Grassroots Reseeded: Suites vs. Streets
Colorado, which holds its caucus February 5, offers a microcosm of the national picture. In 2004, even as Coloradans voted 52 to 47 percent for Bush over Kerry, Democrats won control of both chambers of state government and picked up one of just two Democratic gains in the Senate. Grassroots organizers, working in smart coalitions helped by strategic local philanthropists, tasted power, but they've bristled ever since at the dismal votes of Blue Dog Senator Ken Salazar--the party establishment's pick over a progressive in the primary.
Promising change, a new state party chair was elected after the 2004 race. Incoming Patricia Waak's first order of business was changing the locks on the party office. "It was a bit of a coup," says Waak, who won by three votes. Since then, she's hired full-time staff and regional organizers and traveled to every county in the state. With help from the DNC, the party has expanded beyond its metropolitan base, but the real tests lie ahead. The 2004 election "started a grassroots revolution in Colorado, with the established status quo on one side and overwhelming grassroots desire on the other," a new regional organizer, Robin Van Ausdall, told me. The 2006 election "was a proving ground. But 2008 is where we find out how comfortable everybody is with the changes that have been happening."
When the Democratic convention comes to town, the spotlight will hit Denver. For all the talk about the party's first Western convention, the more critical question (insofar as anything that happens at the convention is critical) is, Who will be on the stage: new faces or the Salazar sort?
The answer has implications for both style and priorities, and when it comes to the potential nominees (who will direct the goings-on), the front-runners are very different.
Colorado, just days after the Iowa caucuses, offered a good sense of which candidates were running which kind of field operation. Before paid staff arrived from New Hampshire and Iowa, state organizations fueled by passion were in better shape than those fueled mostly by money. Hillary Clinton's campaign had an office (it opened December 8), but I never saw a yard sign. Although I did hear from one flustered staffer who'd just flown in, no one could get the authority to sit down for an interview. The Obama campaign had nine campaign offices and two dozen events--that weekend. I crawled my way in a snowstorm to a precinct captains' meeting in Colorado Springs, a place more famous for military bases and reactionary megachurches than any kind of Democratic politics.
In contrast to the media's picture of the Obama campaign, only one person at the meeting was under 30. For all the talk of race, every participant was white. Jason DeGroot, fresh from ten years in the Air Force, said it was his first sortie into politics. Across from DeGroot sat Mike Maday, a member of the local county executive committee, who attended his first Obama meeting while on Democratic Party business. "I was looking for precinct chairs, but I was won over by the participants," he said. That wasn't in a flush of excitement post-Iowa. It was back last February.
In the summer, Maday attended a Camp Obama training out of state. "This campaign's all about organizing," Maday told me, "which is to say, taking leadership from the community." The campaign camps were designed to build volunteer infrastructure in less resourced, second-tier states. There's all the difference in the world between canvassers and organizers, says Marshall Ganz, a longtime organizer and professor at Harvard who was a Camp Obama trainer. "Canvassers assess voter preferences. Organizers inspire commitment."