Progress Now Founder on Strategies to Combat the Trump Administration

A Denverite is planning for the next generation of agitators.
A Denverite is planning for the next generation of agitators. Kate McKee Simmons
Michael Huttner got his start as a troublemaker as a Westword intern, when he wrote a story showing how easy it was to acquire and use a fake ID. After Westword, he went on to Brown, where he got into an advanced journalism class on the basis of his ID piece, then law school. But he never lost his love for troublemaking.

He founded Progress Now in Denver; the organization is now in 23 states. Last year Huttner became CEO of Fenton, the New York-based social-change agency founded by David Fenton in 1982, with offices in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco; last November he helped launch a sister company to Fenton called Power Plant Strategies, which focuses entirely on the cannabis industry.
click to enlarge Michael Huttner, still making trouble. - COURTESY FENTON GROUP
Michael Huttner, still making trouble.
courtesy Fenton Group

Huttner was back in Colorado at the end of January to attend the Women's March on Denver with his wife and two kids, ages nine and ten and "future agitators," he says. And then it was back to New York City, where I caught up with him on what he and Fenton have planned for the new administration.

Taking a page from his earlier efforts, Huttner is putting together a blueprint to defeat the Trump administration from "pushing reckless legislation, harmful policies," he says. "We're in for the fight of our lives."

Progress Now campaigned hard for Barack Obama, and after he took office, Huttner and media critic Jason Salzman wrote the book 50 Ways You Can Help Obama Change America, a bestseller in Colorado and California (and still a target on Peter Boyles's talk show). "I went around and spoke about what you can do, because President Obama won't be able to make the kind of change we all want without help of the citizenry," Huttner recalls. "That was eight years ago, and now we have Trump."

To prepare for the fight, "I put together a ten-part campaign plan to defend progress and people most threatened by this administration," Huttner explains. And that campaign's targets are, in order:

1. Donald Trump
2. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, Chief of Staff
3. Right-Wing Extremists: Stephen Bannon, Senior Advisor
4 Anti-Climate Movement: Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State
5. Anti-Health-Care Reform: Tom Price, nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services
6. Anti-Minimum Wage: fast food titan Andrew Pudzer, nominee for Secretary of Labor
7. Anti-Immigrant/Racist: Jeff Sessions, nominee for Attorney General
8. Anti-Public Schools: Betsy DeVos, nominee for Secretary of Education
9. Anti-Environment: Scott Pruitt, head of EPA
10. Anti-the department he couldn’t remember: Rick Perry, nominee for Secretary of Energy

How is he going to push that campaign? "We need to get outside of D.C. and set up a fifty-state communications network," Huttner says. "We need to develop a common message." For starters, Fenton will work with the Progress Now Network that Huttner founded, and will also draw from other key partners and communication experts to "help develop, coordinate and deliver messages to hold Trump accountable."

The move outside of D.C. is key, Huttner says. "Ultimately, all politics is local," he explains, pointing to the recent pressure put on U.S. Representative Mike Coffman. "Will he stand up to Trump, like he said he was going to?"

Political strategists often look to Colorado, a progressive flagship. Back in 2000, Huttner remembers, "Progressives got their asses kicked, and right-wing Republicans controlled practically everything." Sixteen years later, Colorado has a Democratic governor, Senator Michael Bennet was re-elected, and Crisanta Duran is the first Latina speaker of the house. "This is why Colorado went to Hillary, even though Trump was elected," he says. "It goes to the efforts of a lot of people over the past fifteen years to turn the state from red to blue."

Ian Silverii is currently the head of Progress Now Colorado. "I've learned a lot from Michael over the years," he says. "He acted as a mentor as I transitioned to this job.... His emphasis to me, and what I learned from observing him, was always to be as creative as possible, to be willing to fail, to be willing to make a mess — and always have integrity."

To help pull groups like Progress Now and others together for the new campaign, Huttner and Fenton have launched the Protect Progress Network, which will be offering ongoing invitations and opportunities to hold Trump accountable.

According to Huttner, one of the problems during the election was all the different narratives that labeled Trump as erratic, racist, misogynistic. "There was truth to all of these, but there were too many different anti-Trump narratives." Now he's looking for a single message. "Ultimately, you pick a short, pithy, memorable brand — like in the advertising world — that reflects on their lack of character, or a weakness," he says. And what will he focus on with Trump?

"Trump got very agitated when questioned about the size of his hands, his masculinity. He goes over the top to point out that he's so powerful and strong," Huttner notes. "As time goes on, when he does run into problems, there will be weaknesses we can play up."

Another tactic is to develop legal-centric media, one of Huttner's specialties as an attorney. "Now that we don't have any oversight through Congress — run by the same party — who's going to be the check on this president?" he asks. "The only alternative is the courts and those elected officials — attorneys general and district attorneys — who are not aligned with Donald Trump."

And so they're going to request legal investigations, like the one New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman did on Trump University. And last week, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, the D.C. sibling of Colorado Ethics Watch, filed a lawsuit charging that Trump's overseas business involvements with foreign governments violates the U.S. Constitution.

That's just the beginning, Huttner promises, and quotes Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun