Drop a stone into a still pond and the water will ripple, concentric circles continuing to expand even as the rock disappears into the silt below. It is the same with a life well-lived. Touch people deeply with your passion and your spirit, create a legacy that others yearn to carry on, and the circles of connection will keep flowing long after you are gone. And if the passion is great enough, and the spirit behind it powerful enough, those ripples may someday become a wave.
Two weeks ago, Detroit felt just such a ripple when a cadre of left-wing political evangelists came here to spread their version of the word.
The force creating it was Paul Wellstone, the two-term Minnesota senator killed in a plane crash along with his wife, Sheila, and six others just weeks before the 2002 election.
Even while alive, Wellstone was a legendary political figure. He was an unabashed liberal at a time when his Democratic Party began to abandon its traditional moorings and sail toward the center, drawn there in large part by the success of the religious right and hard-line fiscal conservatives who had turned the word “liberal” into a term of derision.
Wellstone, the son of a Russian immigrant, prevailed through a combination of idealism and savvy. He proved that populist values, grassroots organizing and the ability to connect with constituents could prevail over opponents bankrolled by special interests.
As he said in an ad that was to begin airing on the day he died: “I don’t represent the big oil companies, I don’t represent the big pharmaceutical companies, I don’t represent the Enrons of this world, but, you know what, they already have great representation in Washington. It’s the rest of the people that need it.”
Following Wellstone’s death, former Vice President Walter Mondale was recruited to take his place. Mondale lost to Republican Norm Coleman, in large part, said analysts, because of a severe backlash to a memorial service that took on the trappings of a political rally, offending the electorate’s Midwestern sense of propriety.
Wellstone’s tragic death and Mondale’s subsequent loss stood in stark contrast to the jubilation felt on Election Day in 1990, when Wellstone defeated Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, a two-term Republican incumbent who’d amassed a campaign war chest of $7 million — about seven times as much as Wellstone would eventually raise. Instead of bulging coffers, Wellstone, a political science professor from a small liberal arts college in northern Minnesota, came to his campaign with a network of activist connections — many of them former students — and a history of taking public stands.
Over the years, he’d stood alongside union workers and feminists, farmers and environmentalists, meat packers and peace activists and people of all races, giving his energy and expertise to their various causes.
“My whole background is community organizing,” Wellstone once told a reporter. And he called upon those connections when he decided to seek office.
His victory over Boschwitz — although by the narrowest of margins — was nonetheless considered a stunning upset. As an incumbent, Wellstone continued to expand his political base, eventually building a list of supporters that grew to more than 120,000 and who contributed an average of $50 each. He put much of that money into training organizers and building a volunteer base that numbered more than 11,000. It was that type of broad support that made the difference.
“If it’s a ‘normal’ campaign — television spot versus television spot, my pollster versus yours — we don’t win,” he said. “We have to mobilize people outside the normal electorate. That’s how we win.”
It is a message that continues to ripple. More than a hundred people just spent a long weekend in Detroit learning its intricacies. And thousands more in key battleground states around the country will hear it before next year’s election.
Welcome to Camp Wellstone.
Don’t let the folksy name fool you. This camp is boot, not summer, with more than 20 hours of intensive training crammed into two-and-a-half days. The progressive ideological underpinnings are well-exposed, and the inspiration of Wellstone the man is summoned forth, but it is doled out in a few small doses. Instead, the focus is on the nuts-and-bolts aspects of winning campaigns, using as a model what organizers refer to as “the Wellstone way.” The funding comes through Wellstone Action, a nonprofit established by the Wellstones’ two sons and a group of close allies in the months after the plane crash. The organization’s advisory board features such lefty luminaries as Warren Beatty and Robert Redford, political satirist Al Franken, and a host of prominent Democratic politicians, including Mondale and former Sen. Bill Bradley. Seven camps have been held around the country so far this year, with two more scheduled for the coming weeks. The expectation is that another two dozen or more will be held next year in advance of the November election.
Because of its nonprofit status, the camp is officially nonpartisan. And trainers are careful not to talk about political parties during seminars. They can, however, promote a political philosophy. And so there is often talk of “our side” and “their side,” of battling corporate interests, of pushing a liberal agenda.
“We are all about training progressives,” says Jeff Blodgett, a former student of Wellstone’s who managed his three Senate campaigns and now is executive director of Wellstone Action.
His organization is far from alone in using a nonprofit structure to push a well-defined political agenda.
