It's easy to deify your heroes when they're gone, or even almost gone. Ronald Reagan is nearing sainthood in right-wing circles, with conservatives squashing an ostensibly unfavorable television miniseries, pushing to get his mug on the dime, renaming airports after him and even talking about enshrining him on Mt. Rushmore. St. Reagan will live forever.
For the left there's the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., the unabashedly progressive -- dare I say "liberal" -- two-term senator who died in a plane crash last year, just weeks ahead of the 2002 election. Wellstone's funeral, you may recall, was derided by conservative critics as a partisan political affair, which in turn doomed former Vice President Walter Mondale, whom Democrats recruited to run for Wellstone's seat.
Before his death Wellstone was already a favorite of the progressive movement. His 12 years in the senate were marked by his outspoken, populist politics at a time when his Clintonized party was bolting for the center, and by his remarkably successful grassroots campaigning.
It's the latter that brought about 120 people to Disney's Coronado Springs Resort in mid-December for Camp Wellstone, a boot camp designed to bring the gospel of Paul to the masses nationwide, with special attention paid to battleground states like Florida. The idea is to teach progressives the same strategies and techniques that helped create the Republican juggernaut. The goal, says Jeff Blodgett, Wellstone's campaign manager, who now serves as executive director for Wellstone Action, is as simple as it is ambitious: "We want to build progressive power and take our country back."
Wellstone campers are divided into three groups: activists, aspiring politicians and political campaign operatives. Each group gets a three-day crash course in effecting change. Camp Wellstone is a nonprofit, so it is barred from partisan politics. Nonetheless, there's no mistaking on which end of the political spectrum the group falls.
"I don't represent the big oil companies, I don't represent the big pharmaceutical companies, I don't represent the Enrons of the world, but, you know what, they already have great representation in Washington," the late Senator Wellstone said in an ad that was to have begun airing the day he died. "It's the rest of the people that need it."
Wellstone's entry into politics is telling. In 1990, he narrowly defeated Minnesota Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, a two-term Republican with a $7 million war chest. Wellstone raised only about $1 million for the race.
Instead of relying on cash, the former political science professor from a small liberal arts college in northwest Minnesota banked on a cadre of activists -- many of them former students -- and a history of taking stands.
He worked with unions and feminists, farmers and tree huggers, meat packers and peaceniks. Combined, that meant an army of campaign operatives, and in the end, victory. "My whole background is community organizing," he once told a reporter.
As an incumbent, his network expanded to more than 120,000 people who gave, on average, $50 each. In a world of $1,000-plate dinners and nine-figure presidential campaigns, that's a remarkable feat. He dumped that money in training organizers and more than 11,000 volunteers.
"If it's a 'normal' campaign -- television spot versus television spot, my pollster versus yours -- we don't win," Wellstone once said. "We have to mobilize people outside the normal electorate. That's how we win."
And that's why the Camp Wellstone campers are here.
A week ago Coronado Springs played host to the state Democratic convention, where the leading candidates to unseat George W. Bush made their pitch. Judging by the array of bumper stickers and T-shirts I see upon entering, Dennis Kucinich, Howard Dean and Wesley Clark are the favorites of this lot. This isn't Joe Lieberman's kind of people.
At the front desk, we're registered, photographed, name-tagged and asked to drop off our r?sum?s. "What are the r?sum?s for?" asks Ed, a bespectacled man wearing a "Clark for President" button.
Wellstone Action, the group behind the camp, likes to keep track of its graduates in case there are opportunities for them to join an issue or political campaign, replies the lady behind the desk.
"You're not going to give our information to John Ashcroft?" Ed jokes. "We're all Democrats here."
The camp is nonpartisan, the lady corrects. Nonetheless, Ashcroft won't be getting the list, she adds.
Inside, Blodgett lays out the camp's grassroots philosophy. "Wellstone was a progressive who won major elections," he says. "He took an integrated approach to political action `rooted in` harnessing the power of an organized base, energizing the base and working deep down in the community, then move on and win voters. Many give lip service to this type of campaigning, but few do it right."
And then comes the requisite, though obviously heartfelt and genuine, hero worship: "Wellstone pushed a bold, progressive agenda. Voters awarded him for his authenticity. He knew when to pick his fights, but he operated with a `moral` anchor. We argue that progressives will do better when operating on what you believe is more important than the position itself."
