Features » May 21, 2007
Hello, I’m a Democrat
Meet the netroots activists who have moved online and into political office
A lot of ink has been spilled and many hands wrung over the Democratic “netroots”–those citizens who blog, make online campaign contributions and “friend” their chosen candidate on MySpace. Washington-based media types are perturbed by the scrutiny and competition. Politicians want to harness these partisans to spread their message and, more importantly, serve as an ATM to bankroll their campaigns.
Most netroots activists, however, don’t live in Washington nor do they give a hoot what its wise men–or even most members of Congress–think they should be doing. While they are engaged to one degree or another in the national-level actions and organizations, many of the most committed and involved activists are busy transforming the Democratic Party from the ground up. Unnoticed by the punditocracy, a series of small revolutions have rolled across the country at the township, county and state level.
If there were a kickoff event for this movement, it would have been Howard Dean’s February 2004 announcement that he was dropping out of the presidential primary. In that speech, the one sentence that had the least to do with his candidacy may end up having the most impact on his political legacy:
We want to encourage you out there in the grassroots effort: run for office, support candidates like you who run for office, and we will use this enormous organization to support you as you run so we will change the face of democracy so that it represents ordinary Americans once again; government that will not be bought and sold.
Four days later, a Dean staffer posted this challenge on the campaign blog: “You can send a strong message to the party and media by demonstrating that you are not giving up, and [show] how serious you are about taking back the soul of the Democratic Party–you can, in one week, recruit and identify 100 new Democratic office seekers inspired by Dean.” Within a week, 110 had signed up. And five weeks later, Dean announced that his campaign organization, rechristened “Democracy for America” (DfA), was supporting 400 Deaniacs seeking elected office.
In the ensuing three years, these Dean supporters, together with newcomers from the Wesley Clark and John Edwards camps, have gotten elected not only as county commissioners, city councilors, and state senators, but as precinct captains, and state and county party chairs. Their commitment to openness, organizing and infrastructure development has combined with now-Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean’s “50 State Strategy” to begin realigning the party from an organization focused on electing candidates in competitive districts to one that seeks to engage and expand the party’s grassroots base in every county in every year, election or no election.
From netroots to grassroots
Anna Brosovic was one of the 110 volunteers who immediately answered Dean’s call to arms. A 33-year old information technology worker from Arlington, Texas, Brosovic had never really volunteered for the party or a candidate until after the 2000 electoral meltdown in Florida, which “shocked” her and sent her scouring the Internet for sympathetic voices.
Brosovic found DeanNation, an unsanctioned blog. There, she started talking with other Democrats upset by the Bush administration and the buildup to the Iraq war, and by September 2003 she had became a site administrator. DeanNation allowed readers to talk to each other through blog posts and comments, use Meetup.com to organize real-world rallies and meetings, and make contributions online–all before the official campaign did.
After Dean dropped out, Brosovic decided to run for the chair of her precinct, a position within the Tarrant County Democratic Party, only to find the seat vacant. As for the rest of the party organization, “you would have thought it had rolled over and died,” Brosovic says. Now a precinct captain, she was joined by other Dean, Clark and Edwards supporters, who promptly put their energy into the Kerry/Edwards presidential campaign. In 2006, they focused on local, county and state legislature campaigns, electing the first Democrat in their Texas house district in 14 years and sending Brosovic to the state party convention as a county delegate.
Their tactics combined technological savvy with a commitment to shoe-leather organizing. They used their website’s interactive calendar, contribution form and action center to communicate among themselves. On statewide blogs they exchanged tactics and ideas with other activists. Using databases of voter registration records, they “basically [went] block-walking every night to let the voters know that we are Democrats in their neighborhood,” Brosovic says. “We’re not going to take their votes for granted and we’re going to answer to them.”
The Tarrant County Democrats are now optimistically focused on the 2008 state and local elections, recruiting candidates, holding fundraisers and walking their blocks. Since 2004, the attendance at the monthly county party executive committee meetings has grown from 50 to 125, with most of the growth coming from those who would fit some definition of “netroots.” But in Tarrant County, like in many other areas of the country, it is hard to distinguish the “netroots” from the “grassroots.”
Resistance from the old guard
Even after significant wins in 2006, many Texas netroots activists thought the state party was holding them back. In their eyes, the party wasn’t organizing and building an infrastructure to support a base that remained active outside election season. In interviews, they said the party had given up on Republican-dominated areas (a sentiment shared by activists in several other states) and lacked a commitment to progressive policies.
