How to Build a Farm Team
Nielsen steers promising recruits to consultants like Butterworth. Butterworth is delighted. "It's roundup time!" he says. "Dean gets 'em in the corral and feeds 'em up and says, 'Blair, here's your candidate.'" One such candidate is Darcy Burner. Nielsen tried to recruit her for a state legislative race. "She decided to go straight to the majors," says Butterworth, who is wowed by her talent and drive--a testament, in part, to Nielsen's good eye. In her first run for office, Burner stands a good chance of unseating a Republican incumbent in Washington State's Eighth Congressional District. Another candidate who is fulfilling Progressive Majority's vision of a pipeline to higher office is Derek Kilmer. Kilmer was Progressive Majority's number-one target for the Washington Statehouse in 2004. He won, beating a three-term conservative fundamentalist. TomPaine.com wrote of Kilmer's victory, "Derek accomplished something that most liberals believe is no longer possible in present-day America: he convinced voters in a relatively conservative swing district to vote their economic interests." As a freshman, Kilmer passed landmark economic development legislation and supported laws to reduce class size, increase teacher pay and increase enrollment in colleges. This year the conservative state senator in his district retired and Kilmer decided to run for his seat. His is now Progressive Majority's number-one targeted race for 2006.
As Nielsen and Butterworth are talking, Claudia Kauffman, a Native American candidate for State Senate, arrives. Progressive Majority connected Kauffman, an outsider, with Butterworth, one of the heaviest hitters in Washington State politics. Even though she's one of the top fundraisers in the state, Senate Democrats declined to meet with Kauffman after she announced. Then they put up a white cop to challenge her in the primary. If she wins, Kauffman will make history. Washington has no Native Americans in its legislature. Only four have ever served.
Butterworth begins the meeting by saying Kauffman needs to "knock people's socks off" at the state party convention. He suggests she say, "I want to welcome you immigrants to Washington, King County and to the Democratic Party." Kauffman frowns. She's not sure how that will go over. For the rest of the meeting, she sounds dour. "I went out doorbelling," she says. "I got my first door-slam--5,000 to go." Her apparent lack of enthusiasm surprises me. Nielsen says this discomfort is typical of new candidates. Part of it, he says, is cultural. "I've almost never seen a Native American candidate who was really outgoing." Still, Kauffman's fundraising and the grassroots enthusiasm she's aroused make her a contender. (By the end of April she'd raised $48,000; her opponent had $5,600--$5,100 of which he'd contributed.) Progressive Majority is sending her campaigning with other candidates to try to step up her one-on-one voter appeal.
Not everyone Progressive Majority works with is an overnight success. As newcomers, they make mistakes. Edie Gilliss, the state political director for Washington, says she tries to make sure they don't spend their money on gimmicks like T-shirts and nail files emblazoned with their names.
Gilliss, who honed her skills in the gentle art of constructive criticism as an environmental activist with Green Corps and on local campaigns, has to dissuade neophyte candidates from some of their loopier ideas without crushing their confidence. When one candidate for the Statehouse, Deb Eddy, disparages door-to-door campaigning, saying "you can knock on 14,000 doors and still not win," Gilliss smiles and replies, "But if you're going to win, you have to knock on those doors."
The nature of a farm team, of course, is that some people are headed to the major leagues; others are not. One candidate went to Bed Bath & Beyond when she was supposed to be out doorbelling. Another got into office and called Nielsen from the State Senate to complain that he was fed up with going to meeting after meeting. "They're human," says Gilliss.