By the end of his second day at Camp Wellstone, Don Stechschulte is beginning to have doubts about running for office. It’s not that he is afraid of the commitment, although one trainer after another hammers home that a successful campaign requires a Herculean effort.
The 25 people taking the candidate course heard Julie Matuzak, a one-time staffer for former Democratic Rep. David Bonior and now the political director of the Michigan Federation of Teachers union, insist that if she were involved in their campaign, they would be out knocking on doors seven days a week. One hundred doors a day. And if you don’t meet your quota one day, you make it up the next.
And they heard campaign finance experts tell them that they could bank on spending fully 50 percent of their waking hours on the phone soliciting contributions.
“Without money, you can throw everything else you learned here out the window,” explains Jeff Blodgett, who managed three successful campaigns for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, the man who inspired the seminar held in Detroit two weeks ago and others like it being held in key states around the country.
It isn’t the daunting work ahead that has Stechschulte doubting a decision to run for Congress back in his home state of Pennsylvania. Stechschulte, a physician who heads the student health service at Bucknell University, likewise isn’t questioning the wisdom of running as a Democrat in a district so heavily skewed toward the GOP that his party didn’t even mount a challenge the past two elections.
No, what has him wavering is the sense that he won’t be able to remain true to his ideals if he enters the race. Stechschulte flew to Detroit harboring the quixotic notion that it would be possible to run what he called “a campaign of ideas.” He asked straight out during one of the seminars if that made any sense at all, and was told, basically, no. Idealists that they are, the people behind Camp Wellstone are about winning.
“I left Saturday night feeling kind of depressed,” Stechschulte, 57, says. “I was under the mistaken impression that Wellstone did it differently. I didn’t think the financial piece was going to be as strong with Wellstone as it was with every other political type.”
What did set Wellstone apart was the source of his funding. Instead of opening the cash spigot from oil companies and pharmaceutical firms and defense contractors, he turned to environmentalists and unions and working people who might only be able to muster a $50 check. His strength lay in numbers.
Fortunately for Stechschulte, on Sunday he hears a speech by John Freeman, an Ann Arbor Democrat who formerly served in the Michigan Legislature.
“Freeman turned it around for me,” says Stechshulte. “He helped me see the reason why it is important to run for office. You do it because of the potential to make people’s lives better, to make your little piece of the country better.”
That’s the thing about Camp Wellstone. The scope of practical information presented over the course of two-and-a-half days of training is startling. But what campers talk about as much as anything is the inspiration offered by Wellstone himself, a man who achieved enormous political success while remaining true to an unwavering set of core beliefs.
It wasn’t a success that came in spite of those beliefs, but because of them.
“He was authentic,” explains Blodgett. “And people are hungry for that in a politician.”
And so, although they didn’t always agree with some of his positions, the people of Minnesota were poised to elect Wellstone to a third term last year, even though he was the only senator up for re-election to oppose the resolution allowing George W. Bush the authority to lead this country into war with Iraq. Twelve days before that election, however, a plane crash took the lives of Wellstone, his wife, his daughter and five others.
Though only a small part of the training course, the focus on Wellstone imbued the camp with a sense of purpose and inspiration.
Rebecca Cardozo, a lawyer who worked on the periphery of Wellstone’s last campaign, mists over when she tells of meeting the senator on a plane. She recalls how she wanted to tell him how much she admired him, but never got the chance, because Wellstone was more interested in finding out about her. When he learned that she worked for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the senator thanked her.
“No one ever did that,” she says, her eyes filling with tears at the memory.
She has aspirations of running for the U.S. Senate one day. She isn’t deterred by the challenges detailed during the course, but she does get a jolt of reality that makes her realize that the timeline she had in mind would have to be extended.
“I knew what I was planning was big, but I didn’t realize just how complicated it is,” she explains. “Putting a whole team together, a campaign manager and a fundraiser and all the research … it doesn’t deter me. In fact, I’m more determined than ever. I just know it’s going to take me longer than I thought.”
Sharon McWhorter has more modest aspirations. A Detroit native, McWhorter owns a consulting business in the city. Among other things, she puts on training seminars, so she brings an expert’s critical eye to Camp Wellstone.
“They’re a very dedicated, focused, committed group of individuals,” says McWhorter. “They’re pros.”
McWhorter is particularly impressed by the different training exercises the trainees were put through. Along with breaking up the lectures and letting participants get out of their seats, the mock drills — which require the group to align into teams and vie for a “fabulous prize” (a Camp Wellstone T-shirt, they eventually learn) — generates camaraderie. But they are also highly instructive. One exercise has teams facing a hostile press conference, another challenges each person to give a one-minute stump speech, a third requires them to make a campaign commercial.
McWhorter finds the stump speech to be a particularly humbling experience. “It was sort of a wake-up call,” she says with a laugh.
As much as anything, though, the camp solidifies McWhorter’s intention to run for local office. She currently is board chairman of the Detroit Empowerment Zone, an appointed position. But she says that, if Detroit recovers its ability to elect its school board members, she’s ready to make a run for one of the seats.
“After attending this workshop, I know I have to make a contribution,” she says. “It made me want to go out and share what I’ve learned.”Curt Guyette is the news editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call