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10 things to know from Netroots Nation 2015

Missed the big progressive conference? Here are 10 things you need to know.

This weekend, progressive activists from across the U.S. gathered in Phoenix, Arizona for Netroots Nation, an annual liberal conference that bills itself as the largest progressive gathering in the nation. Over three days, activists gathered to discuss liberal issues and strategy for the 2016 election. Here are 10 things you need to know from this year’s conference:

  1. Hillary Clinton skipped the conference. Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley were all invited to participate in a presidential town hall. Sanders and O’Malley attended, but Clinton declined due to a “scheduling conflict” -- an excuse that was met with skepticism by some attendees. Clinton spoke at Netroots in 2007, and was booed in part because of her support for the Iraq war while she was a senator. This time, for better or worse, she decided not to go back.
  2. There was more enthusiasm on display for Sanders than Clinton. Throughout the conference, hundreds of activists proudly displayed and sold Bernie T-shirts, buttons, banners, and other merchandise. “Bernie is my homeboy” T-shirts and “Babes for Bernie” buttons were commonplace. Clinton and O’Malley swag? Not so much.
  3. There is a growing divide among liberal activists. O’Malley and Sanders were interrupted and shouted over by Black Lives Matter activists who demanded to hear how the candidates would address issues of racial inequality and police brutality. Sanders, who has focused his campaign largely on economic inequality, tried to respond by talking about how his economic policies could help address racial injustices. But activists were unimpressed. And O’Malley found himself in hot water after saying that “Black lives matter, white lives matter, and all lives matter,” which some activists interpreted as missing their point about the disproportionate number of black people killed while in police custody. Neither candidate handled the disruptions well -- and both came off as out of touch on social justice issues. 
  4. Immigration was front and center, and the choice of Phoenix as the hosting city was a big part of that. Jose Antonio Vargas, an immigration activist and journalist, moderated the presidential town hall. On Saturday, hundreds of Netroots attendees marched in the 100-degree Arizona heat to the 4th Avenue Jail to protest Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s treatment of undocumented immigrants and to call for his resignation. Throughout the weekend, undocumented immigrants and activists spoke on a number of panels about the need for immigration reform, and the strategies that could make it a reality in 2016.
  5. The fight for LGBT rights continues for progressives -- it’s not over with same-sex marriage. While progressives at Netroots celebrated the June 26th Supreme Court decision that made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states, many cautioned that there was still work to be done in achieving equal rights for LGBTQ people. Several panels addressed trans rights, discrimination against LGBT people on the basis of sexual orientation, and more.
  6. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has drawn a progressive line in the sand for this 2016 presidential race. In a rousing keynote on Friday morning, the Netroots darling laid out exactly what it will take for the next potential democratic nominee to win her endorsement, calling for 2016 presidential candidates to support an end to the “revolving door” between politics and banks. The Massachusetts senator also praised Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s new Wall Street legislation, introduced last week, which she said "will throw some heavy sand in the gears of the revolving door,” and is, “a bill any presidential candidate should be able to cheer for." While Sanders has stated he would back the bill, Clinton has yet to say where she stands. Many progressives in attendance hope Clinton will heed Warren’s wake-up call.                                                           
  7. A renewed focus on local politics and the ground game are on the progressive agenda for 2016. Panels at Netroots sent a clear message to activists and organizers that progressives need to win back control at the state level where key legislation that affects people's daily lives gets passed. "Since President Obama took office, Democrats have lost nearly 1,000 state legislative seats," said NPI President Robert Cruickshank, who led a discussion about the collapse of the Democratic Party and the need for progressives to take the lead in forging a 50-state strategy that will erase the "catastrophic losses" the progressive movement endured in 2014.
  8. Progressive faith-based movements are on the rise. There's a new wave of religious folks within the Democratic Party looking to tackle issues of social justice, gun violence and immigration. In the past, progressives have been quick to discount such groups. But there is a growing sense of urgency to embrace these groups as demographic shifts in the American population continue to change. In addition, the growing number of cases of gun violence in our country, including the recent mass shooting that took place at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, has sparked a new sense of moral obligation in addressing many of the tough issues that face the most vulnerable Americans today. 
  9. Progressives candidates are making inequality a key electoral issue in 2016. The immigration reform movement remains central to Netroots, but the key recurring theme of the event was rampant inequality in America. Income inequality, the "Fight For $15" and the gender pay gap were among the ubiquitous topics heard on panels. Progressives in attendance are attuned to the work ahead and in most cases see inequality—particularly income inequality—as the crux of the problem.
  10. There's growing frustration about the lack of diversity, but there's hope for Rep. Donna Edwards. Sanders and O’Malley were welcomed with great enthusiasm at Netroots, but there was also excitement building for Rep. Donna Edwards, who was the opening keynote speaker. Her Thursday night speech generated buzz that she has the potential to be the another Warren-type figure in the progressive caucus. Edwards is a woman of color on the rise in politics, and someone who many believe can push forward the progressive agenda if she is elected to the Senate.