In other words, taking a stand trumps political jockeying.
There's a sense among the gathered that the Democratic party has lost its way, giving lip service to its working-class roots and taking its base for granted. In fact, there's a feeling that liberals don't have an agenda, or at least haven't articulated it well, and that post-Sept. 11 the right has put the left on the defensive and forced it to complain instead of offering voters a clear direction on how to make America better.
A few days after a Camp Wellstone confab in Detroit ended, Blodgett offered this indictment of the Democratic party. "The problems with the Democratic party stem from the party losing its moorings, with not staying connected with the underlying beliefs and worldview that represent the Democratic party. People want to see alternatives and choices. The other side does that very well. They have no problem putting out strong views. Somehow we've been unable to do that."
Blodgett is followed by Roy Temple, whose liberal credentials run thusly: "I had the privilege of knowing John Ashcroft was a bad guy before the rest of the country got the opportunity to figure that out," he says to a round of applause.
Temple ran the campaign of Mel Carnahan, the late Missouri governor who challenged Ashcroft in 2000 for a U.S. Senate seat, only to die in a plane crash, eerily like Wellstone, shortly before the election. Carnahan won anyway, and for two years his wife Jean took his seat. Temple served as her chief of staff, and counts it his proudest moment in politics when Jean Carnahan voted against Ashcroft's nomination as attorney general.
"The message of this camp is you're going to learn to show citizens and politicians the Wellstone way," says Temple, who sounds remarkably like Kermit the Frog when he gets excited.
Wellstone Action's approach -- using a nonprofit to push a well-defined political agenda -- is not new. As Blodgett points out, "The Christian Coalition has long been involved in training their folks to be effective political activists. The right also has something called the Leadership Institute, which is designed to train conservative leaders. They do a lot of training on campaigns."
The Leadership Institute was established in 1979, and boasts of schooling 30,000 budding conservatives on winning elections and influencing public policy. The religious right's takeover of the Republican party is due in no small part to the efforts of independent political action committees, led by the National Conservative Political Action Committee, which took the anti-abortion, family-values message of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and used it to recruit a new breed of like-minded candidates.
Combine that with the heavy financing of conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, which gave political ammo to right-wing lawmakers and activists, and it's apparent why America has been headed right for the last two decades. Today, Republicans control the presidency and both houses of Congress. In Florida, they control the governor's mansion, the Legislature and the cabinet.
Wellstone Action wants to be the antidote. Unlike the group's namesake, Blodgett and company aren't confined to a single state. In time for next November's elections, they aim to teach and inspire 4,000 liberal foot soldiers across the country, and add to the burgeoning chorus of the disenchanted left in time to de-Bush the Oval Office.
It's not as blindly idealistic as it may sound. These liberals don't want to punch the air. They want to win. "We don't see ourselves as building a new movement," Blodgett says. "We see ourselves as adding value to the progressive movement that's already out there. We see ourselves as a little piece of the puzzle."
Camp Wellstone is cheap -- just $35 for two and a half days of instruction. Wellstone Action -- whose advisory board features such liberal celebrities as Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Al Franken, Walter Mondale and former Sen. Bill Bradley -- funds the camps, which it runs in conjunction with ACT, or Americans Coming Together. This is the eighth camp of the year, and about two dozen more are set for next year, possibly including one in Tampa in January.
Inside a small conference hall, my 35 or so fellow activists are gathered into six-member teams. They've already gone through a 45-minute lecture on dealing with the media, and now have to run a simulated press conference.
A Camp Wellstone coordinator points me to the nearest table. I am a Hedgehog, she says. We're trying to drum up media interest in saving an elementary school -- Kennedy Elementary -- that is about to be closed due to budget cuts. We are assigned the roles of a U.S. senator, the school's PTA president and principal, a teacher, and two elementary school kids (who will sit through the press conference on their knees). I'm playing an alumni off to college thanks to the educational start I got at Kennedy Elementary. I'm told I won't have to speak.
Turns out I do. Three minutes into our eight-minute presentation to the "media" -- Temple and two other conference speakers -- our PTA president introduces me. I introduce myself as a Harvard-bound success who stayed off dope and got a scholarship because of the moral compass instilled in me at dear old Kennedy. The press corps tries to lead us astray with inquiries on the No Child Left Behind act and Florida's class-size amendment.
