Flashback: Rougher Roads

Part Three of this four-part series looking back at popping my activist cherry. So not a virgin any more, and a damned good thing given how much rougher the road ahead.

The Angry Left: Rougher Roads Steeper Challenges to Get Here

I’ve already offered a 50,000 view of the road to here for some of the angry left — the road some of us who were progressives in 2003 took as we sought to wrest the country away from conservatives. And I’ve shared my personal journey up to the 2004 presidential election.

The next leg of the journey was harder and the challenges steeper.

In late November 2004 after the election, while many of us were still shell-shocked by the outcome of the election, former candidate Howard Dean traveled the country to talk with supporters to figure out what to do next. I explained already the decision-making process, but one of the most important points which came out of his sessions was the call to become more active in the Democratic Party and to leave no seat uncontested.

Most of us new activists had discovered the hard way during the campaign that the Democratic Party was facade-like; it was not democratic (little d) and it was hardly a party. If we were going to generate the kind of critical mass in numbers we needed to reach our goals — like ending the war in Iraq and getting a national health care program — we were going to have to go inside what was left of the beast and take it back. Dean was certain that if we could articulate clearly our populist progressive agenda that we could win voters, but we had to have the organization from which to do it.

In a matter of days after Dean spoke with activists in my state I went to my first local party meeting. I’d received a little coaching from a high school friend’s dad who’d been involved in the party; he’d explained how their monthly meetings typically ran and what to expect so I’d be more comfortable.

The meeting started at 7:00 p.m.; they said the Pledge of Allegiance, went through what looked like a time-worn agenda of going through acceptance of minutes from the last meeting, treasurer’s report, new mail, old business…by this time it was 7:20 p.m. and some of the folks were already beginning to look at their watches. The chair held his gavel aloft and asked for any new business before he gaveled the meeting adjourned.

That was it? That’s all they were going to do after getting their asses kicked a mere month ago? I thought I’d faint.

My friend’s dad was there and looked at me encouragingly. I raised my hand. The chair started and stared as if to say, Who the hell are you? And I introduced myself, said it was my first party meeting, and I had two questions to ask. Where was the party’s website, and what were their goals and objectives for the coming year?

You could have heard a pin drop.

Two other folks across the room raised their hands and said it was their first meeting as well, and they had come wanting to know the same thing.

There was a bit of a rush after that, an explanation that they had no website, questions as to whether I knew anything about creating one and would I discuss it next month, did I want to become a member, could we table the question about goals, gaveling out the meeting.

A more senior member of the party offered to pay for three memberships to get us started; we three newbies managed to get connected with each other. Inside the next three months we were plunged into communications and memberships committees and started on projects which made sense to us as persons with corporate and academic experience. Like updating membership databases, and creating a website with information about the local party — really elemental stuff.

And at first it seemed easy. It was almost too easy. The first twelve weeks went by and we thought things were going smoothly.

But then we ran into push back after push back on what should have been some of the easiest things, including goals and finance. By the end of summer it was clear there were factions within the local party who were pissed off at us for rocking the boat, other factions which did little or nothing and didn’t want to, and yet other factions who wanted to do something constructive but were clearly disenfranchised and dis-empowered.

In short, it was a dysfunctional mess. We just didn’t get a bead on how dysfunctional for several months while they waited to see how serious we were.

We learned as we compared notes about the problems we were running into that the party chair had actually kicked volunteers out of the office during the final stretch of the presidential election season for using the phone excessively. The volunteers had been phone banking, for crying out loud; of course they’d be using the damned phones. They ended up at a different site set up across town by another group because they couldn’t work at the Dem Party office. The problems were clearly systemic from top to bottom of the local organization, and toxic to candidates.

It became clear that we were going to have to find a different way to operate so that we didn’t run into roadblocks at every turn, before the election season began. We agreed to pursue chartering a separate Democratic club, one which would have a bias toward action and results, whose mission would be to get more progressive candidates elected to office.

The squabbling about the chartering process was ugly, because the local party had to sign off. (Pulling the charter has been a threat at least one chair has used since the charter was issued.) But in the end we managed to start an organization.

A couple of our team found a sympathetic landlord who agreed to “rent” office space to us if we agreed to improve the property. We pooled our resources and painted and patched a decrepit 150-year-old place, each of us doing what we could to create an entity which would get people elected. In my case I cobbled up a network and a fellow Deaniac cobbled up some computers so that we could begin to phone bank using VoIP. We identified candidates to support, knocked on doors, dropped literature, made thousands of phone calls, raised money and made donations to candidates.

And by the end of election day 2006, we knew what we could call our wins.

