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One of the big challenges/opportunities for Democrats coming out of this last election cycle has been the question of how to harness the energy unleashed by Howard Dean supporters. There is a general sense that none of the other major Democratic figures, including John Kerry, fully understood that desire to be involved and make a contribution. In the end that seems to be a major reason why the Democratic establishment finally turned to Dean as DNC Chair. The grassroots was with him from the beginning.

Ray MinchewRay Minchew and the Democracy for Washington organization have been at the forefront of learning to work with this new grassroots energy.

Democracy for Washington is an offshoot of Democracy for America, the original Dean organization that grew out of his primary race. We interviewed Ray about how his organization has defined itself and what it is doing to build a core of active, effective organizers from the ranks of the people brought more deeply into the political process in this last year and a half.

See the extended entry for the interview. You may also be interested in the interview with Dean Nielsen and Progressive Majority that we did last week. 

Interview with Ray Minchew, Director of Democracy for Washington

Q. Clarify first how Democracy for Washington and Democracy for America work together.

RM: Democracy for America (DfA) deals with the larger national issues. We formed Democracy for Washington (DfW) a year ago as a way of having a local conversation and to serve as a focal point for the Howard Dean organization in this state. There is no sharing of funds. Federal regulation doesn't allow that. We communicate about events and may put things up on each other's blogs. That's it.

Q. Talk a bit about the Howard Dean phenomenon.

RM: During the primary, Howard Dean meant a lot to a lot of people. He was able to give people a sense that they could be engaged as activists at every level. The campaign put out a blog that was very empowering to people and gave them a sense that they were being listened to and they could have an impact on the Presidential race. 

When I formed DfW, along with some other folks, we came to realize that Dean was what I now call a "value sponge".

Like Bush seems to be? Yes.

People everywhere thought that Dean shared their beliefs, their values. I had never thought that my views and Dean's views overlapped 100%. But when I started to clarify what Dean believed, I got a lot of push-back. People had different understandings of what they thought Dean stood for and it was hard to get everyone on the same page. 

The genius of Howard Dean and Joe Trippi was that they relinquished control. It is a very difficult thing to do. The impulse is to keep control of the reins, not to let it go. It is very gutsy to say that we're going to let the grassroots run this thing. And that's what they did. 

Q: Have any of the other Democrats figured that out yet?

RM: John Kerry ran a very good campaign but he never got that idea of fully engaging activists at every level. Paul Berendt genuinely understands what Dean did and wants to do the same thing. He is struggling with how to do it.

Q: Is there a downside?

RM: Certainly. Howard Dean got into trouble with a lack of message control. He is moving toward more of a middle ground now. I think Paul Berendt is also moving toward that middle ground, like many Democratic leaders.

There are lots of Dean folks in the Party organization now. It will make a big difference. 

Q:  So why and how did you start Democracy for Washington?

RM: Many of the Dean staffers played poker every Tuesday night and we just kept playing and talking even after Dean lost the primary. We debated what to do. Should we join another organization? After a while it became obvious that there needed to be a place where people could go with that energy that had come out of the Dean organization. We looked at how to do that. We didn't want to wait for the DfA to come up with something. 

 

I kept asking people who we could get to lead this organization. Finally I just did it. Most of us were new to politics so we stumbled around a bit. We turned to our existing network to build an email list and a website. We didn't quite know what we were going to do and worked hard to figure that out. Luckily we had a lot of active people in the Puget Sound area and they showed up and brought friends and became involved.

Initially we saw ourselves as a Dean organization but the Kerry and Kucinich folks asked us to open up and accept new people. Interestingly enough, in the process we lost some of the Dean folks.

Q: What have you done since then?

RM: We organized a successful Democratic gubernatorial forum here early spring with Gregoire, Sims and Talmadge. Other than that, during the campaign season we were part of the general noise, not highly successful. We sent people to work for Kerry and for Don Barbieri. We worked with Jay Inslee to sponsor two showings of "Fahrenheit 9/11" which raised $5,000 that went to some local candidates and to MoveOn.org. 

Q: And since the election? What have you done and what are you planning on doing?

RM: We held a meeting to get organized and pass some bylaws. Next, we are going out around the state to talk with local activists in Yakima, Spokane, Bellingham, Vancouver and Olympia. We want to teach people at the local level how to identify people who can win elections. And we want to find out what they want DfW to do.

Once we get through the initial round of meetings, we'll start talking about the 2005-2006 elections. We want to be out in front, organizing in neighborhoods. We will start focusing on networking events and pull people together to go out and do the work that needs to be done. Politicians need to see that DfW can help them. We want them to see that we will cover their backs so that they can take more risks.  We believe that recruiting progressives is critical.  We want to find our own people and build our bench. 

