Friday, January 15, 2010

lessons from 5 years of political activism

This was posted by the Democratic Underground user crispini, who gave me permission to repost in on my blog. Thanks crispini because I feel that my readers and I can learn from this post and your experience. Now as my readers may or may not know, I was not paying attention to politics at all prior to 2004. I voted, but because my parents insisted on it. In 2004, I saw Michael Moore’s movie Fahrenheit 9/11 and it woke me up. After coming home from that movie, I donated $20 to the Kerry campaign. That was the extent of my involvement back then, but I paid attention in the midterms, although did not seriously get involved until moving to New Jersey.

Since I became involved, I’ve worked on two campaigns (Obama and Corzine with all the Democratic candidates down the ticket) and am working on at least two in 2010.
I’m glad to see others getting involved, and crispini tells a great story of five years of involvement. Let crispini’s story be an inspiration for us all.
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Well, fellow Deaniacs, it's been five years, more or less, since we cowboyed up and got involved. I'd like to hear from you about what you've been doing and what your experiences have been since you've "answered the call" to get involved. Here's a little bit from me.

I wasn't a really super involved Deaniac -- although I supported him, I didn't travel for the primaries or anything like that, and by the time my primary rolled around, the race was pretty much over. However, I attended Democracy Fest that year and that's where I really date my political training and inspiration from. I will never forget listening to Howard stand up and tell us all, "If you only vote, then you get a D. You have to get out there and give money, give your time, and get involved. Work for a candidate or run for office yourself." Since then, I am proud to say that I have done my done my bit to get out there and tug on the rope.

I walked and knocked doors for Kerry in our county's grass-roots effort. We printed our own literature and our own signs because there was no campaign presence. I later stood up in front of our county's Executive Committee when I ran for precinct chair. There was a contested election, and I won because of the work I'd put in. Later, we had some absolutely hair-raising Executive Committee meetings over the county chair position, and that's where I learned exactly how ugly local politics could get -- there was some serious high drama, involving bullhorns and shouting and mad people, not to mention a heaping helping of behind-the-scenes intrigue. Nevertheless I stuck around. I continued to work my precinct, work for candidates and I even served as a campaign director for a state house candidate. I was also a delegate to our state party's convention, twice, and I was there when the Deaniacs tried to elect our candidate in for the state party chair. We failed, but we had some real impact on what the guy who got elected finally did when he got in, at least I think so. Oh, and then there was the 2008 primary. In order to keep the peace with my neighbors I kept my presidential preference to myself, and was able to pull off a pretty flawless precinct convention -- we had 400 people there, and I got the whole thing wrapped up in two hours. And more... there's been so much more... local zoning... the state legislature... I've had an up-close and personal view of the way the sausage gets made, and it's been a pretty crazy ride.

And here's what I learned.

Change is Harder Than You Think



Elections are pivot points, and when something dramatic happens like electing the first African-American president, or, as we did in 2004, electing a sheriff who is not only a Democrat, but also female and gay and Hispanic, it feels like a big break, like a dramatic thing, like you can see the fault lines of history moving in a sudden earthquake and pow, everything is different now and we're on the other side of history. But what you DON'T see ... at least if you're not involved in the campaign on an intimate level ... is exactly how many thousands and thousands and thousands of hours went into that change. Behind that change was a million boring meetings, a million frustrating phone calls, a million knocks on someone's door, a million flyers and a million one-on-one conversations.

And presidential elections are the EXCITING ones. Sometimes being involved feels like a life sentence to some godawful conference room in the sky. Local school board elections -- SNORE! Local zoning meetings with your city council person or plan commissioner -- BIG YAWN! But those are even MORE important than presidential elections, because nobody votes in those elections, and very few people get involved in local politics, so it's a economical way to use your time-- you can have a big impact on your town with your time. Nevertheless, this is not exciting, big-picture stuff like a presidential race is, and it's very hard to raise money or awareness when you're involved at this level.

Sometimes trying to get things done feels like Sisyphus trying to roll that ever-lovin' stone up the hill -- over and over and over again. It's boring, it's exhausting, it's frustrating, it's annoying, and sometimes it's just plain hard. It's harder to get anything done than I ever thought it would be. The universe does not instantly yield to what you want to happen. You have to push. And push. And push. And sometimes it doesn't happen anyway. You are disappointed because you didn't get the zoning change, or the bill through, or the candidate elected. And then you just pick yourself up and start over again.