By the end of 2007 candidates called us.

By the end of 2008, after winning and losing control of the Democratic Party chairmanship, we won it back.

We are the local party now, although it was messy getting here. I’ve spared you the ugly part of losing the party and having our club charter threatened. I’ve spared you all the dull, tedious long hours of work doing mailings and working on voter data and membership drives and slow, dragged out meetings about resolutions and bylaws.

But we got here because we planned, we executed and we delivered. We didn’t always win; one of our hardest fought and most painful losses was for a state seat for which one of our own ran. But we learned a lot from the experience, and the state party now knows what that candidate and the club can do. And right now they are grinding away working for Democratic candidates, several of which are truly progressive.

So what did I learn along this leg of the road?

— It takes a lot of motherf*cking actual work to build a grassroots political apparatus. I cannot understate this. One must be willing to do some really tedious, grotty scut work to make it happen. I’ve cleaned toilets, washed floors, painted, vacuumed, swept, cooked and cooked, licked envelopes and stamps, fixed computers and printers, set up wired and wireless networks, babysat, made phone calls, typed and printed and folded and collated, you name it, and I’ve only done a small portion of work that others have done for our team.

— In every county of my state there are roughly 25 people on average that are hardcore activists who are willing to do the work. Half of them do the majority of the work. Which means in a state of roughly 10,000,000 residents, roughly 2,000 people do it all for the left. And that’s not just Democrats, that’s the entire left. (Many Greens, Libertarians and unallied environmental and peace activists overlap with Democrats, so I think I can say my estimate is pretty solid.) I would bet right now the ratio is pretty much the same for all but the most populous states.

— There are people who will cling to their old perception of the party until they die. Some will not relinquish that vision without a bloody fight. You can expect to be bruised in such battles; develop emotional callouses and find a good source of mental Kevlar. And quite frankly, you may have to outwait some of your detractors quite literally until they die. We euphemistically call this “a generational shift.”

— Once you have some success, you will be attacked. You will also find others attempt to co-opt your success. You are doing it right if you have candidates calling you for help while you are being insulted by the remaining old school machine members.

— And the attacks will show up in the local media. You will see distortions of everything you’ve done through a conservative lens, and everything reported will draw multiple letters to the editor from conservatives.

— There are not enough candidates in the pipeline. There are races up and down the ticket right now where we cannot field a candidate, where a conservative is going to have a cakewalk to a win. A substantive number of our candidates are Hail Mary passes which won’t succeed; the candidate is either willing to run simply to force the conservative opponent to spend down money, or the candidate is simply not prepared enough or the right caliber for the race. I can think of one candidate who is just plain dumber than a box of rocks, hasn’t won in three attempts and won’t win again, but they are all we have in that district. We’ve had many training sessions to encourage folks who may be thinking about running, at least two sessions a year and we still don’t have enough candidates.

— Money is chronically short. This is another truth which can’t be understated. In some highly specific cases, where the population is denser, the till may have a lot more money, but the money must be spread over even more candidates. It’s never enough.

— There are not enough people who have the skills let alone the commitment to do some of the necessary work. Being an officer sounds like it’s prestigious and a lot of fun, right up until you are the one having to deal with the angry callers or the stupid media, the one having to record all the donations and file the financials on a timely basis, the one having to take all the meeting notes and record them religiously. Parliamentarians are a pain in the ass, but they are also one of the most critical roles in the organization. Think you can cut corners and do without all this stuff? Good luck earning the trust of candidates and incumbents who need serious, reliable people.

Before I began this journey on the road of activism, I believed there were adults in charge, that I could simply show up and vote at mid-terms and presidential elections, and those trusted adults would make sure that our democracy continued to run smoothly.

What a stupid and naive notion that was.

One of the most important things I’ve learned along the way is this: Leadership is showing up.

Things don’t change, progress isn’t made until leaders show up and do the damned work. For too long nobody showed up, and there are still not enough people showing up.

The corollary lesson is this: Leadership-by-default runs this country.

In other words, the person that showed up, did the work or spent the money to get the work done, got elected. They may have been the biggest, stupidest asshole on earth, but they showed up. And they were assisted on the road to victory by people who showed up. The folks who get more people to show up to work for them are far more likely to win. This is the case in the overwhelming majority of races up and down the ticket across this entire country.

More about that in my next installment.
Part Four, the final installment of this series, will post tomorrow.

18 replies
  1. Rayne says:

    In retrospect: that last full paragraph haunts me, especially that ‘biggest, stupidest asshole’ part. There’s not much else in this piece I’d change after the passage of time.