Q: How do you work with other organizations like the Democratic Party and Progressive Majority?

RM: We haven't worked really closely with the Democratic Party lately other than helping them to advertise events. The Party has been responding to the Republican re-vote campaign and that's not really our role. But we are sending people into the Democratic Party. We hope to be more closely aligned with the DNC, especially now that Dean is the new Chair.

We work closely with Dean Nielsen, Director, and Edie Gilliss, Political Director, over at Progressive Majority. They have a lot more political experience and are helping us get organized. We meet every few weeks to talk about goals.

Q: What do you see changing as a result of Dean becoming the Chair of the DNC?

We believe that Dean was our Goldwater, changing how people view politics. His campaign will affect campaigns moving forward. We are asking our base to donate monthly membership dues right away to the DNC to show our support for Dean.

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.

paul_berendt.jpgMany people think this race is a referendum on Paul Berendt's tenure as Chair for the last ten years.  Paul was elected in 1994, another very bad year for Democrats both nationally and in this state.  He was able to turn the Party around and figure out how to make it financially healthy.  Democrats have done well in these last ten years in this state.  Now, after a year when a massive number of new people have become more involved in the process and we had a rollercoaster of a post-election, the Democratic Central Committee will decide on Saturday whether to keep Paul as Chair or bring in new blood. 

Paul understands much of the changing desires of the newly involved Democrats.  The Party electors will have to decide if he understands enough.  If he wins, he will have to buck the people around him and significantly improve the operations side of the Democratic Party in this state as well as keep the energy and enthusiasm of the people new to active Party involvement.

This is the last of the four candidates running for Chair whom we have interviewed.   Read on for the full interview.  Or check out our recent interviews with other candidates Greg RodriguezKat Overman and Bill Phillips

Q: What have you been doing to revitalize the Democratic Party in this state?

PB: Under my leadership, the State Party has been a conduit for harnessing the energy of the last year. I believe we have a wonderful State Party. It is an activist party, a populist party. We've done well. We have two U.S. Senators, the Governor and majorities in both Houses. The challenge for us is to consolidate our power and move clearly into being the majority party.

Q: How would you sum up what you did or learned?

PB: In the past, people have deferred the lobbying, the training, and the planning to others. They have invested power in the Chair. What we've seen this last year is that people want to have greater control over the decisions of the Party and what it stands for. We need to learn to work through committees, to find jobs for people to do that are right for them.

The turning point was the caucus process last spring. This brought a lot of people into the Party and people discovered or rediscovered that process. I believe 8 out of 10 people get involved in politics because of issues. People want to feel like they are able to be an advocate for an issue.

Q: What would you do as State Chair?

PB: My job is to create mechanisms for people to be directly involved in the precincts, and in communications, developing messages and fund-raising.

We have a good staff but now, instead of doing the work, they need to facilitate others doing it. It's been easier to do it ourselves but we need to change that.

I want to have more of an on-going presence in Olympia. We need to give our Democratic Governor and Legislature the cover they need to make things happen. Maybe we can have Issue Day at the state capital, where people come down and lobby for an issue that is important to them and do that maybe once a week while the Legislature is in session. I'm going to propose that to the Central Committee.

We have a Party structure. It works better some places than others. I think it's important that the State Party has something to do for those people who fall through the Legislative District cracks.

The Party already does big statewide events well. We have maybe half a dozen events a year which elected officials attend and talk with people and answer questions, i.e. the Crab Feed and PCO Training coming up in February. We do two major trainings a year, one of which is in Eastern Washington.

We still need to create more venues for people to plug into. The Howard Dean campaign used the Meetup forum well. Perhaps we can create a venue where people can help develop the Party platform through something like the Meetup process. 

Q: Why should you be the Chair?

PB: That good news is that we have 4 good candidates this year. We are all friends. We are saying a lot of the same things. The issues are not that different. We all want greater field operations between elections, better communications and more involvement in Eastern Washington. We want to figure out ways to get more people to participate.

I've proven I can do this. I'm really good at tactics and tactics are important.

Q: How would you involve the other candidates if you win?

PB: I've always brought the other candidates from any race into the process to do whatever they want to do. I will meet with each of them and listen to them about the issues they want to address.

kat_overman.jpgKat Overman is passionate about rebuilding the Washington State Democratic Party through grassroots organizing.  She links the necessity for optimal voter data information with active on-the-ground recruitment.  She is the second of the four candidates for Party Chair whom we recently interviewed. 

Read on for the full interview.  Or you can check out our recent interview with Greg Rodriguez.  Stay tuned for upcoming inteviews with Bill Phillips and incumbent Chair Paul Berendt.

