Sunday, October 23, 2005

The potential and limitations of outside organizers

The Berkeley Daily Planet just ran an article about the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club (WDRC) organizing in CD-11 to oppose Pombo and to protect Social Security. Although I'm a member of the WDRC and knew about its efforts in CD-11 when they were happening, I never saw such a detailed account of the WDRC's activities in the district. What struck me about this article, besides the level of detail, was the narrative that revealed both the potential for, and limitations of, outsiders organizing the district.

The article reads in part:

When Pombo jumped aboard Bush’s campaign to privatize Social Security last winter, the Wellstoners decided that working in the 11th Congressional District offered a political two-fer: they could mobilize around saving Social Security and in so doing, undermine Pombo’s base. About 90,000 people in Pombo’s District draw Social Security. It seemed like fertile territory for progressive action.

Starting last April, a team of six to eight WDRC members made weekend trips to Lodi, Stockton, Manteca, Oakdale, Pleasanton and Danville. They brought along the brochure that had been prepared by the club’s Social Security Committee and an anti-Pombo petition. In each place, the Wellstoners would hook up with local activists.

“We started going to farmers markets and sitting next to local Democratic club tables,” says WDRC member Matthew Hallinan.

The Wellstoners also worked with the Tri-Valley Progressive Action Network, the Gray Panthers and the California Alliance of Retired Americans (CARA). They discovered that every town and city in the Central Valley has a CARA club. In Stockton and Fresno, Hallinan says, CARA is “actually a force.”

The immediate response to their efforts was heartening. The WDRC piece on Social Security, Hallinan says, was “the only brochure I’ve passed out in a long time that wasn’t immediately thrown away.”

“We created a buzz every time we showed up,” Ginsberg says. “People would rush up. I’ve never had such an easy job tabling.”

In her view, that’s because Social Security is basically an economic issue, and with a few exceptions, like Danville, the 11th Congressional District is not an affluent area.

“Even if people are Republicans, they want Social Security,” she said.


By the end of the summer, the Wellstoners decided to pull back from the 11th District.

“All of us work,” Hallinan explains. “Driving two or three hours every weekend was too much.”

And while people flocked to the club’s petition and supplied assistance, local residents proved reluctant to take the initiative.

“We became convinced that [Social Security] is a great issue, but we couldn’t get a volunteer base,” Hallinan says.

Hallinan and Ginsberg both say that WDRC will return to CD 11. Jerry McNerny [sic] has built a grass-roots network there and wants to run against Pombo in 2006.

There’s talk of a fight in the Democratic primary; Congresswoman Tauscher may back another candidate. In any case, the Wellstoners plan to register voters, to make endorsements and to work for the candidates and issues they support.

Hallinan says, “We just got our toes in the water.”

I'm going to e-mail Matthew and see if he can further explain the inability to generate a core group of local volunteers to carry the effort forward. I suspect that the efforts were hampered by the convergence of two factors: the relatively smallness and inexperience of the local Democratic clubs and the desire on the part of the more experienced issue-based organizations to avoid entanglement in partisan politics. I'll try to get Matthew's take, but in the meantime this is certainly something to ponder.


Blogger VPO said...

This is good, thanks for pointing out this article about the Wellstoners. The only thing is, I think the Social Security issue has kind of passed, since Bush could not get any momentum on it.

At this point, the best thing may be to find any quotes or actions by Pombo that supported Bush's SS plan, and show what could happen to SS if Pombo stays in office.

9:37 PM, October 23, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A correction should be made to the Berkeley Daily Planet Article. The WDRC was founded in the late 2002 or early 2003 (not 2005) to the best of my knowledge.

11:09 PM, October 23, 2005  
Blogger Matt said...


I hope that the Social Security issue has died, but I fear it's only on hiatus. But you are right that we need to hammer the issue home to the voters in the district, so that when they go to the polls they understand just what kind of politician their voting for.


Thanks for commenting. I saw the same thing but forgot to note it in the blog entry. I'm actually a bit surprised because I was under the impression that Zelda Bronstein was involved with the club for awhile before I got involved, which was in in late 2004.

11:54 PM, October 23, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, I was involved in the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club almost at its founding; and yes, the date of that founding was not 2005 but early spring 2003--as I should have written but somehow didn't.

In the course of doing the article, I recruited myself for the next anti-Pombo push (around the 2006 election, I expect). I hope some of the Planet's readers were similarly affected. Very important work.

Zelda Bronstein

9:39 AM, November 03, 2005  

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