Going Down the Road

Going Down the Road

During my days as Texas agriculture commissioner, a farmer pointed out to me that you can count the seeds in an apple, but you can’t count the apples in a seed.


During my days as Texas agriculture commissioner, a farmer pointed out to me that you can count the seeds in an apple, but you can’t count the apples in a seed. I remembered the farmer’s pithy observation when thinking recently about our departed friend Paul Wellstone, for he was a particularly productive political seed, and we’ll be harvesting the bounty of his work for a long time. Much has been written about Paul as a model for Democratic gutsiness–his principled stands for example, against George W.’s tax giveaways to the rich and against Bush’s knee-jerk Iraq attack. But Paul made another contribution to modern-day progressive politics that might be even more fructiferous.

Paul showed that grassroots matters. Indeed, it was central to his electoral strategy, not only in his underfunded, lovably quirky first campaign but all the way through his last. In a time when the prevailing wisdom of nearly all national Democratic pols is that “strategy” amounts to grabbing all the corporate bribe money you can get, then throwing all of it at the television screen, Paul put an unheard-of 40 percent of his 2002 campaign budget of $10 million into recruiting, training, mobilizing and nurturing a massive army of door-to-door volunteers.

Practicing What He Preached

Wellstone, who had long been a community organizer and had taught the strategy of political movements at Carleton College, put his high-touch organizing experience into practice from the start of his first campaign and never stopped. “It’s the key to winning,” says Wellstone campaign manager Jeff Blodgett.

Organizational oomph adds percentage points, and it was this extra that propelled Paul to the Senate–twice elected as an unabashedly liberal, populist, Jewish, exuberant, short professor from the Lutheran heartland of tall, reserved Minnesota. And when his plane went down two weeks before last fall’s vote, he was six points up over the tall and toothy Republican, Norm Coleman, whom Bush and Cheney had handpicked and financed, and was poised with 5,000 trainee and field-tested volunteers eager to complete his action plan on Election Day. He was going to win.

Paul’s strategy began with the exact opposite tack from that currently advocated by the Democratic Leadership Council and most Democratic campaign consultants, who say the party’s candidates should target moderate-to-conservative swing voters. Instead, Wellstone had a laser focus on his base–working-class people, small farmers, students, poor people, women, people of color, immigrants and so forth. Organize this base, expand it and turn it out was his plan.

Contrary to corporate-driven, mealy-mouthed DLC types, Paul understood that the key to turnout is turn on. He pounded a consistent message of economic populism that let ordinary folks know he was on their side, that he was the candidate battling the insurance companies and the oil industry.

Not only did this excite and rally base supporters, but–lo and behold–it also struck a chord with suburbanites, moderate Republicans and other persuadables who also don’t like lobbyists writing all the laws. As a bonus, his “politics of conviction” appealed to voters who didn’t generally agree with Paul’s stands but were impressed that in this age of manufactured candidates, he stood for something and did so forcefully and enthusiastically.

Bodies, Not Lists

Such conviction generates genuine campaign energy, which produces volunteers. Most campaigns brag that they’ve got “thousands” of volunteers, but what they really have is a list. Dan Cramer, another Wellstone campaign leader and product of Paul’s training program, points out something important: You don’t have a volunteer until that person actually does something. The Wellstone program assured not only that his volunteers did something but that they did something useful and did it well. The most productive thing that a campaign can do is to talk directly to people–not send mail to them, phone them or reach for them through their television set but have a real person standing in front of them at their door, really engaging them.

This requires a major campaign investment in people, training them to be effective messengers and to develop their own leadership skills. Thus was created Camp Wellstone. This camp consisted of a series of intense, two-day training retreats, each involving 125 or so mostly young people who either wanted to volunteer, wanted to become professional organizers or wanted eventually to run for office.

They started with Organizing 101 and went to the graduate level, some becoming trainers themselves. The camps were supplemented with a series of three-hour Saturday trainings around the state, and the upshot was that in his last campaign, Wellstone had some 15,000 volunteers with some level of training, including that 5,000-person, door-knocking army, which included door-knocking captains, door-knocking centers and other infrastructure to make it effective.

Yes, this is expensive, but not as expensive as television’s air wars, and having people on the ground is more effective. Such deep organizing not only produces victories; it also surfaces and develops a pool of skilled talent, builds a progressive grassroots infrastructure for organizing battles and–most important–nurtures future generations of leaders.

Paul was the seed, and it continues to bear fruit. We should plant many more such progressive seeds across America’s grassroots, and Jeff Blodgett intends to do just that. He’s now establishing a center to continue Camp Wellstone. He hopes to hold ten such camps around the country this year and twenty next year. To help make it happen, to host one, to attend–to spread the Wellstone seed–contact [email protected]. Contributions can be made to the Wellstone Center, PO Box 14377, St. Paul, MN 55114.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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