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Hello, I’m a Democrat (cont’d)

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So they ran as delegates to the state party convention, countering the lack of information by posting what they found on the Calitics.com blog and by building a special site that explained how to run. In blog posts and YouTube stump speech videos, the 32 “blogger candidates” signaled their defiance by employing “throw the bums out” rhetoric.

What they didn’t realize was that some of those bums were potential allies, says Judy Hotchkiss, a 35-year party activist, Dean supporter and Democratic State Central committeeperson. “A lot of us had been working on reforming and opening up the party since we came in with McGovern in the ’70s,” she says. During the’80s, Hotckiss’ cohorts had forced the Democratic politicians who controlled the party to open up to directly elected delegates, and in 2005, they worked with Dean supporters to standardize delegate election regulations, which played a large part in enabling the blog candidates to run.

“A lot of people saw the party as closed and non-transparent and wanted to ‘crash the gates,’ but there were clearly people already inside who had been fighting to open the party up,” says Matt Lockshin, one of the 25 netroots candidates elected to the state party convention in January. “There wasn’t necessarily a hardcore cadre of people who wanted to exclude us, but structurally there wasn’t enough of an effort to engage people and there was a lack of awareness of the things they were doing to keep people out.”

Indeed, while a distinct old guard versus outsider dynamic exists in some places, activists and party officials across the country say that in most states the reality is much grayer. In Republican upstate New York, for example, when energetic Dean supporters began restarting inactive local party organizations, they were welcomed by Denise King, a fellow upstater who happened to be both chair of state party’s executive committee and the former head of the state’s 2004 Dean campaign.

Moving into the red areas

Whether inspired by Dean or the other way around, one of the activists’ central tenets is the need to build the party in red areas abandoned by the state parties and, in the case of the DNC, entire states.

Upon election as DNC chair in 2005, Dean implemented a “50 State Strategy” to send staff, technology and funding to the state parties to boost infrastructure, and put organizers in areas that hadn’t seen one in decades. This has been a boon for states like Kansas, where state party chair Larry Gates says the program has helped them effectively double their staff and open a storefront in a quickly growing part of the state. (Gates says he’s “thrilled” by the Deaniacs who have showed up and started taking leadership roles in the party.) Even parties in bluer states like Washington have benefited. State Party Chair Dwight Pelz, who worked on Dean’s campaign there, says the program enabled him to send another field organizer to the state’s heavily Republican eastern side.

With this infusion of capital and expertise from the DNC, whose fundraising operation dwarfs most states, established state party leaders have found common cause with the activists.

“Dean’s message of how we need to build a national party has made him immensely popular in the state parties and their leadership,” says King.

In North Carolina delegates to the state convention elected a new party chair in 2005. They bucked the candidate backed by the governor and other party heavyweights for Jerry Meek who told them the “state party has lost touch with the local party,” and who promised to “create a party of inclusion where grassroots workers have a real say and power isn’t just limited to the Raleigh insiders.”

Meek, a wealthy attorney and the sitting state party vice chair at the time, was no outsider. However, in his time as a party official he had made frequent trips to the virtually abandoned western parts of the state to hold trainings, fundraisers and listen to the county chairs and precinct captains.

“What you have seen in the Dean race and races like Arkansas, where a 34-year-old defeated an incumbent state chair, is that people who are perceived as the insiders lost and people who were perceived as grass-roots advocates prevailed,” Meek told the Raleigh News and Observer after his victory. “There is a strong feeling in our party that that is the direction we need to go.”

Eyes on the prize

All the warm talk about democracy and empowerment isn’t only a feel-good way for the netroots activists to set themselves apart from the machine politicians. It’s also about winning elections. Or as DfA executive director Tom Hughes says, “This is about taking our country back.”

Democracy for America, now chaired by Howard Dean’s brother James, has reoriented itself to support races at all levels across the country. It modified Dean’s presidential website to allow activists to use their social-networking and fundraising functions for grassroots candidates, and it started a traveling weekend training academy to teach campaign fundamentals like field organizing, fundraising and media messaging. It even hosts a free online “Night School” version for candidates who can’t attend in person. The focus, in contrast to the 2004 get-out-the-vote operations, is on giving local candidates and volunteers the help they need to run a successful campaign.

