board and Lex DSA made the decision to hop on board when we heard about it, rather than Lex DSA “running a socialist candidate.” He was really a no brainer for us to endorse, as he is a DSA member, a socialist who is very much aligned with our values (I hate that word) and vision, and is a fixture (or even an icon) in Lexington’s leftist community.
Our first step was some information-gathering on him. The general membership has to vote on anyone we decide to endorse, and it’s important that the leaders of the Electoral Branch bring our members compelling information that we hope leaves each member feeling that this is a candidate they can fully support. Arnold’s race had another really important layer. Fayette County Public Schools is a district where over 50% of the student population is racially and ethnically diverse. Further, over 49% of students live at or below the poverty line. Tragically, the board no longer has any person of color serving its students, families, faculty, and staff. Arnold was the only person of color running. This was a motivating factor for Arnold when he decided to run. It was also an issue that motivated our committee, the general membership, and, I believe, DSA’s National Electoral Committee when they endorsed Arnold.
The most basic purpose of electoral politics is to elect candidates who will make people's lives better.
NK: Arnold previously ran for LFUCG Council in 2018. What lessons did you all take away from his earlier campaign?
AF: It would take an entire essay to discuss what I learned from my first campaign. Having never run before, I had no idea what to expect. I did learn that I need to start early and get my message out as early as possible. I also learned a lot about the importance of having a well-organized and committed team. I tend to be a very independent person and I don’t like to ask others for things. However, running for office makes one totally dependent on others. I’ve gotten much better at fundraising and asking for help in general. I’ve discovered that people are more willing to help than I thought.
KP: Arnold’s observations are similar to mine. Arnold struggled with fundraising in 2018. Unfortunately, under our current system, successful campaigns require money. Usually a lot of it. It’s an unfortunate fact, and uncomfortable to talk about.
The good news is that after being poorly funded in 2018, Arnold better understood the necessity of fundraising in 2020. He became more comfortable asking and found that people were happy to give. This made things easier.
His 2018 campaign also struggled because of a very small field team. In 2020, Arnold really assembled a team. He wasn’t as afraid to ask for help from a variety of people with a variety of skills. A successful campaign really cannot be run by only one or two people. This was a huge area of growth—one that can be built on for future races.
Also, from my observations, in 2020 Arnold was more adept at crafting his message and using a format and language that would be easily accessible and digestible to voters. This was a huge plus. His campaign literature was far and away superior to what he used in his council race. I feel that was a result of lessons learned.
NK: Kristin has been a leader in DSA for some time, and before that Our Revolution. Arnold is a member of DSA and a leader in the Poor People’s Campaign. What is the relationship between the organizations you are a part of and the campaign?
AF: I’ve committed my entire life fighting for justice for “the least of these.” DSA and the Poor People’s Campaign are devoted to exposing and dismantling a system that produces enormous wealth for the few and poverty for many. They are both organizations that critique and organize against the system of unbridled capitalism. As such, they both share my own concern for the poor. They relate to my campaigns insofar as both of my campaigns were driven by a desire to represent the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. My goal was to make sure that all marginalized voices were represented in local government when decisions would be made that would impact their lives.
KP: Wow! This was a real learning experience. Since DSA is a 501(c)(4), there are limits on the ways we can participate in campaigns. There has to be no “coordination” between DSA and the campaigns we support. This is an election-law concept that we were all learning together. Let’s just say I sent a lot of emails with questions about what constitutes “coordination” to the compliance people with DSA’s National Electoral Committee.
If we had run our own field campaign, it would have had to be completely independent from Arnold’s operation. We would have to create our own materials and use our own database.
We found that it was legal, and best for us, to funnel our members to events that were being held by the campaign. So, our Lex DSA members showed up at weekly lit drops and hit 4300 doors. The campaign total was about 5500.
There was also a one-day text bank. Over 4000 of the 5000 total texts sent were sent by Lex DSA members. There was a lot of dedication and energy from our members.
NK: What lessons have you drawn from Arnold’s most recent campaign for School Board? What can DSA learn from your experience?
AF: My most recent campaign taught me the importance of effectively using social media. Kristin might be best at explaining what DSA can learn from our experience. I will say that almost all of my foot soldiers were DSA members. I cannot thank them enough. They made the campaign.
KP: In our Lex DSA Electoral Branch debrief, there was great consensus around the lessons we learned. First, timing is everything. The sooner we can make decisions about endorsements and get involved the better. The more time we have, the more voters we can reach. It’s that simple.
Time probably hurt us more than usual this year because early and mail-in voting had already started by the time we hit the ground running. Many of Arnold’s most likely supporters had probably already voted by the time we were able to drop Arnold’s literature at their door.
We also learned that the Lex DSA Electoral Branch would really love to be able to run our own independent campaign. The idea of crafting our own message around the candidate’s is really exciting. That would take more time and money. But the pay off is that it could result in recruiting members for Lex DSA as well as turning out voters to the election.
In 2022 I will run for City Council-At-Large again. I will define my run more as a movement than as a campaign. I will do this because I want to make sure that my run is people-focused every step of the way. The movement is not about me but about the needs of Lexington’s most vulnerable.
