By Emily Brandt
Editor’s Note: Emily Brandt has campaigned for Kimberly Williams in 2019-2020 during her run for Congressional District 16.
This interview was conducted to gain an understanding of how Courage Campaign vets the candidates whom they endorse but grew into a longer discussion about the name change of which the interviewer had no knowledge when she first approached the organization to profile it. Below is the transcript with hyperlinks in red for informational purposes. In January 2020, 15 years after its founding, Courage Campaign became Courage California, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, non-tax-deductible organization. One-point-four million members belong to Courage California according to their website.
The subsidiary organizations affiliated with it, include Courage Campaign Institute, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit, tax-deductible organization described as the educational arm and Courage California Super PAC (Political Party/527), a federal political action committee, for which Eddie Kurtz is treasurer. Courage California Issues Committee is designated as a ballot committee that is active on statewide and local ballot campaigns and is registered with the California Fair Political Practices Commission. It is located in Los Angeles. Eddie Kurtz has been the executive director for six years and previously spent eight years on staff.
[Author’s Note: This interview was recorded with permission and edited for readability.]
FFP: I really wanted to find out a little bit about the transition from Courage Campaign to Courage California.
Kurtz: I can start with the name change.
FFP: After that, explain if there’s a change in mission.
Kurtz: We went through a strategic planning process that about a year ago with a Board–you can find a Board on our website–about a year ago. Really, the organization, Courage Campaign, we’ve been around since 2005 and have operated for a long time like that. I’ve been a staff member for 8 years and Executive Director for about 6 years. One of the many things that came out was that we just fundamentally thought that adding California to the name would just be much clearer for the public as far as what we did and what we focus on.
The focus of the organization has not changed at all, we’ve just had a lot of discussions over the years about Courage “Campaign” and the pluses and minuses of that word “Campaign” vs. California so we made the shift earlier this month. There was a lot of work also done during the strategic planning process to really look hard at the programs we were running; think very meaningfully about what was successfully moving the needle and making the progress in California and where we could make maybe even more progress. You know, we’re just a tiny little organization with a very small budget and where we could make the most difference. So Courage California really better reflects our mission and values. We did update our Mission and Vision.
I wouldn’t say it’s as much a departure as a clarification, or an update with the changing understanding of our times that comes basically with the progressive movement. Our Mission officially is that we unite with new energies of organizing for progressive change, fight the forces of corruption and hold our representatives to account in order to ensure that California’s elected officials act with courage. The Vision of the organization is that we envision California as a model of progressive, equitable and truly representative democracy that sets the standards for our country.
FFP: Wow! That is a big, big vision.
Kurtz: A lot of good conversations have worked at this thing and all that!
FFP: Well, it’s certainly something that’s very much needed; as I know from people who work in government right now, corruption is pretty rampant at all levels. So let me ask you then. You are focused on working with progressives. As we both know, progressive as a word has come to mean a wide variety of things. I wondered if you could give me what your definition is. You identified as Courage Campaign, I think on the previous website, I think, 300 progressive organizations in California or perhaps around the country which you define as being progressive. Can you give me an idea of what you mean by progressive?
Kurtz: Sure thing! And that was the 300 which refer specifically to the California Progressive Convenings that we run where we just try to bring progressives from all over the state into the same room periodically to trade notes, trade analyses of what’s going on in the state and try to get everyone, sort of, growing in the same direction. We haven’t had the budget though to do one in the last few months, but we have one in our programming that is just a labor of love. It’s very challenging with the mixture of groups and we are going to start having a very big tent going to we’re working on a lot of “silent” groups that work on criminal justice reform, or immigration, or healthcare or environmental issues and everything in between.
