The Sunrise Movement is an early winner in the Biden transition. Now comes the hard part.
Posted January 2, 2021 8:31 a.m. EST
CNN — The Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate activist group, has quickly announced itself as one of the most influential progressive forces in the formative days of President-elect Joe Biden's incoming administration.
As Biden builds out his White House senior staff and Cabinet, the climate movement has notched a series of high-profile victories, one of the few divisions of the Democratic left to successfully embed a number of its top allies -- and ideas -- into the new government's upper echelons. But the promise of today, before Biden has even taken office, will soon be met by the grinding realities of governing in divided Washington.
But Sunrise's young leaders say that, after two years of pitched battles across the country, they are prepared for the fights to come.
Biden has already nominated movement favorite Deb Haaland, a Democratic congresswoman from New Mexico, to lead the Interior Department and created a high-level White House climate shop, with former Environmental Protection Agency head Gina McCarthy and former Secretary of State John Kerry in top roles. Together, with willing partners in Biden's inner circle, Sunrise and allied organizations have helped craft the structures -- at least on paper -- that could position the administration to pursue audacious goals to meaningfully combat climate change in the coming years.
Founded in 2017, the group first scored national attention when its members arrived as uninvited guests for a sit-in at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office on Capitol Hill, shortly before she formally reclaimed the speakership, after the 2018 midterm. Since then, it has emerged as an activist powerhouse with growing electoral might. While they are closely allied with groups like Justice Democrats in backing progressive primary challengers, the group's most significant campaign victory came months before Biden defeated Trump in November.
Earlier this year, the organization launched an all-out defense of Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, a co-author with New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Green New Deal resolution, against a Democratic primary challenge from Rep. Joe Kennedy III this summer. Its successful marshalling of progressive energy behind Markey, in what most viewed as an uphill fight to win renomination, underscored the potency of the group's political operation -- and projected a sense among the Washington elite of the outsiders having a growing handle on the inside game.
"Most people just see us as the agitators who are never happy, who are never really going to back anyone, who are just constantly throwing stones but not willing to go to bat for any political leader, besides maybe AOC," executive director Varshini Prakash told CNN. The Markey campaign "was an opportunity to show that we are willing to back you if you back us, and that we are willing to throw down if you are willing to take the risks to your friendships, your image or whatever it is that you're worried about."
From Bernie to Biden
Getting on board with Biden, though, was a more complicated proposition -- and sell to volunteers and supporters who overwhelmingly supported Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders during the primary. Sunrise political director Evan Weber said the Biden team made the first contact, a courtesy call in June 2019, after the campaign put out the first iteration of its climate plan. But the group was all-in for Sanders and there were no further conversations, he said, until after Super Tuesday in March.
At that point, the primary was effectively decided. Biden was on track to be the nominee and his team launched a more aggressive courtship. Biden aide Cristobal Alex, who had made the initial call last year, reached out again -- this time to schedule a conversation with Weber and Prakash. Symone Sanders, a senior campaign adviser, and Biden policy director Stef Feldman also wanted to chat.
"They were being very intentional, seeing the writing on the wall -- one, that they were likely going to win the primary and, two, they had a big problem with young people, young progressives, and the Bernie wing of the party," Weber said.
When Sanders dropped out in April, Sunrise and other allied groups addressed an open letter that began by congratulating Biden, but mostly outlined what they viewed as his shortcomings and where he should consider shifting his positions.
"I think they were probably a little bit upset about the public letter," Weber said, "but they did reach out and listen to us and really engaged us."
Still, the extent -- and limits -- of the moderate-progressive coalition that would eventually help elect Biden was not clear until after the "unity task forces" commissioned by Biden and Sanders wrapped up and published their reports and recommendations. Of the six working groups, none yielded as much movement from the Biden side as the group gathered to address climate policy.
Prakash, a Sanders pick for the climate group, emerged from the weeks of virtual meetings with cautious optimism. That Biden chose heavy-hitters -- two of them, Kerry and McCarthy, are now headed to the White House -- to represent his side had been a good sign.
But as Prakash said then, what followed the general election was an open question -- one that the past few weeks have only begun to answer.
"I don't think that we have seen the dreaded 180 from the Biden team, where it's that they won and then they're immediately ghosting us and not talking to us and not involving us in this process," Prakash said. "They have involved us in several of the processes, taken our recommendations really seriously."
The selection of Haaland, who endorsed Warren in the primary, to run the Interior Department was the culmination of a campaign led by an array of progressive, Indigenous and climate groups, who helped make her case not only with Biden officials but House Democratic leadership, which ultimately blessed a pick that will, for a time, further shrink their majority.
The decisions to tap former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm to lead the Energy Department and Michael Regan, now the secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, to head the Environmental Protection Agency have also been met with enthusiasm. But by installing Kerry, McCarthy and Ali Zaidi as his top domestic national climate advisers, Biden has assembled a team with institutional chops and movement trust to lead his climate efforts.
In a statement formally introducing Biden's "Climate team," his transition described the group as "bold thinkers (who) know how to pull every lever of government to take on the urgent, existential threat of climate change."
Sunrise and other groups welcomed the picks, who will arrive without the private sector baggage some of Biden's other selections are carrying.
"Biden has built his team by assembling trusted hands. On the climate-oriented positions is actually where we've seen the most divergence from that, I would argue -- it's the most progressive team overall in the administration," Weber said. "You've got a really visionary, bold team, who's really serious and ambitious about the task at hand and are really all advocates and public servants."