Q: What have you been doing to revitalize the Democratic Party in this state?

KO: I've been involved in the Party from many angles.  I've managed campaigns; I've done media coordination, political consulting, lobbying, fund-raising, mass mailing and volunteer coordination.  I co-founded a political club, the Possession Sound Democratic Club; I've been the Political Organizer of the King County Labor Council and most recently I walked 21 precincts to get Mike Sells elected Representative to the Legislature from the 38th District.

Q: How would you sum up what you did or learned?

KO: I learned how little we know about voters in this state. The lists were terrible; the information was no good.  The technology for this state has to be updated. 

Q: What would you do as State Chair?

KO: I plan to do one-on-one rebuilding.  There is a lot of grunt work that needs to be done.  We need to make use of the lists from the Kerry and Dean and Kucinich campaigns and everyone else.  We need to give individuals their own "garden to tend", a small chunk where they can get to know the people and knock on their doors when they are home and talk with them and see what is important to them.

I want to be able to take the issues and information and get it out to people across the state.  We need to keep those new people involved and active.  There were 1000 people working Snohomish County this time out.  If they stay active, when the next election comes around, we will know who's out there and what they think.

We also need to get funding to have an office in Eastern Washington.  I think it should be in Moses Lake - that's the heart of the Hispanic Community.  We have to reach out to that community.  We need be bilingual; to have all our literature translated into Spanish and printed so people can use it.

Q: Why should you be the Chair?

KO:  I am passionate about rebuilding the Party here.  I am willing to listen and work with people all over the state.

Q: How would you involve the other candidates if you win?

KO: I've got a good picture of what each of the other candidates is most interested in and I would utilize their knowledge and passion.

bill_phillips.jpgBill Phillips is focused like a laser on the importance of honing the right messages as a means of winning elections for Democrats.  He speaks as articulately as anyone on the national stage about how to do that.  This is the third of the four candidates running for Chair whom we have interviewed. 

Read on for the full interview.  Or check out our recent interviews with other candidates Greg Rodriguez and Kat Overman. Tomorrow we'll have our interview with incumbent Paul Berendt.

Q: What have you been doing to revitalize the Democratic Party in this state?

BP: I came to this state in 1993 after working in Democratic politics in Louisiana.  I was VP of the LSU College Democrats and then a statewide organizer for the College Democrats.  I learned how to take people out of the realm of spectator and move them into the realm of active participant. 

That's also where I learned about message.  In 1991 I defeated David Duke.  As Democrats, we struggled to get our message out.  We had to find something that worked to move our numbers against Duke but didn't violate our Democratic principles.

I moved to Washington State in 1993, was active in several campaigns and became Chair of the 21st

Legislative District in 2002. In that role I focused on building a bench of new leaders and developing messages that work.  Last year I was on the Snohomish County Steering Committee for the Gregoire campaign.

Q: How would you sum up what you did or learned?

BP: The focus has to be on 'message, message, message'.  We need a message that resonates in the entire state.  The Republicans have built up Red walls around our Blue Towers.  We've tried to build those towers higher but it doesn't always work.  In the 21st century we need to dismantle that Red wall. 

The Governor's race is an example.  It should not have been that close.  I know that the State Party could have done a better job of reaching out to Independents. 

Q: What would you do as State Chair?

BP: I would start by establishing a physical presence in Eastern Washington.  I would also take advantage of the new people who've just become involved, listening to them, valuing their opinions and their participation. 

I want us to focus on local races in the off-years and build a bench of Democrats on the school boards, in the city council, as mayors.

Then I want to make sure everyone is trained and has a role. We need really good PCO training.  We don't win without good PCO's.  I also want a paid Party representative at every meeting in the State; someone who will be there to listen and observe; someone who can call me at a moment's notice for a decision or opinion. 

Q:  Why should you be the Chair?

BP: First off, I'm a Vince Lombardi Democrat.  I believe that winning is everything.  Next,
being from Louisiana, I speak Southern.  I know how to communicate with the folks who aren't always with us.  And, I will be the most accessible, communicative Chair in state history.

Q:  How would you involve the other candidates if you win?

BP: If I win, I would like all of the other candidates involved.  I have roles in mind for each of them, things they would be really good at but I also want to hear from them of course.

greg_rodriguez.jpgGreg Rodriguez is passionate about becoming Chair and using that position to get the state Party running smoothly.  He is the first of the four candidates for Washington State Democratic Party Chair we interviewed.  Read on for the full interview, and if you have questions or comments, feel free to post them below... who knows, maybe Greg will even jump in and answer them himself!

Check back in later this week for interviews with Kat Overman, Bill Phillips and incumbent Chair Paul Berendt.

