Progressive Majority - What the Democratic Party would look like if it were new

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If the Democratic Party were starting up today it might look a lot like Progressive Majority:

  • It would be lean and visionary and offer tremendous opportunities for progressives to take part in deepening our democracy and refocusing this country on a heartfelt progressive agenda, one that the majority of people could get behind.
  • It would have up-to-date databases and a website that was updated regularly and kept people excited about what was going on.
  • It would routinely ask its members about their concerns and it would pay attention to their answers.
  • It would bring cool speakers to town and it would stay connected with the other progressive organizations in town and across the country.

In the last few years a number of new national-scale progressive organizations have been started to help fill some of the roles that the Democratic Party has been unable or unwilling to fill on its own.  In Washington State, one of the most robust of these "shadow party" organizations is Progressive Majority. We recently interviewed Dean Nielsen, Director of Progressive Majority in Washington State, and learned a lot about how the organization came to be, what their vision is and where they're headed in the wake of a 2004 election cycle that was tough nationally for progressives, but a bit sweeter closer to home.

Read on for the full interview...

Q: How did Progressive Majority come to be and who are you?

DN: The national organization was founded in 2001 by Gloria Trotten. As it became clear that the Republicans were taking the helm of all our national political institutions, it occurred to us that maybe it was the wrong strategy to put all our eggs in the Presidential basket. Perhaps it would make more sense to focus on the House and Senate. The organization took a look at the success and tactics of Emily's List, another progressive organization, and began raising money by bundling checks from individuals and sending that money, $1.2 million in 2002, directly to the candidates we were supporting.

After the 2002 debacle, we examined what had happened to the Democratic Party and why it was so terribly unsuccessful going up against the Republicans. We looked at the different strategies the two parties had taken back in the 1970s, the last time there was a round of campaign reform in both parties, a time when the Republicans were in far worse shape than the Democrats.

The left choose to organize around constituency groups, i.e. environmental groups, women's groups, labor and so on. The right took a different tack. They became multi-issue. They started think tanks and multi-issue political action committees to do candidate recruitment and training at a national and local level. GOPAC, for example, was founded in 1974 by Pierre DuPont and then taken over in 1984 by Newt Gingrich. By 1994, when the Republicans took control of Congress, 100 of the Republicans in Congress had been through GOPAC.

So, in 2003, Progressive Majority launched a competing program for recruiting and developing candidates. They selected three states to start in - Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington. They wanted different geographic locations and they wanted each location they chose to be a swing state at the Presidential level, the Congressional level and the Legislative level. They also wanted states with bi-partisan Congressional re-districting and large minority groups if possible.

Election year 2004 was the launch. Progressive Majority opened the Washington State office in April of last year and asked me to be Director here. Although they came in too late to recruit, Progressive Majority endorsed and supported 51 candidates statewide, mostly at the Legislative level, although they also targeted three of the Washington State Congressional candidates.

Nationally, Progressive Majority targeted 10 House races and 4 Senate races. Two of the 4 Senate candidates won and 9 of the 10 House candidates.

Q: What did you do for these candidates?

We hosted a lot of political training sessions where candidates and their staff can go to learn about fund-raising, organization, messaging. We are very aggressive about messaging. We have a public opinions and messaging specialist we bring in to help. We work on framing, organizing responses and getting across the messages of the left.

And we keep helping these folks throughout the campaign.

Q: And now that the election is over?

DN: Now we're really getting active. Unlike other organizations, we are actually doing more now. We are hosting and publicizing events of interest, such as the recent visit by Robert Kennedy Jr., and encouraging more membership involvement. We just hired Edie Gilliss as Political Director and Christine Clapp as the Finance Director, both of whose bios are on the website. We are very bullish on Washington State and plan to be very active in 2005 and 2006.

Q: What are you doing to partner with other progressive organizations?

DN:  We are reaching out and engaging progressives at the grassroots level. We are asking people to help us develop our agenda. That method was one of the reasons the Howard Dean campaign was so successful. We want to enable the progressive community to find our own voice and set the agenda that makes sense to us collectively. It also needs to be an on-going strategy, about the ideas, such issues as health care for children and protecting the environment.

Progressive Majority has a Council of people who help us establish our agenda from many different progressive organizations in the state.  It includes people from the Washington State Labor Council and many individual labor organizations, both the state Senate and House Democratic Campaign Committees, NARAL, the WEA, Washington Conservation Voters, the Washington State Trial Lawyers and many others. We are aggressively expanding that Council and are particularly focused on involving communities of color. This Council is designed to help clarify issues and prevent potential difficulties that can arise between different constituency groups, such as labor and the environmental community. This is a place where everyone can come together and find candidates that we agree on and support them.

We have a particularly strong partnership with Democrats for Washington and Democrats for America, both formed out of the Howard Dean campaign. In August, Howard Dean was in Seattle and we announced a partnership. We think that is very important. We talk together. We see lots of ways that we can bring the power of the large DfW and DfA memberships together with the in-depth understanding of the Progressive Majority membership.

Q: What about Eastern Washington?

DN: We had a campaign training in Spokane in July, the only training that I know of there in the last 10 years. We supported a candidate in the 6th LD in Spokane, Laurie Dollan. She lost but she got an amazing 49.1 % of the vote. She is now Policy Director for Gregoire's administration.

Q: What is your connection to the Democratic Party?

DN: A group like this needs strong ties with the Democratic Party. I was President of the Young Democrats and have been a long time activist in the Democratic Party in this state. I don't see us as being adversarial. I know most of these folks and have long-term relationships with them.

Because of the internal structure of the DNC and the state parties, it is very hard for the Party to focus on the long-term. The Republicans do a far better job of this. There is an Office of Strategic and Long-term Planning in the RNC. They make strategic decisions that effect elections years out ahead. It shows.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Allen published on February 5, 2005 9:16 AM.

Learning to Lobby - Another Step in Citizen Responsibility was the previous entry in this blog.

Follow-up on the Democratic Party Election is the next entry in this blog.

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