Hello, I’m a Democrat

Meet the netroots activists who have moved online and into political office

Conor Kenny

A ship full of corporate Democrats takes on water.

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 Meet​up​.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. 

So they ran as delegates to the state party convention, countering the lack of information by posting what they found on the Cal​i​tics​.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.”

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Conor Kenny is the editor of Con​gress​pe​dia​.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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