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Networking Central

GoodWorks, Nation Building and You

Eric Loeb

We must not be overwhelmed. In the face of a mountain of problems, we must each focus on one problem and solve it well. And despite the ineptitude and corruption of the Republican Party, the Democratic Party most certainly has a mountain of woes. We are losing registered voters, losing elections, and we do not have a wide base of newly elected officials on which to draw for higher office. Congress has been gerrymandered to lock the Republican majority in place, the HAVA-mandated voting machines are quite likely rigged, and we lack key party infrastructure that the Republicans have invested in for years. We have no message discipline; we have little capacity for central coordination; we have many problems to solve.

I am the director of I founded this year to eventually solve one problem: our primary campaigns are either boring or self-destructive. In any district where there is an important race our party leadership strives to eliminate competition and ?clear the field? for the candidate deemed the most likely to win. We avoid a bruising primary, but the candidate and the Democratic Party also suffer the consequences of a lack of spirited internal debate. Clearing the field causes a short-term loss of the benefits of healthy competition, and it causes long-term loss of involvement by rank-and-file Democrats. Our anointed candidates cruise through their primaries untested and unchallenged, only to face well-prepared and campaign-experienced opponents in the general election. The accumulating effects of these non-primaries are even worse. The number of people running for office is shrinking, the number of volunteers is shrinking, the number of local primary donors is shrinking and the Party as a whole is contracting.

The purpose of is to test a new, cooperative, and radically positive style of Democratic primary campaign. A GoodWorks Primary consists of community service events for all Democratic Party candidates and their supporters. At each event, the candidates undertake a service project and speak on related issues. Example events are

  • Repainting a Graffiti-Covered Wall for a Local High School
  • A Community Garden Work Day in an Inner City Neighborhood
  • An Errand Day for Housebound Senior Citizens organizes events, recruits candidates and volunteers, and cultivates media interest. We engage competing Democratic candidates in public service projects that highlight core Democratic values. We maintain the turnout databases for the events so that the eventual winner of the primary will be in a stronger position to win the general election. We urge the competing Democrats we support to focus their competition on organizational ability --- who can do more to build the party --- rather than divisive questions of "who is the better Democrat".

The 2005 Tsabar campaign provides a compelling example of how a GoodWorks primary campaign can work ( In 2005, Gur Tsabar ran for city council in New York City using almost nothing but public service. He was an underdog candidate in a crowded field of 11 opponents, including the Democratic Party's endorsed candidate, Rosie Mendez. Tsabar orchestrated an amazing number of service events and his campaign style earned him several endorsements, including The New York Times. Among other things, the Tsabar campaign built a 500-book library for an elementary school in the East Village, handed out tax assistance coupons for low-income families, orchestrated a rock concert to benefit tenants at risk of losing their affordable housing, distributed emergency cell phones to seniors, conducted a clothing drive for victims of domestic violence in New York City shelters, produced a small business resource guide to help local entrepreneurs, and held a food drive for hungry families in the New York City. supported the Tsabar campaign, but not until it was well underway. The idea of GoodWorks campaigning is floating around out there as part of the Zeitgeist, and many 2006 Congressional campaigns are already engaging their volunteers in service projects. If did not already exist, we would have to make it up. The Democratic Party needs an organization that will observe these diverse service-based campaign efforts in order to learn and apply their lessons, rather than letting their experiences get lost.

We learned from the Tsabar campaign that service events produce more volunteers and a different breed of volunteers than other, more common, campaign activities. For example, at the end of his petition drive to get on the ballot, Tsabar held a clothing drive at two subway stops. His staff and volunteers collected petition signatures while they collected the clothes. They report that people actually walked up and asked to sign the petition (something unheard of when collecting signatures outside of a supermarket), many of the petition signers also turned into campaign volunteers (normally quite rare), and they collected as many signatures in two hours as they would normally expect to get in a whole day of canvassing. Tsabar did not win his election; Rosie Mendez, the endorsed Democratic Party candidate won with 5113 votes to his 2300. The Tsabar experience shows that service events have the potential to energize and promote a campaign, but more needs to be done to convert the strengths of service campaigning into Get Out The Vote (GOTV) political machinery. has thus-far organized three events:

  • In October, we worked in the PA-10th district with Democratic Congressional challenger Chris Carney to run errands for senior citizens in Sunbury, PA. In the lead-up to that event, we built up the political machinery in Sunbury by recruiting registered Democrats in Sunbury to serve as phone bank volunteers.
  • In November in the PA-8th district, we held a cooperative yard cleanup event with Democratic Congressional challengers Patrick Murphy and Andy Warren. For this event we created a GOTV database of all participants. The winner of the primary will receive that database, in which about half of the people are not affiliated with either campaign.
  • In September I recruited a group of 38 volunteers, predominantly from Philadelphia, to help in the relief efforts along the Gulf Coast. Mutual strangers at the onset, we drove south and worked for a week under the auspices of the Red Cross. Several of us stayed longer and/or returned for repeat assignments. Two of our number are still in New Orleans, managing a Red Cross shelter

One of these things doesn't fit with the others. Just how did we get from service events in Pennsylvania to relief work in Louisiana? It all began in the PA-19th district (Adams County, Cumberland County, and York County). There have been no Democratic Congressional candidates on the ballot in the PA-19th in six years. I encouraged Joe Otterbein to run using the campaign model, and in August Joe announced his campaign by calling for more Democrats to join him in a high-minded, community service based competition in the primary. Another candidate, Sharon, answered his call. By early September, Joe and Sharon and I were prepared to work closely together throughout the campaign, and we were all working on her announcement speech when Katrina hit. The desperation we were seeing on TV seemed more important than anything else we were doing, and we began planning the trip south.

