Paul Wellstone won elections as a progressive by energizing and mobilizing a large base, staying close to community organizing efforts of all kinds and fearlessly pressing a bold agenda. His model of successful political action is one that can be applied by others, and that is what the Camp Wellstone training program–coming to a political battleground state near you–is all about. Camp Wellstone is a training program put on by Wellstone Action, the nonprofit, nonpartisan group set up by sons Mark and David to carry on the work of their parents. The program started because Mark and David believe that the best tribute possible to the life of Paul Wellstone is to have many thousands of others embrace his legacy of organizing, advocacy and winning elections.
Camp Wellstone is a fast-paced, two-and-a-half-day traveling crash course that blends the concepts of community organizing, large-scale grassroots campaigns and progressive leadership with intensive training in the nuts and bolts of effective political work. About 110 people go through Camp Wellstone at a time. People divide into three tracks that reflect the Wellstone model: working on electoral campaigns, organizing and activism, and being a candidate. Camp participants stay in their tracks for much of the weekend, coming together in several joint sessions so that the people interested in electoral campaigns, those interested in community organizing and those running for office can learn from one another.
A sampling of the sessions at Camp Wellstone include: building, growing and mobilizing a base; message development; field organizing the Wellstone way; the politics of conviction–how to lead as a candidate; understanding targeting; action planning. Camp attendees also practice applying the skills they learn with hands-on exercises like delivering a one-minute stump speech, making strategic decisions by developing a sample campaign budget and participating in a simulated press conference.
Each camp has some of the best national trainers in the field, along with experts drawn from the local area. There are always trainers present who were heavily involved in Paul Wellstone’s successful Senate campaigns. The first camps have attracted a wide variety of participants. There are young people exploring a career in politics or community organizing. There are average citizens who have decided it’s time to get more involved and want to know how to do that. There are seasoned activists exploring ways to be more effective advocates. And there are current and potential candidates, often running for local offices like school board, city council and state legislature.
Wellstone Action has put on five camps so far, with the plan to conduct another thirty (two to three a month) by the end of next year. The camps will be conducted mainly in battleground states like Florida, Missouri, Michigan and Pennsylvania, where this kind of organizing can ultimately have an impact on national politics. Wellstone Action will team up with like-minded organizations–like the Partnership for America’s Families (www.americasfamilies.org), the Service Employees (SEIU), the Steelworkers, environmental organizations and peace and justice groups–to put on these camps. These organizations and others are sending their members for training and looking to hire graduates of the camps as organizers. By the end of 2004, close to 4,000 people will have attended a camp. But Wellstone Action will not stop at the end of 2004. Building the progressive infrastructure that Paul Wellstone cared about will take time, so the camp program will be a long-term endeavor. The goal ultimately is that hundreds of people will run for office and win, thousands will consider organizing as a career and progressive organizations will be dramatically strengthened by leaders with enhanced skills.
Paul Wellstone wrote in his book The Conscience of a Liberal about the critical ingredients for effective political activism: “good ideas and policy, so that your activism has direction; grassroots organizing, so that there is a constituency to fight for the change; and electoral politics, since it is one of the ways people feel most comfortable deciding about power in our country.” Wellstone practiced what he preached and ended up making a difference in the lives of many by building progressive power. Above all, Paul Wellstone would want us to keep learning how to help make the progressive movement more capable, strategic and successful. That’s what Camp Wellstone is all about.