A lot of labor unions in the state and vocal community groups and we’re just always constantly trying to include as many folks as possible. There is a mixed focus for progressive analysis, I would say, and we don’t try to throw people out. We just try to let people caucus in those meetings. As far as defining progressivism for us as an organization, I think we would define that as candidates or a piece of legislation that promotes social and systemic reform that’s meant to improve living conditions. So pretty broad and I definitely have had similar challenges as you can imagine with candidates who often try to call themselves progressive when it feels like that definition–you know, (laughs) there’s a lot of co-opting of that word! So I’m trying to identify what you’re talking about.
FFP: So you don’t have a strict definition like some organizations such as to say that candidates or organizations that take funding from corporations or from individuals who are parts of corporations–that wouldn’t disqualify you from participating in your Convening and in the endorsements.
Kurtz: Yeah, and just to be very clear. The Convenings have no decision-making authority over the organization and we’re just talking about a public service we provide, but I think for all organizations–we have Voter Guide that we’re publishing today that one of the specific pieces that the methodology mentions: the small donor-funded model, fossil-fuel pledge, all of those things are incredibly valuable and definitely values that we support. We definitely view corporations, especially large, wealthy, well-funded corporations that are a huge part of the problem.
FFP: Okay, so then do you actually have a process for vetting candidates those candidates that you endorse? Do you have interviews, applications, anything? How do you go about that?
Kurtz: Yeah, we have a survey that we ask folks to fill out. We take a hard look at their policy positions. We do a lot of conversations with allies. We also look at where the funding comes from. We just try very hard to be comprehensive in our analyses and definitely look hard at partner endorsements and positions of allies who are often doing their analyses. So we really try to aggregate that knowledge before we make any decision.
FFP: So there’s no formula for this.
Kurtz: There’s a number of factors. You saw the factors I just mentioned. No, it’s politics; so it’s always judgment calls. Things that are very . . . Making change is hard. These are not all the factors I mentioned. These are all discussed at the staff and board levels throughout. Staff make a recommendation and you know ultimately, the decision’s on me, but we try to do it with real transparency and openness.
FFP: Courage Score has been so valuable at looking carefully into legislative records. I just wondered what kind of role that plays with your decision-making process.
FFP: Oh, good.
Kurtz: . . . because that can explain this to you in a way far better than I can verbally. That took hundreds of hours of staff time and that’s probably the best resource that we can review. I think that’s frankly one of the reasons it was hard to do this interview because before that was all ready to go, before going into it. Just dotting i’s and crossing t’s. That Methodology specifically talks about what Courage Score is, how we put it together, and I mean it’s our analysis and we look very closely at it and the one thing that I find that’s often misunderstood about the Courage Score Methodology is that  we grade every one of the 120 state legislators on the same votes, the same bills and so the 0 to 100 number is standardized whether it’s a Republican or Democrat, or someone in the Central Valley or someone in San Francisco all that is standardized.
[2)] The other piece of it though for those in the Hall of Shame we do another level of analysis looking at their district and ballot measures to approximate the progressiveness of a given district and for those in the Hall of Shame. We focus on legislators who we can empirically show are out-of-step with their constituency; they’re not standing for their constituents’ values. There are definitely, you know, I think of Adam Gray and the folks in the Central Valley that are terrible.
That we disagree with them on basically everything that they do. They have terrible Courage Scores. However, we strategically focused on those people with D’s and F’s who are in the bluer districts because, you know, if we could get them to vote the right way we could ask for anything we wanted in Sacramento. So just a strategic choice that is not meant to give an love to the Adam Gray’s of the world, but it is obviously a part of the analysis that often I find needs a little explanation. That Hall of Shame is reserved for those in districts we can objectively show much more progressive than the representative.
FFP: Okay, but unfortunately, you have 3 types of candidates that I can think of: . You have those who have no legislative record because they’re running for the first time. So you couldn’t vet them on those qualities. Do you do anything special for them? . And then you have those who have been in local governments, but who do not get scored or rated, or there’s no comment about their legislative record in local government. . Those who are in the California State Senate or Assembly with legislative records there. So how do you balance those three types of candidates?