Q: What have you been doing to revitalize the Democratic Party in this state?

GR: Most recently I've been Chair of the King County Democratic Party.  I was in charge of financial operations for two years before that.  In both roles, I streamlined operations.  I have a background in operations and I'm compulsive about efficiency.

So we got the King County financial structure in good working order and then did the same with the technology systems.  We developed a good web presence and focused on getting accurate data in our databases.  We trained the staff and did good caucus training.  We were one of the first to institute an email alert system.  That's old hat now but it wasn't then.

Q: How would you sum up what you did or learned?

GR: In King County, we got everything running like clockwork.  We built a base and established a direction for where the County Party would go.

Q:  What would you do as State Chair?

GR: We need to approach this in a much more businesslike fashion.  We need people who can build a team and bridge different agendas. People have different skills; let's put that to work

I see the state Party providing the resources: training, messaging and techniques, much like a franchise.  The different county Parties can make use of that as they like.  In addition, the State Party will develop an on-going statewide field operation, increasing our presence in areas we haven't been in before.

We need to think like a business.  That means having a business plan.  Then we think like a business.  How do we grow our business? We take our safe blue areas and expand those.  We keep people engaged.  People are dying to have something to do.  We need to fund leadership training.

The Republicans started doing all this thirty years ago.  It shouldn't take us that long because we've laid the groundwork and we have what they did as a model. 

We also need better caucus training.  Last year the State provided a training video for the different counties and legislative districts. In King County, we developed a PowerPoint presentation to complement that and gave it to the other Democratic organizations.  I went out myself and did about 15 trainings based on the video and the PowerPoint presentations.  It was extremely successful.

We need to do the same thing with all aspects of field operations.  We can do very simple trainings to get people involved on an on-going basis -- things like how to write a letter to the editor, which issues are important on the state level, on the national level.  We can do regular messaging across the state.

Lastly, we need to develop alliances with other progressive organizations.  There is change afoot and we all need to be a part of it.   

Q:  Why should you be the Chair?

GR: This will take someone with management abilities, someone willing to work with others.  That's me.

Q:  How would you involve the other candidates if you win?

GR: I would seek out the other candidates for their input and utilize their ideas to make this Party stronger.  I already have strong ties with most of the candidates and would value their input.

I interviewed the four candidates for Chair of the Democratic Party in Washington State and I'll post those interviews one at a time over this next week. I was impressed. I asked them about their ideas for revitalizing the Party and left information about who is endorsing them and what they've done in their political lives for others to provide. The 46th District Democrats, in particular, have a thorough set of interviews on their site.

All four are focused on how to make use of what they've learned both from this last election cycle and from their years working in the Party.  Here's the short version. Check back over the next few days for the full interviews.

Paul Berendt has been Chair of the Washington State Democrats for the last ten years and has seen and made a lot of changes during that time. He carries both the institutional history and the institutional baggage of being in that role for that period of time. He understands that people have changed their relationship to the Party. They want to be more involved. They want greater control over the decision of the Party and more input into what it stands for.

Kat Overman has a wealth of varied political experience and is currently Legislative Assistant to State Representative Mike Sells of the 38th District. She is passionate about updating the Party's databases and about grassroots campaigning. She suggests finding local Democrats who can "tend their own little garden" of people in their neighborhood and thus rebuild the Party across the state from the ground up.

Greg Rodriquez, most recently the Chair of the King County Democrats, wants to approach running the Party in a much more businesslike fashion. He wants to get everything running like clockwork as he was able to do with the King County Democratic Club. He sees the need for building a team in the State Party and building alliances with other state progressive organizations. He sees what the Republicans have done over the last thirty years and thinks we can catch up in a relatively short time.

Bill Phillips
focuses on "message, message, message." He talks about the Republicans' red walls and our blue Towers and the need to dismantle those red walls by communicating messages that move Independent and moderate Republican voters but doesn't violate our Democratic principles. Coming from Louisiana, Bill says he speaks "Southern" and can communicate with voters who are not always with us.   

I don't know any of these folks well and don't know if they have the tactical ability to do what they say they want to do. The people in the Democratic State Committee do however know them and will, I trust, be voting accordingly.

That will happen on January 29th in Olympia at the annual reorganization meeting of the Washington State Democratic Party. A slate of officers for 2005-2007 will be elected after giving presentations to the 176 electors - the state committee folks from each county and each legislative district.

Once the Chair is elected, or reelected as the case may be, our job starts. We cannot leave the important business of running the Democratic Party to a small group of people.  The new Chair's success will depend on our on-going involvement and on that person's ability to keep the other candidates involved as well.

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