“The lesson from the Dean campaign in Iowa was that you can’t parachute into areas and tell people what to do,” says Lockshin, the San Francisco-based activist who helped inland California activists with their successful 2006 campaign to unseat Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.). “But, if you have skills in setting up a fundraiser or a website or something else, you can go teach people how to do it themselves.”

Activists from the Bay Area, a hotbed of netroots activism already dominated by Democrats, mobilized to help the locals backing Pombo’s challenger, Jerry McNerney, as well as unsuccessful northern California candidate Charlie Brown. Without much financial or logistical support from the state party, the Bay Area activists communicated with each other through blogs and, in person, on weekend trips that took their empowerment philosophy on the road.

Other netroots-enabled victories included those of freshman Democratic Reps. John Hall and Kirsten Gillibrand in upstate New York. In both cases activists started anti-incumbent blogs and were organizing before there was even a clear Democratic candidate, allowing them to hit the ground running with established field and communications operations.

Partners, not footsoldiers

Probably the biggest barrier standing between the netroots and the party leadership is the latter’s insistence that it knows best. Many if not most of the new activists who came in with the Dean campaign were motivated as much by his commitment to letting them fully participate as by his opposition to Bush and the war.

Last year in California, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the fundraising arm for House candidates, made an attempt at a “bossed” primary by endorsing Jerry McNerney’s opponent in the primary. The move backfired and only served to motivate the activists supporting McNerney, who were incensed by this outsider attempt to “run over the grassroots.”

A similar situation occurred when Emanuel backed the primary opponent of Carol Shea-Porter, who eventually won both the primary and the general election to oust Republican Rep. Jeb Bradley (N.H.). As one campaign volunteer described it in a post on DailyKos:

Things were a little bit grim in Camp Carol, until the DCCC endorsed [her opponent], then everything changed. Many NH Democrats, particularly on the seacoast, were angered by the intrusion into our process by the national party. … So many viewed the DCCC endorsement as simply them endorsing the candidate with the largest war chest. … Beating back this its-all-about-the-money approach to politics energized our volunteers. This became more than an effort to win one house seat, it became a mission about the democratic process.”

While the DNC and the leading presidential candidates have embraced many of the web-based, social networking tools of DfA and the Dean campaign, most national party leaders have yet to let the grassroots share the reigns.

“The presidential candidates have slightly different tactics but they are all using the same top-down approach where every decision is filtered through a small group of cautious decision-makers sitting on a large pyramid of public support,” says Matt Stoller, a blogger at MyDD.

Fresh horses at the gate

Whether the netroots will be able to fully dislodge that top-down approach remains to be seen. The movement’s numbers rank in the tens of thousands, not millions. They also have yet to overcome–and in many ways even address–the under-representation of women and African Americans in its leadership.

But, they are growing in numbers and influence, and they have an ally in Howard Dean, who is committed to remaking the party in their image. They are also solidly plugged in to national organizations like MoveOn and have begun building an offline infrastructure to rival the online one through the growth of the local party clubs and the 2,000 bar-based chapters of Drinking Liberally, a loosely knit social club for progressives.

In coming years, netroots activists will be moving up from local party positions to state and national ones. And, while they are more progressive than the party as a whole, first and foremost they are committed Democrats who want to win, and who are willing to put in the money and the time to make it happen. Though their outsider identity may sometimes cause them to break the door down rather than ask for a key, they want to help.

Asked what she hoped would happen in Texas once the dust settled, Anna Brosovic thought a bit and then quoted a line from an activist in Crashing the Gate, the bible of netroots power building written by the founders of MyDD and DailyKos: “Some of you in the Democratic National Committee may see us as the barbarians at the gate. Some of us see ourselves as the cavalry. The truth is, we’re fresh horses.”

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.

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