NK: What are your all’s long term goals in running a socialist for a local legislative position? What does it mean for Arnold to be a socialist politician?
AF: My long-term goal as a socialist candidate is to win so that I can be a voice for the voiceless in local politics. In 2022 I will run for City Council-At-Large again. I will define my run more as a movement than as a campaign. I will do this because I want to make sure that my run is people-focused every step of the way. The movement is not about me but about the needs of Lexington’s most vulnerable.
In terms of being a socialist politician, I’m a socialist simply because my moral and political views are consistent with socialism. It is my position on the issues that makes me a socialist.
KP: For me, the sort of most basic purpose of electoral politics is to elect candidates who will make people’s lives better. Whether that means a better, more equitable school system with meaningful opportunities for every student, or in other types of races, access to the healthcare every human has a right to, the opportunity for workers to organize, or an environment that is safe and sustainable for generations to come, this is what motivates me and makes me know it’s worth it. I believe that’s a good, very preliminary start, but the bigger picture is getting socialists into office.
The long term goal is a socialist society. That’s something to look toward and be intentional about as we choose candidates. Through voter engagement, we can begin to normalize the idea of socialism. We can begin to help people understand what it REALLY is, not what the media and politicians are telling them it is. We’re focused on the issues that people struggle with everyday.
NK: So far, Arnold has run in two nonpartisan races. In 2018, Arnold picked up the endorsement of the now defunct Bluegrass Socialist Party but has also been supported by many others who are more comfortable in the Democratic Party. If Arnold ran in a partisan race, would he stand as an independent or a Democrat? Why?
AF: Both of the positions that I ran for were non-partisan.
KP: I feel like this is Arnold’s question to answer and I very much trust his judgment. That said, there are obviously significant problems with the two-party system we have. I have felt though that Arnold has a special gift for being able to appeal to the liberals and leftists. The most beautiful part is that we know he will always be true to what he says and believes.
NK: Overall, where do you stand on the Democratic Party question? Should socialists join the Democratic Party? Do you support calls for an independent workers party?
AF: With regards to a socialist joining the Democratic Party, I have no answer. That should be left to the individual. However, the socialist should know that the Democratic Party in its present state runs counter to the goals of socialism. It is a capitalist party. The only hope is that there are some leaders in the party who are trying to push the party in a more progressive direction. I do support the call for an independent workers party.
KP: I struggle with this, if I’m being honest. The Democrats, while on some very marginal level are better than the current Republican Party, are still a very capitalist party that relies on donations from big-money donors that do not have the best interests of everyday people at heart. Not even close. The Democratic Party props up the capitalist society which contributes to more and more inequality and the alienation of workers across the board.
Here’s where I struggle… there really are only two viable political parties in our current system. Both pretty dismal. I understand that as long as we keep supporting that system, there is little chance of overarching, meaningful change. Still, I continue to have the hope that if we talk to folks about ISSUES (separate from party) we can begin to get socialists in office.
That said, I feel to my core that we DO need more political parties and that socialists must be represented somewhere on the ballot especially as acceptance of socialism, or at least socialist ideas, is growing among young people. Ahem, you are the future of the country!
My concern is that if socialists back out of the electoral process entirely, or spend all of our time trying to organize a politically viable party, we will lose ground. We will potentially not be represented anywhere. Whether we like it or not, elections will keep happening, people will keep getting elected to leadership, and will then be creating policy that affects everyday folks. We absolutely have to have our hand in that game or I fear we will lose, not win. It has to be “all of the above.” Organizing at all different levels is necessary. I like the approach DSA takes nationally in that regard.
NK: What would you say to socialists who argue that we should favor other kinds of organizing work instead of participating in elections? Does the election cycle have the potential to take away from building the tenants union and other kinds of work? How do we resolve the tension of building on multiple fronts?
AF: It is wrong-headed to reduce our struggle to one single approach. I have chosen to work as an activist and get involved in electoral politics. They are not mutually exclusive and they may complement each other very well. Even Angela Davis has argued for a dual approach. We all have to find the place where we can make an impact.
KP: I understand the argument and would not really tell them they are wrong. I think it takes all of it, actually. Building tenants’ unions, unions in general, and people power in other ways is critical work. I think we have to build power on multiple fronts which is hard when we’re facing limited capacity. This gets back to the idea of talking to people about what socialism really is, and the issues they struggle with daily. This really WILL require a people’s movement.
NK: Thank you all for taking the time with us to talk about these important issues. We want to give Arnold the final word, since he has announced he is running for LFUCG Council again in 2022. What are the big issues facing the movement in that race?
AF: There are several big issues. I’ll mention only a few. When I ran before, I tried to get people to see that there is a connection between the problem of poverty, drug use, and crime in the city. We can only solve these problems by seeing how they are connected.
That means if we are going to adequately respond to the increase in crime and the drug problem we have to prioritize the problem of poverty. People are suffering in our city and that needs to change. So, poverty and housing are at the top of my list.
Another issue is racism. The Mayor has put together a committee on racism but there needs to be some way to measure results. We don’t have that yet. This is only the start. Other candidates may not see these issues as urgent issues but I do.