Precincts – possibilities

2006-May-14

Here is one possibility:

As an alternative, consider Arnie Graf, who’s been an organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation for thirty years. Graf and about ten fellow community organizers from Maryland and DC took the last two weeks of the 2004 election off and headed to East Cleveland, a city of
about 30,000 mostly poor and working-class African-Americans. They had been invited by a community-based organization that set them up in a local church to work on boosting voter turnout in the city. “We learned as much as we could about East Cleveland and got to know the issues,” says Graf. “We wound up covering every door, about 30,000 people, and we decided instead of canvassing and talking about Iraq or how many jobs had been lost in Ohio we would talk to people about what was happening in East Cleveland.” Through the network of the East Cleveland Concerned Pastors for Progress, they recruited 140 volunteers who went door to door among their neighbors, and when election day was over Kerry’s vote total in East Cleveland exceeded Gore’s by 97 percent.

What was important here? They didn’t just “hit and run”, they didn’t just knock on the door, run through the canned script and run away, trying to hit their thirty doors per hour quota. They actually stopped to listen to the people they were trying to influence. Someone finally realized that before you can persuade someone to come to your point of view, you must start by listening to theirs. Before they can solve your problem (winning an election) you have to show that you will help them solve their problems, and you can only find out what people need from you by listening to them. But you can’t listen to people you are targeting to ignore.

The 527 PAC ACT (America Coming Together) wanted to follow the 2004 election by creating just such a grassroots precinct system (as the above quote continues):

In a business plan circulated after the election, ACT painted a picture of a kind of ACT 2.0, with deeper local roots, a focus on local issues and races and a mission of training a permanent, stable cohort of professional organizers. “The greatest experience for me,” says Rosenthal, “was going out to places and seeing young organizers who knew how to cut walk lists and put material together and run a GOTV. That was one of the stated missions from the beginning: We were going to train a whole new generation of organizers, and we were going to figure out a way to keep them working year-round.”

Well, if you followed the ACT link, you discover they didn’t get their wish, and if we want it to happen we cannot depend on wealthy Democratic funders to bankroll it. In fact we will have to rediscover that money is just a means to measure human labor, and if we are wise we will emphasize people’s efforts more than money. After the failed election, I went to a meeting where hundreds of those Progressive volunteers who had been working for ACT or MoveOn or NARAL or the League of Pissed Off Voters, (in fact just about all the local Progressive groups I know of) all were looking for ways to continue the struggle. We all put wrote our names and contact information, but I notice we never got any calls back from the Democratic Party. So if it is going to get done we may just have to do it ourselves.

Any group can put together a precinct system. It does not require top down leadership. It merely requires someone with energy and a real liking for people get some neighbors together to contact everybody in their local neighborhood. Ask what issues are important to them, what problems are besetting them, and what would they like to see happen. Ask if they would like to help out. Have some handouts showing people where they can find help for common problems…and have the precinct contact information prominently displayed. (Have block parties and other functions where people can stop seeing each other as strangers and start seeing each other as neighbors for the first time in decades…) And if you find any local techies willing to help out, put all the information down in a local database, ready to share with other databases.

It can be done, and it can be done from the ground up. If people are willing to get out there and do it. If the Party is wise they will encourage it and reap the benefits. If not, they could watch the rest of the country do an end run around the Old Guard…and maybe take our country back.

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Precincts – the problem

2006-May-14

My mother is a lifelong Republican. Why? Because shortly after I was born when she badly needed a job, a local Republican precinct worker (who later became Governor) helped her out and found her a job at the local five and dime store. And she was so grateful that the party had helped her that she rewarded them with lifelong loyalty. Knowing what needed to happen in the neighborhood and making sure it happened is the task precinct captains traditionally did.

But no longer. In the 12 years since I moved to St. Louis I have never been visited by anyone from the Democratic Party to ask if I want to be a part of the party, or whether I wanted to volunteer, or whether I needed any help with anything. Over the last few years I’ve asked around and no one else seems to have ever been contacted either. It was only a couple days ago that I discovered our township even has a Democratic organization. I thought the local Progressive groups that meet every month were all there was.

No wonder we lose elections when we seem to have virtually no party organization.

A couple months ago one of our local Progressive groups had Corey Dillon, the new full-time Executive Director for the party come by to tell us how things were. I was astounded to discover that before Howard Dean had instituted a “50 State Strategy” Missouri had no permanent party organization. The party came to life for each Governor’s race and went back to sleep in between times. Hmm… Some of us Progressives thought the Party was just ignoring us. We didn’t realize they weren’t there to listen…

But Howard Dean wanted Democrats to compete in every election, and as a result of his spending Party cash to do it, we now have some permanent staffers for the Missouri Democratic Party year round.

And the corporatist wing is pissed, because they don’t want the money to be spent on anything except their tired old, failed strategy of Targeting the Muddle of the Roaders and ignoring all those who are politically active.

In fact, that’s the problem with the current Democratic Party. Their entire “targeting” strategy is based on ignoring people. They ignore the Republican 40% instead of trying to win them over. They ignore the Democratic 40% instead of trying to keep them loyal. They then try to narrow down the 20% “swing voters” to try to find out which of them they can ignore. They even have a “Swing State” strategy that tells them they can ignore whole entire states and ignore every one living in them. And after deliberately ignoring almost all of us then they expect us to be there for them. And they wonder why they keep losing.

There is a solution, though it will require a huge amount of work: Restore the precinct system. The real thing, not a sham. More later…