Kurtz: I want to direct you to the Methodology page for that. Yeah, there’s just many, many candidates for many offices in California that have never served in the state legislature in the last 5 years, so they wouldn’t have a Courage Score. So yeah, there’s all kinds of factors. I named some of those earlier, but we should just give you that Methodology page because that really does it better than I could.
[Author’s note: The Methodology page does not disclose the list of the 300 Progressive groups or the survey given to the undisclosed list of 100 participants in the convenings. The Progressive District Ranking was also not made available to Fresno Free Press after several requests. This is the explanation for exactly how the candidates for offices other than the California State Senate and State Assembly. It suggests that there is no clear vetting process beyond the recommendations of individuals and groups collected in what appears to be an undisclosed survey and seemingly informal discussions.*]
FFP: But you never interview candidates. Is that correct?
Kurtz: Ah, we have here and there. In the Voter Guide that we’re doing, we’re literally making recommendations on all 52 Congressional districts and all 80 Assembly members and all the Senators who are up for re-election. So with our tiny little staff, doing that many interviews, is the issue, but we’ve certainly spoken with all the candidates that we’ve endorsed before announcing that. There’s a difference, I should say, between us endorsing candidates and us recommending candidates. In our Voter Guide, we recommend candidates, but the four candidates we announced a month or so ago are the only 4 that we have “endorsed.” That’s Esmeralda Soria, Holly Mitchell, Marisol Rubio and Tracie Stafford.
FFP: When you did that, though, did you interview all the competitors to each of those candidates who were Democrats?
Kurtz: No. No, we didn’t have the staff for that. We used other methodologies which you can find on the Methodology page to try to analyze which candidates we thought were most appropriate. It really wasn’t close in any of those races.
FFP: Oh, really? Okay.
Kurtz: If it were very close, we would definitely talk to the other candidates.
FFP: So we can be assured that you looked at the legislative record of all of those candidates very carefully if they had one even in local government.
Kurtz: For sure, and our [indistinguishable] partners as well. We just try to look at everything we can and we’re not perfect either, you know. Our endorsements inform our membership, our progressive partners, and community groups throughout the state. We know we’ve been getting a lot of feedback on the Voter Guide after we put it out. We hoped to get it out, frankly, a couple of weeks ago know lots of folks will bring additional [insight] and will share it with us. And we can take all of that into consideration as we try to create this tool to really help progressive values in California.
FFP: Oh, so you are going through some revisions based on what you find after you release it. Is that the case?
Kurtz: Sure! We are constantly making sure that we’re in the right spot. Constantly, thinking hard about all of our choices, yeah, yeah. That’s true.
FFP: For the recommendations, but not for the endorsements. The endorsements stay as they are?
Kurtz: If we feel we’ve made a mistake, we would change it. I feel deeply confident about all 4 of those endorsements.
FFP: Okay, I don’t think it’s possible to see the old website to compare the old to the new. So is there anything you want to add to the contrast between the old and the new? How is the new version of your organization much better than the old. Like in one sentence. What is better about the new organization than the old? Is it just the name or is it something else?
Kurtz: Well, the programmatic focus. Our focus is much clearer and I believe our programs will be more impactful. This Voter Guide program, which is a massive expansion over what we did previously. Previously, we only focused on statewide ballot measures. The Voter Guide, just to explain that a little bit: we’re aggregating endorsements from Progressive groups so we are trying to feature the endorsements of allies and we’re trying to cover, basically, everything that’s on your ballot. By November, we’ll have basically everything that’s on your ballot. Right now, in certain parts of the state we’re able to go even to the County level and–I don’t know if it’s on there yet–but we hope to get Andew Janz, running for mayor, on there. It’s still a work in progress.
FFP: Well, there are 5 candidates . . . [Editor’s Note: There are a total of 7 candidates running for Fresno mayor.]
Kurtz: Yeah, well in L.A. we’ve included judges.