    Did I mention I met Marcy because I became active politically? We have a friend in common who in 2004 said to me , “There’s this cool person I think you should meet!” The rest, as they say, is history. LOL

  2. lefty665 says:

    Amazing isn’t it? Makes Will Rogers comment “I’m not a member of an organized political party, I’m a Democrat” seem like unbridled overstatement doesn’t it? A few people do most of the work and a chorus bitches and resists. Get to the state party level and it gets worse. They’ve damn well got things arranged the way they want them and woe be to anyone who rocks the boat. Shut up, sit down and ratify the party line. Anything else threatens to help the Repubs you know.

    Took the Dems in my County from 2002 to 2015 to focus on the one district with about 40% Dems to win a single BOS seat. They kept having fantasies of glory and taking the county by storm, then losing by 2:1 or more everywhere when they spread the scarce resources so thin they vanished. Now they’ve got one member of the BOS and the farm club of appointments like Planning Commission, School Board, etc, etc is building visibility and people with experience in one district. That’s where candidates come from. In ’19 it means working on re-electing the one and focusing on the adjacent district that is trending blue with come heres to perhaps elect another. By 2020 there may be two on the board. At that rate by 2030 or 2040 they may have a 4-3 majority. In the meantime candidates running for the state House of Delegates consistently fail to break 30%.

    You’ve done a wonderful job describing the dysfunction, chaos and naivety (that is too charitable) that makes up local parties. Like you I’ve met some wonderful people, some very bright folks, and a couple who have become long term close friends.

    Then at the national level there’s the neolib, elite crowd that is joined at the hip with Wall Street and the fat cats. All in all disheartening, intensely frustrating and what made us say screw it, quit the party about 5 years ago and spend our time and money with people and organizations we have more in common with.

    Hope you’ve got some good stuff and solutions saved up for Part 4. Just hanging out at places like emptywheel with good folks gives me hope.

    Very nice work.

  3. bloopie2 says:

    What are the Republicans doing differently? What can be learned from them? I’ve got to believe that a reasonably smart Dem operative could look at their operation and figure it out. Or is it really ‘rocket science’?

    • lefty665 says:

      Don’t think the Repubs are so different. Over there there is also a small core that does the heavy lifting. Expect Rayne’s right, and that at the local level on either side it’s a dozen or so activists who run things and make shit happen. A difference is that the Repubs like structure. It is truly a different way our brains are wired. Dems like to talk and debate endlessly while the Repubs are looking for someone to tell them what to do, the “strict father” model.  For years I thought the old saw “Dems fall in love and Repubs fall in line” was simplistic foolishness, but as time wore on it seemed that at least the “Repubs fall in line” part had substance when it came to how parties worked.

      George Lakoff has done wonderful work on framing, the way parties work, how Dem and Repub brains differ, and how time after time and year after year Dems fail.  https://georgelakoff.com/  His “Don’t think of an Elephant” is perhaps his most widely known work. This year there was the perfect contrast between endless reams of policy and position papers and the short, raw, emotional,  we’re going to make America great again. One campaign would fit on a ball cap, and the Dems, after Bernie, never had a clue, or wanted one.

      Rayne is also right that leadership is about showing up.  For the better part of a decade we were there on the first Saturday of every month at meetings, and ready to jump on the brief window of  “new business” in the stereotyped agenda that was seemingly designed to suppress thought. It’s like Woody Allen posited long ago “History is made by those who show up”.  It is also amazing how there was usually an inverse correlation between the loudest mouths and willingness to dig into pocketbooks and contribute actual time and money. The monthly meetings were after doing the scut work of party and organization mechanics. There are plenty of those and not many folks willing, or free, to take the time and make the effort.

      I got to be treasurer after getting sick of reports like “We got 36.42 in donations, spent $53.77 and have $12.34 in the bank”.  The thanks it got me was doing FEC compliance, separation of functions and internal controls for a congressional campaign at the request of the congressional district committee. That involved endless wrangles with the candidate’s wife who did not like having financial control wrested from the book she kept in her purse. Turned out he was running because he was unemployed and they figured campaign contributions were a good way to pay their personal bills. He’s the only candidate I’ve ever known who actually looked forward to daily “call time” soliciting money.

      After a while it wears thin, in our case after about a decade, tons of work, and around $10k in the trenches. We also got fed up with watching the Dems in a downward spiral at the state and national level, losing campaign after campaign after standing for nothing, running as Repub lite, and staying just one half step to the left of the rightmost asshole so they could claim votes as the lesser evil. One of the other old saws is “Give people a choice between real Repubs and imitations, and voters will choose the real Repub every time”. We’ve seen that at the Congressional, state and local levels since at least ’92, and the presidential level in ’00, 04, and this year. Dems seem a lot like the Cheshire Cat, well on the way to being all smile and no elected offices.

