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Democrats Gear Up on the Ground

BY Laura S. Washington

After years in the wilderness, a new Democratic Party is emerging, and not a moment too soon. One reason is candidates like Sheldon Whitehouse.

Democrats are salivating at their November election prospects. No–I take that back–they are feverish with glee. Even conservative observers are suggesting that the Democratic Party has a superb shot at corralling the House and, dare we even consider, the Senate. According to a May 8 report in the Washington Post, Democrats need only 15 seats to win back the House. It’s enough to give even Karl Rove the heebie-jeebies.

After years in the wilderness, a new Democratic Party is emerging, and not a moment too soon. One reason is contenders like Sheldon Whitehouse. (In an election year, that’s got to be a winning moniker.) Whitehouse, a former Rhode Island attorney general and a Clinton-appointed U.S. attorney, recently stopped off in Chicago on a three-city fundraising tour in his race for the U.S. Senate in Rhode Island. He’s up against Lincoln Chafee, the moderate Republican incumbent.

Whitehouse was pumped. He was not only pitching for dollars at a fundraiser at Chicago’s swanky East Bank Club. He was cheerleading for a new Democratic Party.  

We chatted. “There is a lot of optimism in the party that the excesses and misjudgments of the Bush administration are really being recognized by the American people,” he says. “The spin tactics and fear mongering and manipulative Rove-ian efforts. … Maybe it’s ‘fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.’”

Democratic chieftains are getting back to basics. Whitehouse notes that Howard Dean, chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), has delivered a raft of crucial ground-level resources to key races like his. Whitehouse, a veteran of Rhode Island politics for more than two decades, says that before Dean, the Dems were pulling more money out of the state than they were putting in. “Traditionally, the DNC came into town, more or less annually, to do an event for itself. It took the money out of Rhode Island, then disappeared.”

The Whitehouse take on Dean: He wants “to rebuild the grassroots of the Democratic Party, not only as an immediate strategy, but also as a long-term strategy.” Dean’s plan: To fertilize America’s school councils, city councils and state legislatures with potent progressive candidates and incubate that talent so that, 20 years down the road, they will be ready to roll into statewide and national offices.

Dean is just the opening act. When it comes to dialing for dollars, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is an “animal,” opines Whitehouse. The fundraising prowess of Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has reached mythic proportions in political circles. Whitehouse tells the tale of how Schumer would so assiduously plow through his assigned fundraising call sheets that he once ran out of prospects. No problem. “He would take the phone book and start calling numbers out of the phone book at random.”

The party’s investment in Whitehouse is paying off. He is running unopposed in the Rhode Island Democratic primary in September. An independent poll conducted April 26 by Rasmussen Reports placed him within three points of Chafee, and as of this writing, Whitehouse is beating the incumbent in fundraising.

There are yet other harbingers of Republican distress.

Back in Illinois, conservative activists, led by the Illinois Family Institute, have collected 345,199 signatures on petitions for “Protect Marriage Illinois,” a referendum, proposed for the November ballot, that would ask voters if the state legislature should amend the Illinois constitution to declare that “marriage between a man and a woman is the only legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.”

That’s a direct steal from Karl Rove’s playbook. In the run-up to the 2004 national elections, Rove masterminded a similar strategy nationwide, stoking turnout in the red states. Rick Garcia, political director for Equality Illinois, a gay rights group, says Republicans “need something to motivate hard-right voters to come out (so to speak).”

Michael Bauer is already out. The Chicago-based Democratic strategist and fundraiser says the time has come for Democratic activists to get pragmatic. For Bauer, that means backing Democrats like Rep. Harold Ford, Jr., who’s running for the U.S. Senate seat in Tennessee. Ford’s politics should be anathema to Bauer. You see, Ford voted for the Defense of Marriage Act. And Bauer is gay and married to a same-sex partner. Still, Bauer argues, “We are so desperate, as Democrats, to end this total Republican rule, the White House, the Congress, the Supreme Court,” he says. So Bauer will host a fundraiser for Ford later this year. “This is one year that we are taking our Democrats, like it or not, as we find them.”

Some might find that sentiment shamefully opportunistic. So what? Opportunity is the shoelace that binds the party together.

Laura S. Washington, an In These Times contributing editor, is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and political analyst for ABC 7-Chicago.

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