Lesson No. 1: Stick to your message, and don't ramble extemporaneously about topics you're not prepared to address.
Apparently, my half-cocked speech didn't go over too poorly. After all the groups made their presentations -- one wanted their city council to mandate that 20 percent of new housing be affordable; another group was trying to get the city to build a skate park -- we Hedgehogs were declared the winners.
After lunch we gather into a large group session to listen to Stan Rosenthal, former AFL-CIO political director who is now ACT's chief executive officer and in charge of the get-out-the-vote drive. Blodgett handles Rosenthal's introduction, saying, "He was once called Newt Gingrich's worst nightmare. I think now he's Karl Rove's worst nightmare."
Rosenthal is here to detail -- and recruit volunteers for -- ACT's "massive voter contact program," a giant get-out-the-vote effort (colloquially referred to as "GOTV") which, he hopes, will bring enough progressives to the polls to unseat Bush.
Rosenthal describes the success unions had drawing voters to the polls in 2000 (for Al Gore, though he dances around that obvious point), and PowerPoints through stats showing how unions brought a greater percentage of their members to the polls than the public at large. Union voters gave Gore the edge in critical states, he adds.
But ACT -- which will soon open a Florida office with a $10 million budget, Rosenthal says -- will bring GOTVs into the 21st century, with a superhigh-tech, almost Orwellian database to track potential voters, the issues and candidates they care about, and how likely they are to make it to the polls.
ACT plans to employ an army of volunteers armed with handheld organizers tapped into their megadatabase, making entering information on voters -- names, party affiliations, issues they care about, whether they'd display yard signs, etc. -- easy. "That's reeeally cool," exclaims a woman next to me.
And it's smart, too. You know who's on your side and who isn't, who's going to vote and who isn't. That makes GOTV campaigns more efficient and effective.
Someone in the crowd asks Rosenthal if Bush has a similar setup. "I don't think so," he answers.
We spend the next two hours in lecture: First a speaker takes us through planning an issue campaign. Some keys here: Be creative; identify your goals from the outset; plan well so you leverage your strength and don't outspend your resources. All pretty basic stuff, centered around the notion that if you set a plan from the beginning, your chances at success increase.
Next, the wonderfully talkative Akua Budu-Watkins, who worked for a U.S. senator and a Detroit mayor in her lengthy career as a political operative, talks about establishing and maintaining a base of support. Budu-Watkins explains in detail how she brought neighborhood associations together in Detroit, and how a little appreciation for volunteers' efforts goes a long way in getting their continuing help.
Then comes Ken Sanguin, who ran the GOTV campaign for the 2002 Wellstone/ Mondale campaign and who now works for Howard Dean. Sanguin talks about door-knocking, which, he says, is one of the trickiest parts of being an activist, because you have to approach strangers and quickly gauge whether they are with you, against you or undecided. Being a neighbor or a volunteer, not a paid political operative, goes far. Don't go into someone's house, he says, and if there are stairs on the front porch, stand on the steps so that, subtly, you are below the homeowner and thus, not an imposing presence. Be friendly, but don't waste time. If the person doesn't like your cause, and you've got dozens of other houses to canvas, get the hell out of there (while being polite). If someone's onboard already, try to convert him or her into an activist.
Then we put words into action. It's our second exercise, and the Hedgehogs reconvene at the back of the room. This time, our mission is to knock on three "doors" -- one for us, one against us, one undecided, though we don't know which is which -- as representatives of the Long Branch Clean Air Coalition, a group trying to keep a solid waste incinerator out of our neighborhood. There's a time limit, meaning we have to move from door to door as quickly as possible.
We draw up some quick talking points: The incinerator may cause asthma and pollution to our coastal community, and worse, the government would be subsidizing such travesties.
And herein I confess to helping botch this assignment for my fellow atelerixes albiventris. My first "door" was a woman -- an instructor whose name I never got -- who served as the "undecided vote." I started my pitch: "How are you? My name's Jeff and I'm a volunteer with ..."
I get to the sales part, and start rambling about the evils of the incinerator -- which I'm making up as I go -- and my target starts agreeing with me. "Wait a minute, they want to put one of those things three miles away from me?" she asks, incredulous. "I can't support that."