FFP: Excellent! Because we have some judges in Fresno County about whom most people know nothing. So that’s valuable. One thing we’ve found is that very often, organizations do not even talk to all of the candidates or even make an effort to try to talk to all of the candidates. In the mayor’s case, this is because we have African American men, one who is highly qualified, who’s been ignored in what appear to be pretty racist efforts to exclude him. So, I would encourage you to keep that in mind. That if we’re going to have a diverse leadership class, we need to give diversity a chance, so to speak, by reaching out to everybody. That’s a big issue.
Kurtz: Yeah, definitely. No, that’s a strong value of ours so when you look at the Methodology page you’ll find it’s very hard. You not only have to support them that share your values, you also have to win the election. So that is always a really tough call.
FFP: Well, but winning an election is often determined by how much attention people get. Courage California certainly has the advantage of being able to do that, to spotlight people which can give them more visibility.
Kurtz: To a degree, yeah. We can move the needle. But yeah, thank you for that. I appreciate the compliment.
FFP: Well, it’s true. I have always checked the Courage Score and I’ve been a member of Courage Campaign for quite a while and gotten emails. That’s why I was particularly interested in the change in name and I saw the website disappearing and reappearing. So as a journalist, I was really interested in that.
Kurtz: I assumed you wanted to chat about the DC-16 race as well because I read your write-ups on Kimberly Williams and Esmeralda Soria. Did you not want to talk about that?
FFP: If you’re interested. I’m trying to write a piece that details what you’re doing. That’s why I wanted partly to understand that process of how you vet candidates. Because you do know that Esmeralda does not have a good environmental record here at all in her voting. It’s very poor.
Kurtz: I mean, we’ve heard a variety of things from people with different perspectives. You should see what kind of recommendations we have for her on the Voter Guide. We try to lift up the critique, as well as, make it clear that we recommend supporting her. We also lift up Kimberly Williams and we just talk about that… we just…what a fantastic person we just can’t wait to support if she were to run for another office.
FFP: Oh, well that’s interesting. Most people locally tend to feel that Esmeralda is out of her depth. She’s not familiar with the Green New Deal, even though she would like to identify with The Squad, AOC and others. In my interviews, I was really quite shocked about how little she knows. She is also extremely close to developers and I’m not interested in her personal relationship. [Editor’s Note: In early 2018, close to the end of her first four-year councilmember term, Soria and developer Terance Frazier went public with their relationship. Some have been concerned their relationship had been going on before she began recusing herself from voting on council matters related to Frazier’s developments.] She hasn’t recused herself from votes where there is a personal interest on the part of her fiancé [Frazier]. She has also taken money from developers by individual names, though not by corporate name. She has taken a lot of money in her Councilmember elections from Darius Assemi and from Terance Frazier, but it’s personal names. She has taken money from the California Independent Petroleum Association. I was a little surprised that she didn’t get a little more scrutiny because she’s not really viewed here at all as a progressive, not at all. She’s very much considered to be a centrist.
Kurtz: Well, we’re aware of the critiques. I would say that in any of these races, we try to talk to allies. We discussed the race extensively with our allies. I would say that in any tough race is that we try to talk to allies so that you know like the California Action Fund, the Dolores Huerta Foundation, Valley Forward, the Central Valley Progressive PAC is on her side. It’s feared that Kimberly just doesn’t have a chance of winning. We did a poll that showed that very clearly. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have a chance.
FFP: Oh, really. That’s very interesting because she has a much bigger campaign going that’s been going through the summer that’s already hit over 10,000 households and I wouldn’t write her off so quickly. I really wouldn’t and I really think it’s a shame that her experience and her better progressive values, I think it’s really a shame to push Esmeralda forward so prominently. When she hasn’t earned it! She really hasn’t earned it. And I doubt that she ever will.
Kurtz: That’s just not an analysis shared by other folks in the district that I’m talking to right now.
FFP: I disagree. It depends who you talk to.
Kurtz: We’ll pretty much have to respectfully disagree.
FFP: Okay. Well thank you very much for your time. I appreciate it.