      My hope is that Rayne’s got some real good stuff and a path to the future lined up for part 4. She’s got the issues at the local level nailed.

    • Rayne says:

      Reps are more likely to rely on interns to do the scut work required of local organizations, and many of the same interns then go on become part of their political machine. Same interns are also likely to seek both work and scholarships from a number of right-wing programs which encourage them to develop a portfolio they can use as bona fides. There’s also money — much, much more money. They buy what goods and services they need where many Dem Party offices must hunt cash donations and donations-in-kind.

      Our local office did use interns, but only after the fresh blood insurgency of 2004 and the creation of new vehicles to fund and organize their use. Interns had not previously been used within memory of anyone within the local party. They were encouraged to move on in the party food chain though they weren’t likely to run for office. These students did acquire skills in database management, community organization, and financial reporting they wouldn’t otherwise have had. Local parties should do more of this, especially in minority-majority communities.

      As for how the Reps choose their candidates: no idea. Technically speaking, in this state parties must have open meetings and somebody from the left could attend — but we never had the hours to dedicate to that kind of intelligence. It was often obvious who would run for a seat, and often assumed family might consider a run, too.  For instance, a GOP member who ran for a county commission seat would next seek the state house, then the state senate after term limit, and then either governorship or Congress after that. They might take a paid role somewhere along the way for a corporation which was a GOP donor, or a lobbying job. Both of these types of jobs are much harder for Dems to rotate from and back into public service though it does happen.

      I think of one former elected official who was ready for Congress — they ended up in a lobbying job working for an industry Dems will not support unless they are union members. This person had such potential and now will likely never run for office again. They’re damaged goods. If they were GOP, they’d do fine with that background, but their personal ideology isn’t GOP.

      • lefty665 says:

        Yeah, more money, lots more money and the political things you can do with it is the biggest difference. But in the end at the local level, it’s a pretty tight group that runs the show on the Repub side, often determined by, what else, money.

  4. martin says:

    Gee, as a complete outsider to political power building, after reading this, I’d submit the Republicans must have moles in the local Dem party organizations.  I mean, Other than old establishment control,  what else would cause these morons to help the Dem party LOSE? Which seems to me is the exact cause this years total election fiasco.

    On a side note, normally, I’ve never been interested in how political parties are organized, or how they work.  That is… until the news came out how that scumbag of scumbags, Debbie Wasserman(of total denial of the murder of 16yr old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki fame) had manipulated the Dem party control of funds and data in Clintons favor.  All of a sudden, I was so astounded that this could happen, notwithstanding the fact she could get away with it…. as in NO prosecution for interferring with an election, I started paying attention to certain things. Like how Trump was progressing through the campaign. Not that I could do anything about it other than fume, but by the time the election day came, I became a victim of the so called.. polls. I hated Clinton. And I hated Trump. And had already decided not to vote this time around, basically trusting the lessor of two evils would win.. namely…Clinton.  My bad.  The next morning, as she stared at the computer…the look on my wife’s face said it all.  And like everyone else in the country..I started thinking…WTF went wrong?  Now I know.  And after reading this series.. I’ve come to see how this could happen.  In retrospect, now I understand how the “party” power structure determines everything.  What I still don’t understand is… how certain actions,  related to the “political party conventions” appear to be illegal(cue the seemingly criminal actions of Debbie Wasserman et al), but I’m not versed in the laws that affect political parties.

    HOWEVER, I bring this up, because, after reading Rayne’s last post, I turned on Netflix to watch a movie.  After scanning Netflix’s default list…which sucks big time.. I noticed Oliver Stone’s The Untold History of the US.  As I had only seen the last episode at the time of it’s first airing on cable, I decided to watch it.  As if, the whole “history” of the US as taught in school is a blatant propagand lie weren’t enough, by the time I got to the second episode,  I almost felt sick. However, it was the second episode that really stood out for me. Within that episode, is the true happenings of the Democratic Convention as it occurred, in

    I was astounded. Unfuckingbelievable. Visions of Debbie Wasserman and this years convention filled my head.   I’m still dazed.  How could these scumbags get away with what they did? How come there aren’t LAWS that prevent these kind of things occurring? I’m really…really asking.  The only way you’ll know what I’m talking about, is to WATCH IT. What really amazes me is… no one took these scum sucking criminals to account for what took place.  The party.. simply shrugged their shoulders and the gavel came down. U N F U C K I N G B E L I E V A B L E INSANITY.  Anyway, here it is…


    Moreover, now I’m REALLY wondering about..the Electoral College.  It would appear this system is so archaic, as to almost be laughable, if it weren’t for what it really stands for…as in.. A GIGANTIC FUCKING FRAUD on the voters of the US.  To now understand, that no MATTER how the people vote..the ELECTORS can vote any fucking way they want. THEY elect the President. NOT THE PEOPLE.  Did I mention..unfuckingbelievable? Personally, I’m now convinced more than ever..the US is the DUMBEST COUNTRY ON THE PLANET. And I was a member.  No more.

    btw Rayne.. THANK YOU.  You’ve opened my eyes.