"Exactly," I respond. "Which is why you should vote no."
But she's playing a woman who just doesn't get what I'm trying to tell her, and I'm spinning my wheels trying to reason with her. Eventually, I give up. (She assures me later that I was doing fine and should have stuck with it.)
The rest of the Hedgehogs don't fare much better, and we don't place in the afternoon's contest.
The next morning, as Blodgett lectures us on "getting the leaders we deserve," I recall a conversation I had a day earlier with Eugene Staccardo, an activist I once interviewed for a long-ago story on growth management in east Orange County. Staccardo told me he's here on the candidate track, and that he's "seriously considering" running for the open Orange County commission seat in District 3, which has already attracted a handful of candidates. He's cut his hair and lost some weight since the last time I've seen him, and is wearing a tucked-in polo shirt, all very unactivistlike.
Perhaps the central thrust of Camp Wellstone is to take people like Staccardo -- well-intentioned, if unschooled in the world of campaigning -- and train them how to run for office. Granted, not everyone is cut out for public office, and for those who lack charisma and viability, a campaign would be just self-indulgence. If even one of the 30 people in the candidate track has the skills to run and win, Camp Wellstone will be a success.
"This has to be about 2004 and beyond," Blodgett tells us. Though he doesn't know it, he's especially right in Central Florida, where Democrats have had a difficult time building a "farm team" of viable prospective candidates for future elections. Getting the leaders you deserve means, as an activist, helping prospective candidates develop viability, standing with them during the election and working with them when they win. In return, you hope the candidates not only help on your issues, but develop the next generation of candidates as well.
"Credibility is gained in drops and lost in buckets."
So explains Susannah Lindberg, a lobbyist with the Wildlife Advocacy Project. She's discussing the proper techniques for lobbying legislators and congressmen, including how to get their attention (when they generally wouldn't care) and build a rapport that can be called in at key moments.
"Sometimes a legislator will vote for your issue simply because they like you," she tells us.
In sum: Set goals, do your homework and find out why they'd care about your issue, develop your message, be persistent but not pushy and take copious notes during your meeting. Also, don't use submissive language, and try to get the lawmaker to commit to your cause directly.
It's time for exercise three, and we Hedgehogs need a victory to secure our place at the top of the activist heap. This competition is set up a bit like yesterday's door-knocking contest, only this time we have to lobby a legislator (who is either with us, against us or undecided) for a bill that would give universal health care to the state's children.
My group has a ringer named Becky Martin, who proudly states that she has worked on universal health care for the last decade and has premade fact sheets at our disposal.
We splinter into two- or three-person groups and pick one of the three available lawmakers. I grab Becky, who will be my lobbyist while I and another group member play concerned constituents who desperately need this legislation -- constituents are useful for this sort of thing, by the way -- passed for the sake of our children.
I am here on behalf of my sister, a single mother who works full time but can't afford insurance for her kids, all of whom have one affliction or another. Martin is there to provide the facts. Our legislator (Temple, who is undecided on the issue) says he's not sure the crunched budget can sustain such a program. We offer to provide him info on how universal health care would save the state money in the long run, and he agrees to read it. Meeting adjourned.
Our performance, and that of our fellow 'hogs, didn't carry the day. We placed third (out of six) in this event, and third overall. However, we didn't win the "fabulous prizes" -- Camp Wellstone T-shirts -- I so coveted.
But I did score an ounce of satisfaction, knowing that my team beat a competitor with two paid organizers on it.
In my two and a half days at Camp Wellstone I was asked to sign more petitions than I care to remember. When Wellstone Action circulates everyone's e-mail addresses as promised -- their way of getting us to keep in touch -- I realize I'll be added to mailing lists from every lefty organization under the sun. I could become a volunteer for ACT, or the League of Conservation Voters, or the folks pushing a minimum-wage amendment, or a myriad of other causes. One day, perhaps, I could organize a campaign and generate a new crop of activists.
And that's what Camp Wellstone is all about: Connecting with like-minded progressives, and using your collective force to change the world. It's also a fitting legacy for the late senator, with the ripples of his influence continuing to expand, even after he's gone.
Additional reporting by Curt Guyette, news editor of Detroit's Metro Times, a sister paper to Orlando Weekly.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.