“The Christian Coalition has long been involved in training their folks to be effective political activists,” says Blodgett. “The right also has something called the Leadership Institute, which is designed to train conservative leaders. They do a lot of training on campaigns.”
The Leadership Institute, in fact, has been operating since 1979. Its Web site boasts of having schooled more than 30,000 budding conservatives in how to win elections and “obtain positions of influence in public policy. …”
Since the 1970s, the far right has been active on other fronts as well. Robert L. Borosage, co-director of the liberal Campaign for America’s Future, described the effort this way in a June article that appeared in The Nation:
“Rather than invest primarily in the Republican Party, the New Right backed the Moral Majority, galvanizing the emerging right-wing evangelical movement under the leadership of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and others to preach family values and opposition to abortion. It built its own network of independent PACs, led by the National Conservative Political Action Committee. Aided by Richard Viguerie’s innovative direct-mail operation, it forged an independent capacity to recruit and train candidates who shared its values.”
That combined with heavy financing of archconservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, which produced a steady stream of “timely political ammunition — message, propaganda lines, factoids — to arm New Right legislators and activists.” The result, Borosage writes, was a “sea change in American politics, driving the debate to the right and creating the basis for the conservative era that has defined the past 20 years of American politics.”
The folks behind Camp Wellstone are mounting an organized counterattack. Unlike the senator who taught them how to win, they’re not confined to organizing efforts in a single state. Their goal is to inspire a small army of well-trained troops to man trenches nationwide in advance of next year’s election. By November, Blodgett and company hope to have schooled 4,000 recruits in the Wellstone way.
Key to generating enthusiasm among those foot soldiers is a political agenda that will inspire them.
Though party politics are legally verboten during Camp Wellstone training sessions, that veneer, as with its counterparts on the right, is paper-thin. The biographies of nearly every speaker and instructor participating in the Detroit camp reveal strong connections to the Democratic Party or its candidates. Some are politicians, others campaign managers or consultants or fundraisers.
On the other hand, when local organizers began recruiting participants, they made an effort to be inclusive. Not that they got in touch with the state GOP headquarters or the National Rifle Association. But, as one organizer observes, mixed in with the Dems were Green Party members, folks from the Labor Party, and “lots of independents.”
And the training itself, held at the AFSCME union headquarters downtown on Lafayette, focused primarily on material that would benefit anyone interested in becoming active in politics — issues such as how to build a volunteer base or create a campaign budget, whether direct mail is a better investment than radio or print ads, how to leverage grassroots organizing efforts into political power.
But when asked specifically about issues regarding the Democratic Party a few days after the camp has ended, Blodgett is forthcoming.
“The problems with the Democratic Party stem from the party losing its moorings, with not staying connected with the underlying beliefs and world view that represent the Democratic Party,” says Blodgett.
In other words, he seems to blame the centrism espoused by Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council that spawned him.
That move toward the middle, the sort of Republican-lite mentality that has taken hold in so much of the Democratic Party, has largely failed (for everyone but Clinton) in energizing the Democrats’ traditional base, and in giving undecided voters a clear choice.
“People want to see alternatives and choices,” contends Blodgett. “The other side does that very well. They have no problem putting out strong views. Somehow we’ve been unable to do that.”
But the Camp Wellstone organizers are as pragmatic as they are idealistic. They aren’t looking just to fight the good fight. They want to win. And they are not deluded enough to think that the battle is theirs alone.
“We don’t see ourselves as building a new movement,” explains Blodgett. “We see ourselves as adding value to the progressive movement that’s already out there. We see ourselves as a little piece of a much larger puzzle. When you think of it in that way, it’s not as tall of an order.
“The other thing we’re doing to keep things manageable is that we’re choosing to concentrate work in certain states where this kind of organizing can make a difference, politically important states where this kind of organizing can really have an effect.”
Included among those states are Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida.
Earlier this year, Detroit attorney Paul Stevenson read an article in The Nation magazine about Camp Wellstone. A member of the Michigan Democratic Party’s Justice Caucus and pursuer of what he calls “social and economic justice,” Stevenson was well aware of Wellstone, and was always awed by the number of volunteers he attracted to his campaigns.
Stevenson, a longtime progressive activist, had seen the way contributions from the insurance industry and big corporations helped swing the Michigan Supreme Court to the right during the 1990s, and he had been trying for several years to counter that swing — without success. Michigan, he thought, could use a Camp Wellstone.
“I got on the phone and started calling and calling and calling,” he says. “They were still writing course materials at the time.”