Keep Going Anyway


This lesson came at exactly the right time -- early in my political involvement, a friend of mine went to see Tom Hayden speak. She came back with the following story. He told the group that he understands how frustrating in can be to be involved in the political process. We, the grassroots, get out there and lead, on the issues, with the candidates, with everything -- as much as we can. We have something we want to get through and we push and we push and we push, and at each step it gets watered down and compromised, and we get frustrated and want to quit. But it's important that we see that as a victory. When we get something adopted and it's not perfect, and it's not what we wanted, and we're angry and upset because we know that we wanted so much MORE -- we have to realize that if it hadn't been for our efforts at the grassroots, it would not have gotten adopted in the first place.

I've thought of this a lot myself in the recent HCR debate. You just have to get as much as you can and when it's done, you congratulate yourself for getting that much -- even though it's not what you want, you have to pat the team on the back for getting as much as you could -- and then you go back to the drawing board and make a plan to get MORE.

Volunteers are Paid in the Currency of the Heart


There are exactly two paid employees in our local county party. Many county parties don't even have that. Everything else-- EVERYTHING else -- is done by volunteer involvement. People are doing the work on the nights, weekends, and whenever they have a little extra time to do things. It amazes me that anything at all gets done. After all, it's work -- it's not exactly fun to plan meetings, call people, do data entry, or all the other million things that need to happen.

And you can't treat volunteers like a bunch of employees. You have to gently herd them in the right direction. You have to encourage people, not tell them to do stuff. If something needs to get done, and nobody wants to do it -- guess what -- it probably doesn't get done! And people get busy. Balls get dropped, things get forgotten, things don't get followed up on, and there are no consequences. It's a mess, and it can't be cut through with a big pair of scissors -- it has to be patiently untangled as best you can.

Furthermore, politics attracts every nutball on the planet. Seriously. Forgetful people, conspiracy theorists, touchy ex-Republicans, people who talk a lot about everything under the sun, people who have very odd ideas about how to get things done -- and they ALL have an opinion, and they're ALL going to show up at your committee meeting and have ideas they want to talk about. And you can only steer the meeting in the most general way -- you can't rule with an iron fist -- because after all, nobody here is getting paid money. They are getting paid in the currency of the heart -- the camaraderie, the companionship, the opportunity to express themselves and be heard, the opportunity to make a difference. And you have to understand that.

But what it means is that it's about 10 times harder to get anything done, because it's all getting done by volunteers, and by mostly odd ones at that. And I include myself in that group. :D

"Twenty Years Ago, I Was You."



We Deaniacs came in like a house on fire. We were going to take over the party structure. We became precinct chairs. We volunteered for committees. We even ran someone for our state party chair. We were HERE, damnit, and we were going to Make A Difference. We had DFA, and we we were going to take over the party!

Well, five years later the "class of Dean" is still around and we're still involved -- precinct chairs, serving on committees, and working on campaigns. We definitely know the ropes now. We're a little older and a little wiser and we know exactly how hard it is to get things done. We don't have quite the fervor we did five years ago, and we're a bit more world-weary. Some of us have gotten frustrated or distracted with life and disappeared. Nevertheless we're trying. DFA is still around, but our local organization doesn't have regular meetings -- we round up a group and hold a weekend training every year or so, and we still have DFA stickers on our cars, but most of us have gotten involved with campaigns or other party activities and we don't feel the need to hold other meetings.

So. At a primary night party last year, I found myself chatting with one longtime party activist. This was a guy that has been involved with local party politics. He's been around for 20 years. He knows everyone. He is pretty clearly a part of the "establishment." We Deaniacs have often identified him as "The Man," i.e. a member of the conventional way that the party does business. Nevertheless he's a nice guy and he and I are on friendly terms.

We toasted the candidate who was winning that night, and then he looked at me and he said, "You know, I know you guys look at me and you think I'm this old party hack. Well I've been around for awhile. But let me tell you something. Twenty years ago, I was you."

And I thought to myself, is that's what happening to us Deaniacs? We're getting assimilated?

And now there's a new class of kids on the block-- the Obama activists. It's interesting to watch. Some of them are becoming precinct chairs, joining committees, and otherwise putting their shoulder to the wheel. One faction thought about running someone against the county chair, but they did not get a lot of encouragement from other Obama folks or from the regular party activists -- she's pretty solid, and their potential candidate was pretty lightweight, so that didn't get far. Some of them even have their own organization -- of course, others are going off to work on campaigns.

It's an open secret that they have a plan to take over the party. When one of them told me that, I laughed and told her, "Go right ahead."

And I wonder if that's just the way it happens. The new kids come in full of enthusiasm, stick around, and get assimilated. Change is made, but slowly, and organically. And it's all about getting your butt in the chair and doing your best to make change, and keeping on even when you lose. That's what I've learned over the last five years.

Anything else? Let's hear from the rest of you Deaniacs out there.

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