Prakash and her team are new to the intricacies of government-building. "It feels like a ton of hearsay, just a giant rumor mill," she said, describing the closely guarded nature of the deliberations. "How decisions happen and what exactly is responsible for making them happen is more opaque than I even expected."
Both she and Weber are in consistent contact with Biden transition officials. They have met with the EPA agency review team, among others. That on its own speaks to the unique standing the climate movement -- apart from other interests of the progressive firmament -- has established with the Biden team, including members it has harshly criticized.
In November, Prakash responded to the appointment of Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond, who accepted fossil fuel donations as a candidate, as a senior adviser and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement by calling it a "betrayal." But when Richmond convened a virtual meeting with "progressive movement leaders and gun violence prevention advocates" last week, Sunrise was invited and took part.
The headlines that sprung from the group's pushback to Richmond's selection took Prakash by surprise, she said. And looking back, the 27-year-old added, "maybe I wouldn't have approved using exactly that word." But the message came across. And it penetrated. A few days later, Richmond as a guest on "The Breakfast Club" was asked by co-host Charlamagne tha God about his "ties to the oil and gas industry." He answered in part by noting his role in drafting Virginia Rep. Donald McEachin, co-founder of the House United for Climate and Environmental Justice Task Force, into Biden-Sanders climate task force, then shrugged off the suggestion that his acceptance of fossil fuel industry money influenced his legislative work.
The Richmond dust-up wasn't the first time Sunrise and the Biden team were at loggerheads. During the first general election debate, Biden, under a barrage from Trump, repeatedly disavowed any suggestion that he supported the Green New Deal. In public, Weber and Prakash kept their focus on Trump.
But after the debate, Weber called a Biden campaign aide.
"We said, 'Hey, we know you guys have your own plan, but it's really not helpful for you to be sh*tting on the Green New Deal," Weber recalled. He prodded the campaign to stick to the language it embraced in more comfortable settings and its own website, which described the project gauzily as a "useful framework" for boosting the economy, fighting for environmental justice and addressing the climate crisis -- all of it baked into Biden's own "Build Back Better" agenda.
But that crossroads moment was about more than climate policy. Young voters were the foundation of the Sunrise-Biden relationship during the campaign. Biden wanted their support. Sunrise understood what it took to unlock it. The desire of Democrats to keep them energized now is what could, potentially, sustain the coalition going forward.
"What we wanted to make clear to them," Weber said of the post-debate conversation, "was our perspective that ... just as there's a fierce right wing constituency and it's animated against the Green New Deal, there's an even bigger constituency of young people for whom the Green New Deal is something that they are dedicating their lives to realizing and making possible."
By shoving it aside on such a big stage, Weber believed, Biden had, in effect, telegraphed to young voters that he did not take the issue -- one they prized above all others -- seriously.
Biden's rhetoric mostly stayed the same. He spent parts of the final few weeks of the campaign insisting that he had never supported, or even hinted, that he wanted to ban fracking. But on the ground, the campaign targeted young voters with information about its climate plan.
One foot in, one foot out
Sunrise leaders, along with other progressives who have established relationships with Biden's inner circle, have praised his close aides for keeping a thick skin. The Richmond episode didn't shut the door on communications. Other criticism of his picks has been largely brushed off -- a departure from the Obama administration, which had the reputation of taking less kindly to sharp, public pushback.
Prakash never lobbied the Obama team -- she was in her teens during the last Democratic transition -- but said she has heard from older allies that "the attitude of (Biden chief of staff) Ron Klain vs. (Obama chief of staff) Rahm Emanuel is night and day."
When Prakash praised Kerry's selection as international climate envoy in a tweet, but added that she was keeping her "eyes peeled for a domestic equivalent," Klain responded, retweeting her and adding: "Stay tuned!!" A few weeks later, Biden rolled out McCarthy and Zaidi.
Still, there are conflicts up ahead.
Sunrise is trying to pull off a balancing act, of keeping one foot inside the halls of power and another with its activist ranks on the streets, that grassroots organizations often tout but rarely accomplish.
"It's an uncomfortable position. It's really weird and personally difficult," Prakash said. "But it is absolutely possible and, I think, absolutely necessary to have both of them."
The first clash could come in the opening days and weeks of the Biden presidency, when the administration and Democrats in Congress craft and begin negotiations with Republicans on what he has promised will be a transformative stimulus bill. This summer, Prakash told CNN she believed that "if the first leg of this is a massive infrastructure and jobs plan to reboot the economy and climate isn't a central pillar of that, we're totally screwed."
Asked last week if she still believed this coming legislation could be the climate movement's first and last best shot to secure the level of green investment activists believe is necessary to alter the trajectory of the crisis.
The answer, Prakash said, was complicated.
The uncertainty surrounding control of the Senate, where Democrats need to sweep a pair of runoff elections next week to win a majority, had created additional "murkiness" around Sunrise's plan of action. The details of the stimulus bill will be important, she said, "but we can't bank on Congress to legislate and have that be the be-all-end-all for climate policy in 2021 or in the Biden administration."
Biden's willingness to exert his authority and the administration's commitment to pushing all the levers of power could end up being decisive.
"There is a ton that Biden can do. And as we've seen, movements are behind him in utilizing the full power of the executive branch," Prakash said. "It is a by any means necessary kind of approach."