      • bmaz says:

        Meh, for “Constitutional scholars” Lessig and Hay sure are cavalier about violation of the Constitutional electoral college rules that operate in the modern US. Whether we like the outcome or not, electors are intentionally selected to exercise the will of the voters in each state by that state’s rules. What they are NOT selected for is to substitute their own decision for that of the voters.

        Not to mention, of course, that the electors are selected by state party apparatus generally and are unlikely to defect, irrespective of the latest Lessig pie in the sky dream.

        • Rayne says:

          And yet Lessig and Hay both point to the framers’ intentions for the Electoral College.

          There’s also nothing forbidding deviation from popular vote, only state-by-state deterrents to faithlessness.

          Speaking of faithlessness — more specifically, bad faith — there’s also a case for voting differently than state party’s vote based on deviation of DJT’s incoming admin’s deviation from  states’ party apparatus’ ideology. Witness Club for Growth’s Stephen Moore corralling the Congressional GOP members and telling them this past week AFTER the election they are no longer the party of Reagan. If the states’ parties selected electors based on a pre-election ideology (they’re the anti-tax small government Russia-wary party of Reagan), then voting for DJT may violate that understanding.

          I know you and I aren’t going to see eye-to-eye on this and a few other issues related to the election, although we may share the same sentiment about the current apparent outcome. ;-)

          • martin says:

            There’s also nothing forbidding deviation from popular vote, only state-by-state deterrents to faithlessness.

            REALLY? Well dust my britches.  And what are these..”state-by-state deterrents to faithlessness.”  Jail time?  Political slaps? What? Sounds to me they’re ludicrous. Maybe outright laughable. Please, show me.

        • martin says:

          quote”What they are NOT selected for is to substitute their own decision for that of the voters.”unquote


          Hahahaha.. they are “selected” for their apparent “loyalty” to the outcome of their particular state’s vote, eh? And what pray tell, do they sign, to signify they will adhere to it, regardless of their own political bias? Otherwise, this is bullshit.  There must be some kind of legal accountability for their electoral vote, or.. it’s exactly like I said.  They can vote for whomever they want..no? And if not..please tell me… HOW AND WHY they are selected. Because..I WANT TO BE ONE!!!!

      • martin says:

        Holy shit Rayne. Ok, then according to the info in the first link..ie:

        quote”They would make sure “that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications,” turning away anyone whose only qualifications were “talents for low intrigue” or “the little arts of popularity.”unquote

        Sheeezuschrist.. fuck, now I can sleep tonight, knowing the Electoral College, with their powers intrusted, shall..”make sure, the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications,”.

        ummm… except.. please show me where these so called..”requisite qualifications” exist in some kind of statutory definition.. or even in some kind of “qualifications for Presidential election”?  Otherwise, this is the funniest thing I’ve come across in my lifetime.  Btw..anyone got a sleeping pill?

        fuck.  This whole thing is beyond ridiculous .  It redefines the word absurd. The living proof is … Donald the Schmuck Trump

    • bmaz says:

      Oliver always has his own view of history and facts, which others can agree with or not (I do both at various times) but it is usually compelling viewing either way. I though the Untold History of the US series was fascinating and really well done. Great, and thought provoking, viewing.

      • martin says:

        Great, and thought provoking


        Great, and thought provoking. Right. Vs the propaganda taught in US schools, and the revisionist history forced down the throat of every US citizen since 1940.  sheezus.  I’ll note your observation as… thought provoking. fuck.

  5. martin says:

    ps 2.  Can anyone point me to an explanation HOW the ELECTORS of the Electoral College get appointed.. and when? Thanks.

  6. martin says:

    ps 3.  I know this is pretty early to be asking.. but deep, deep down in the Democratic party..there must be “someone” who’s thinking about running in 2020.  Someone, who is so outside the “old establishment”, younger, smarter, with the REAL ideals that I always thought the party stood for… versus what we were given this time around.  Any idea who that “someone” might be?  btw… I would have voted Bernie..had he won the primary.

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