Our work crew grew quickly. Just hours after we made the decision to help with relief efforts, Democratic Senate candidate Chuck Pennacchio kindly agreed to let us announce our trip on his email list. The effort snowballed from there, with posts on Craigslist, Daily Kos, and other liberal blogs. Although we did not explicitly call for Democrats, we began these posts with words like, ?The children at the helm have run the ship of state aground. Now the adults must step forward and clean up the mess." Within a week we had over thirty volunteers, and mysteriously, they all appeared to be liberal Democrats. We would ultimately have 58 people, so that with last minute cancellations we hit our target of 40: forty people who were able to take 10 days off to work for the Red Cross for a week!

The experience of organizing the Gulf trip confirmed a core tenet of the decisive political application of the Internet is event organizing. Over the course of 12 days, we found 38 strangers for whom we organized a week-long-plus road trip into unknown and potentially dangerous circumstances. I cannot for the life of me imagine how we could have done that without the Internet. I have been working for Democratic officeholders and candidates since 1992, when I built and helped manage the Clinton/Gore email campaign. I have advocated for cooperative service based campaigns throughout that time to anybody who would listen. When people use the Internet to discuss issues, they fall into heated arguments, but when they use the Internet to organize events, they make progress. exists, in part, to capitalize on the organizational strength of the Internet. How can political campaigns best use the medium that brought us flash mobs and Meetups? We encourage and organize groups to do useful work for their communities.

Our work in the Gulf was frustrating, overwhelming, incomprehensible, sublime, and horrendous. After our return in late September, I had nightmares every night for two weeks about people I could not reach who needed my help. When we arrived we were assigned to work in Red Cross relief centers in Jackson, MS and Tylertown, MS. The primary job was to listen, but we also distributed food and money. At both centers, we saw that the Red Cross did a great job of helping hundreds of families each day with much-needed supplies and money (up to $1565/household). However, at the Tylertown center, the people who came to us for help often had to wait for days to get in. There were miles-long traffic jams on Tylertown's streets on the days we gave out tickets to the center. There was no coordinated effort to find shelter for families living in their cars or in need of medical attention (perhaps due to local resistance to establishing more permanent shelter). And, of course, the place was a wreck. Katrina added a layer of physical devastation to a town that had been economically leveled years ago. The money we were giving away in the relief center (roughly $500,000/day) did nothing to restore the town's shuttered storefronts. Instead, the shelves of the local Wal-Mart were stripped bare each night.

It should be obvious that we cannot successfully export Democracy if we cannot create functioning economies. Yet even within our own borders, we are not effective at this critical component of nation building. While it may be true that economic growth will eventually happen on its own if we just give people money, that model of economic growth is inadequate for the short term situation in which rapid or directed growth is required. The Tylertown Wal-Mart may hire a few more part-time employees, but that will not suffice to revive the Tylertown economy.

The displaced families in Tylertown needed food and shelter right away, but they still need a way to provide food and shelter for their families now that the television cameras have left. We have to be better at recovering from disasters, but we also need to remove the institutional barriers that suppress economic growth. The people of Tylertown can't hope for another hurricane so that someone notices they are still poor, hungry, lack access to health care, and have no way to solve their problems. A natural disaster should not and cannot be a community's best chance to provide good schools, good jobs, and a better future for their children.

One approach to this problem is to focus on the individuals. Several volunteers have adopted a family they met during our trip --- a single mother of four named Evelle, whose office, home, and community were wiped out by the hurricane. Evelle has found work as a fork lift driver, but her housing situation is desperate. If she stays in her hotel, then there may be FEMA aid available. If she moves out, her hotel bills will go away, but rents have tripled post-Katrina and she will not be able to receive FEMA aid. Our effort is being spearheaded by Kelly Billow ( , who is working to raise closing costs for a house for Evelle. We've learned that it's better to count on Evelle than on FEMA. As Kelly has said, "Everybody who meets Evelle comes away impressed by her integrity and courage. With a little help, Evelle is going to get back on her feet." At some level, this is the only answer. There are a staggering number of people and communities in the Gulf and around our country that do not have access to the resources they need to grow and succeed. But in the face of the devastation wrought by Republicans, hurricanes, and other disasters, each of us must focus on one problem and solve it well. Salvation is in the details.

And in the face of a devastated Democratic Party, has picked a detail to focus on. is an unusual political action committee that seeks to work with and support every competing Democratic candidate in a primary campaign. Our goal is not to help specific people or policies but to investigate new ways of managing primary campaigns. We will certainly succeed at pursuing an investigation, providing community service and learning about such things; and maybe, just maybe, we will find clear evidence that cooperative, service-based campaigning in a primary campaign is an effective way for the eventual primary winner to boost his or her odds of winning the general election. If can pioneer a new campaign technique that confers a competitive advantage on candidates and office holders who put sweat equity into our communities, then leaders and would-be leaders will eventually be forced to focus on the real details of the real problems faced by real people. When politicians can better get themselves elected by working with families struggling to get by, rebuilding homes, delivering meals, and providing comfort for those in need, then there will be a shift in the way campaigns are conducted and the way our elected officials see the world. Nobody can see what the volunteers saw on the Gulf Coast without being personally affected, and anybody would agree that the $1.7 billion spent on political advertising in 2004 would have been much better spent if it had gone into community projects with lasting value.

Please join us in our efforts to create a new and more positive campaign style. Please visit the PAC?s website or contact me personally (Eric Loeb, 215-849-2737, so that we can figure out how you can best be involved.

Past Networking Central Groups of the Month

In this section we highlight a new local group each month in order to encourage networking.