Mario Champion puts it this way: “The state organization is basically funded and controlled by a group of trial lawyers. They set the agenda, which, granted, is solidly pro-union and anti-Republican, but it’s still their agenda. It’s not based on what the grassroots and netroots are saying. We had no ownership of it and no input.”
So Champion and friends decided to take over the party.
They began working to elect Glen Maxey, a former state legislator who had run the Dean campaign in Texas, as state chair. Maxey ran on a platform of devolving power to the local party organizations and increasing fundraising to pay for technology purchases, organizers and candidate trainings. While the delegates to the state party convention technically elect the chair, for the last 20 years the main body had rubber-stamped the selection of the nominating committee, which was controlled by an inner-circle of party funders.
Six months before the June 2006 convention, Maxey and Champion, using the netroots networks from the 2004 election, called upon every available person to run as a convention delegate. After the delegate elections they whipped together enough votes to place their allies in a majority of the spots on the nominating committee, guaranteeing Maxey the official nomination.
Once the convention began, however, it became apparent that the old guard wasn’t going to give up without a fight. Its candidate, Boyd Richie, an attorney and longtime party official, had been installed as interim chair several months before. When the nominating committee convened, he used his authority to jettison netroots-backed members by appointing them to different committees and replacing them with his own supporters.
“All these whispered conversations started in the room and soon people were just being told they weren’t on the committee anymore,” says Champion, who was on the committee. “Our people were on the phone with election lawyers trying to find out what the rules and bylaws said, and pretty soon we had lost the majority on the committee.”
With the committee deadlocked, neither Maxey nor Richie won the sole nomination. Several hours and a runoff vote later, Richie won, 52 percent to 48 percent.
Taking on the machine
Texas activists aren’t alone. Netroots Democrats in Philadelphia are locked in a fierce fight for control of the city’s Democratic organization, though their motivations have as much to do with good governance as winning elections.
Chris Bowers is a Philadelphia activist and professional blogger for MyDD.com (as in Direct Democracy), a national netroots site. A former union organizer whose first foray into partisan politics was volunteering for Dean in 2004, Bowers says he got involved locally because “no one from the Democratic Party had ever contacted me about any election in the nearly seven years I had lived [here].” And he was fed up. “The government here just basically sucks because city services are run based on loyalty and patronage,” he says.
In the local Democratic primaries, which determine elections in blue Philadelphia, party leaders endorse candidates at every level of city government. The endorsement has a price–a mandatory “donation” that ostensibly covers the costs of printing the party sample ballot. For example, local judgeships go for $35,000, with another $1,000 to $2,000 for the leaders of each of the city’s 66 wards.
“Eighty percent of those endorsements are made with no public meeting or debate,” says Bowers.
In 2005, a reform movement coalesced around two organizations: a DfA group, Philly for Change, and another reform-oriented group with roots in MoveOn called Philadelphia Neighborhood Networks. Their first target was the May 2006 election of the city and state party committees. At first, the old guard took it in stride. One city commissioner told the Philadelphia Inquirer the effort would fail because they had neither patronage jobs nor money to reward loyalists. Then the old guard panicked and launched a counter-operation that included legal challenges to candidates and an Internet operation that would, as one official described it, “fight the bloggers on their own turf.”
Though they failed to gain control, reform and netroots candidates captured about 200 seats on the city party committee and more than half the seats on the state executive committee. Since then, they’ve been targeting the 2007 Philadelphia city government primary elections, which took place as In These Times went to press.
Bowers got appointed to a precinct-level city committee in 2005, and in 2006 he won a write-in campaign for a spot on the state party committee. He says his main project will be to demystify the process of electing party officials. Before activists recently tracked down and distributed it, there was a lack of information on how to run for city party positions, who the existing officers were, and where meetings were held–a common complaint of activists in other states.
Allies within the structure
Last fall in California, netroots activists faced a similar dearth of information that some ascribed to gate-keeping by the party leadership. Fresh off campaigns for underdog congressional candidates, these activists were frustrated with what they saw as a lack of investment in traditionally red areas of the state, the top-down leadership of the party and an emphasis on elections at the expense of building a permanent infrastructure and base.
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Conor Kenny is the editor of Congresspedia.org, a collaborative online citizen's encyclopedia on Congress. He is also a former money in politics investigative researcher for Public Citizen.