The fact that Michigan will play a key role in deciding who wins the White House in ’04 made it an attractive location for Blodgett and crew. And to sweeten the deal, Stevenson promised to raise money locally to help cover costs.
Although the camps cost about $20,000 each to put on, participants pay only $35, which does little more than cover the cost of their meals.
So he got on the phone again, this time to woo the sort of heavy hitters that could deliver dollars. Unions came through, including the UAW, Michigan AFL-CIO, Service Employees International Union and the Michigan Federation of Teachers. So did members of the liberal National Lawyers Guild, as well as a few other groups. Together, they generated more than $10,000 says Stevenson.
And then he began recruiting people to attend the camp.
Passions & tactics
Each Camp Wellstone consists of three tracks, or courses of training. There is one for potential candidates for office (see accompanying story), and one for people interested in managing political campaigns. A third is for community activists.
Brad Wilson, a veteran activist with the group Clean Water Action who now works as a community organizer for the Democratic wing of the Michigan House of Representatives, found out that even experienced hands could learn new things at camp.
He found that training exercises, such as those requiring candidates threatened by scandal to face a mock press conference, provided new insight into dealing with crises on the campaign trail. And then there were in-depth lessons explaining how to create a campaign plan, budgeting and fund-raising.
Just as important, Wilson says, was the experience itself.
“It was invigorating,” says Wilson. “You are there all weekend with all these people who care about their community, and your passion gets renewed. It is absolutely motivating.”
Akua Budu-Watkins knows about motivation. She came to the camp as an instructor, teaching the ins and outs of building and maintaining a volunteer base. Now a management consultant, she served as volunteer coordinator during Dennis Archer’s first mayoral campaign. During her presentation, she laid her philosophy on the line: “Apathy is not an option.”
She came away from the camp impressed, and hopeful.
“With something like this, if only two or three people come out of it able to make a difference, it will have been successful. And I met some very dynamic people here who are going to make a difference.”
Community activists are a crucial component of the Wellstone model.
“Millions of citizens are concerned about issues in their communities, their state, the nation or the world,” notes course material that’s part of a thick three-ring binder given to camp attendees. “They care deeply about issues such as safety in the workplace, environmental degradation, funding for public education, prescription drug costs, immigrant rights or clean water. However, the difference between being concerned about an issue and actually having an impact depends on our ability to organize effectively.”
Yet success goes beyond simply organizing. The Wellstone model hinges upon a symbiotic relationship between politicians and activist groups. These groups bring the door-knockers and phone-bank volunteers necessary to counter the advertising advantage more well-heeled campaigns enjoy. In return, they must demand a candidate who is responsive to their concerns. And the stronger their group, the more leverage they command when advancing their agendas.
The more they can work with other groups that may have different primary concerns but share basic core values, the more successful they will be.
The net was cast wide when recruiting camp participants and local leaders to conduct training sessions. Arab-American and Latino groups, organizations representing the gay community and people with disabilities, civil libertarians and Gray Panthers — all were contacted.
Not everyone was satisfied with the effort.
Simone Lightfoot, political action committee chair for the Michigan NAACP, says requests for her group to provide trainers came too late.
“We had statewide training going on that weekend,” says Lightfoot. “The requests were too last-minute for us. People were already committed elsewhere.”
Overall, however, the camp, although predominantly white, received high marks from participants for its diversity.
“It was very inclusive,” says Caryn Pack Ivey, a Detroiter active in issues involving the rights of public school students with learning disabilities. “We had recent high school grads all the way up to people who were grandparents in their 70s. There was racial diversity, gender diversity, all in the same room. The common ground was that we are people fighting for things that we believe in.”
Rana Laham, a 19-year-old student at Macomb Community College and the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, says her fellow campers inspired her.
“I saw all these people from so many walks of life who were doing so much, it made me want to get up and do something,” she says. “A lot of people my age think that politics has nothing to do with us. But going to Camp Wellstone made me realize that I have to get out there and start fighting for issues.”
Since camp ended, she has signed on as a volunteer with the presidential campaign of Dennis Kucinich, and has been in contact with the ACLU to learn how she can become involved in fighting threats to civil liberties posed by the USA PATRIOT Act and similar legislation.
“The first thing I did on my way home, I got on the phone with my friends, and started telling them that they have to get involved too,” Laham says.
Another stone thrown in the pond. Another ripple in the water.
Will it become a wave?
Time will tell.
More information about Camp Wellstone can be found at www.wellstoneaction.org or 651-645-3939. Two training camps are scheduled for December, one in Rochester, Minn., and another in Orlando, Fla.