alien & sedition.
Friday, February 09, 2007
  Gate: Crashed

I was at the big grassroots/netroots fundraiser for Craig Johnson, which was full of people I know from the local progressive circles - really outstanding, hard-working, smart progressive folks. It was balm for my soul after having spent a weekend with the conservative movement. The governor came and spoke to us, and the whole thing was a triumph in our newly-developing partnership with the New York State Democratic Committee.

So it was interesting to talk to a friend of mine, who co-founded New Democratic Majority - one of the sponsors that night and an organization on whose Board I'm currently serving. Tim Paulson was one of the folks who helped convert the New York for Dean meetups into a grassroots experiment called NDM - dedicated to the idea that the people-powered uprising Dean had represented could apply itself to politics beyond just a presidential primary. There were a lot of people who had that kind of idea, and we've got our own little alphabet soup of grassroots and netroots operations now. Over the past three years we've gained experience, wisdom, and clout, all thanks to the hard work of a lot of dedicated volunteers. And that work has paid off - as evidenced by the fundraiser, which we had put together in close partnership with a very appreciative state Democratic party.

But it wasn't always that way. Tim told me a story, and I asked him to write it up and send it to me so I could pass it on. We've come a very long way in a short time, from a time when our very claim to the word "Democratic" was rejected by the party regulars.

Here's Tim's account:
We were excited. Ennio Morricone was playing in our ears. Three grassroots guys—myself, Scott Powell, and Ed Hartzog—were headed to a meeting with the New York State Democratic Party. Our mission was simply to appeal for the legal use of the word “Democratic” in the name of the organization we had helped found: New Democratic Majority. Joining us was a towering, dreadlocked African American union leader named Norman Titus. He’d arranged the sit down.

The year was 2004, it was gooey late summer and the Presidential election loomed. A few months earlier, in March, we had formed NDM out of the Dean grassroots movement, bringing along our list of 15,000 members and a serious itch to get progressive dems elected, and elected dems progressive. To make it real we had to incorporate in some fashion, and to do that, we had to acquire the permission of the New York party to use The Word.

The actual party leader, Denny Farrell, wouldn’t meet with us. They designated Rodney Koppel instead. As I understood it at the time, Koppel had also been tasked with managing the state party’s piece of the national Kerry campaign. He was congenial enough. Norman had mocked us for wearing suits and ties in the heat, but the party guy was and that’s how we wanted it—to be perceived as serious, if not exactly as equals.

Scott—NDM’s executive director—led off, explaining what we were there for. We weren’t unknown to New York democratic electeds, having met with deputy senate minority leader Eric Schneiderman several times already to synchronize our strategies for winning back the state senate. We’d agreed to help Jeff Klein, but also insisted on backing Jimmy Dahroug on Long Island and, for U.S. Congress, Frank Barbaro on Staten Island. In fact he’d pledged what help he could give to get us what we wanted.

Rodney Koppel didn’t waste any time telling us we weren’t going get it. He explained about Farrell’s dislike of what he saw as insurgent amateurs working outside the party system—the democratic clubs. Grassroots groups like this were swarming all over the city at the time. And of course the party’s fear—in retrospect, very reasonable—was that should our group get taken over by Lyndon LaRouche et al. they could make hay out of the Democratic moniker. All we cared about, though, was that Koppel didn’t seem seriously interested in finding a role for thousands of committed democrats who would lay down their free time to do the party’s bidding. “Why don’t they join the clubs?” Koppel kept asking. We tried to explain—our people had a whole different idea of what a club was. And if they’d wanted to do it that way, they would have.

In the event we wound up incorporating under Delaware law a little bit later—even sent a press release to Denny Farrell. But the real coda to all this came in September, when Rodney (at the request of Gifford Miller’s top staffer, Dana Marino) offered New Democratic Majority fifteen tickets to a speech to be given by John Kerry at Cooper Union. I put the request out to our members and got 800 responses in fifteen minutes. Many asking for sets of two or three tickets. I phoned Rodney back and he said he’d get us fifty more. Then he called and asked me up to the office—the same one we’d met in a couple weeks earlier—where he handed me a bundle of 200 tickets to Kerry’s speech. That was roughly a quarter of the total number that would fit in Cooper Union’s great hall. We gave them away first come first serve to the first two hundred respondents, and printed up New Democratic Majority stickers, which Scott and I slapped on them as they queued up outside the hall the next morning. A week or so later we went through the same routine when Kerry spoke at NYU. This time there was no preamble—they just handed over 250 tickets. The NDM people were a wide mix—young, very young, old, lots of college students and people doing doctoral work. But the common thread was their enthusiasm for the democratic ticket. An energy that carried over to getting on busses for Pennsylvania, too. A point, it seems, got made.
And everything else grew from there. Now we're not just making points, we're making progress. The state Democratic Committee, under its new downstate chair Dave Pollak, approached not just NDM but the whole progressive grassroots alphabet soup to help plan Craig's victory. And it paid off.

And after the victory, it was Pollak who expressed just how far we've come - and how much we have left to do, how much we can do - since those days when Denny Farrell didn't even want to hear about the grassroots. Dave's message:
Thank you, thank you, thank you. This couldn't have happened without you. This is only the beginning. We are only scratching the surface. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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Similar issues in NC. Grassroots, bottom-up Democrats vs. Old Guard, top-down folks. Except we have a real ally in our state chair, Jerry Meek. You'll find him profiled by Kos and Armstrong at the end of "Crashing the Gate."

After Meek won the chair two years ago by out-organizing the OG candidate, I worried they might come gunning for him. But after the fall election there was practically a Meek love fest celebration dinner in the western counties: we turned out Charles Taylor and elected Heath Shuler. Jerry won a second term last month by unanimous acclamation.

Meanwhile, the progressive grassroots folks have not let up. Precinct meetings are this month and we're working hard to be heard.
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