Over two years before the 2020 election, progressives started organizing to make sure we were ready to influence this process, no matter who became the Democratic nominee. This effort was driven in part by Senator Elizabeth Warren’s mantra that “personnel is policy” and the growing recognition that the right personnel will have the authority to lower prescription drug prices, modify or forgive student loans, funnel billions of dollars into green energy, and use other powers vested in the executive branch to get things done for the American people.
We knew we needed to do two things—make a case that progressive appointees were a viable choice and then make it easy for the Biden transition team to choose them.
To handle the first task, the Progressive Change Institute (the organization that I cofounded) researched hundreds of individual positions to identify what kind of skills and expertise were needed, why the positions mattered, and what progressives could do in those agencies and offices if they exercised executive power. We published a 90-page report that was shared widely with the progressive community.
With that research in hand, we turned to our second task. We used open-source software to build a custom database of over 9,000 administration positions that could be synced with our list of recommended personnel. Then we reached out to our allies across the movement and asked them to nominate diverse, competent, credentialed experts with a track record of results. Potentially most game-changing, our database allowed groups to endorse each other’s nominations so that the Biden team would see large pockets of support for specific personnel recommendations.
Over 60 groups ended up collaborating in this database, including racial justice groups like Color of Change and Liberation in a Generation; climate leaders like Sunrise and Friends of the Earth; advocacy groups like Indivisible, MoveOn, and People’s Action; think tanks like Demos and the Center for Economic and Policy Research; corporate watchdogs like Public Citizen and Amazon Watch; and agriculture groups ranging from Family Farm Action to the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. We also benefited collectively from the participation of regional groups, which nominated talented local experts that might have otherwise been missed by a national effort.
From this process, the Progressive Change Institute developed a list of over 700 names (all viewable at TransitionNames.com), which we consider a long-term list of future leadership. We submitted the list to the Biden transition team with bios, the specific recommended positions, and the list of organizations that were endorsing each recommendation, which showed a visible map of the institutional and grassroots support behind each candidate.
One early challenge we faced was the talking point, driven by big business, that Biden needed to hire corporate lobbyists in order to meet his goal of a diverse administration. We had to make the case otherwise. We released our own list publicly—and coverage by The New York Times, the Associated Press, ABC News, Politico, and others helped create a counter-narrative to this argument, showing that it was possible to hire both diverse and qualified personnel grounded in public service.
Across the movement, different voices leaned into different areas. The Revolving Door Project tracked and highlighted problematic potential appointees like Rahm Emanuel, raising the alarm in the media on a daily basis and helping to pave the way for key appointments like Janet Yellen for treasury secretary and Ron Klain for chief of staff (who was progressives’ preferred choice among Biden’s inner circle). Native American activist Julian Noise Bravecat and an alliance of progressive and indigenous grassroots groups led a powerful and ultimately successful campaign in support of Deb Haaland’s appointment as interior secretary. Others served critical roles on agency review teams. Throughout the process, organization and communication were key.
In a sign of the scale and scope of the effort, even members of Congress started publicly lobbying for under-the-radar appointments. Representatives Jamaal Bowman and Ayanna Pressley, for example, recently published an op-ed in support of Mehrsa Baradaran for comptroller of the currency, a relatively obscure-but-critical position in the Treasury Department.
As Biden turned to the sub-cabinet positions, where we invested most of our time and effort, we saw a flood of success. Progressives celebrated the appointments of Rohit Chopra to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Bharat Ramamurti as deputy director at the National Economic Council, Julie Siegel as deputy chief of staff at the Treasury Department, Maggie Thomas as chief of staff at the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, and Sasha Baker as head of strategic planning at the National Security Council. Heather Boushey, Jared Bernstein, Joelle Gamble, Cecilia Rouse, Michael Linden, and many others with progressive track records were named to key economic, labor, and climate positions.
It’s clear that we chose the right year to make this stand. Our movement is more powerful than ever before, and Biden clearly wants a relationship with progressives (not to mention a successful presidency.) Our job was to make it easy for him and his team by putting in the work and handing over super-qualified and diverse progressives on a silver platter. While the process isn’t over, and we’re certainly not ecstatic about every one of Biden’s choices, there’s much to celebrate in many appointments so far.
Personnel is policy. This campaign marks a new moment of sophistication for progressives, a new understanding of executive power—and a new way to win results.