Sunday, January 29, 2006

Social Networks and the Events of Last Sunday (1/22)

This is going to be the second is a three part series about various campaign events in the last week or so. You can find the first part here. This piece is going to focus on the events of last Sunday, which included two events, one I was surprised involved CA-11 at all as well as one meeting of some MoveOn volunteers (and others) who gathered to figure out how to help Jerry McNerney.

Although both events primarily involve Jerry McNerney, I hope it will become clear that some of the dynamics involved could benefit any of the candidates running against Richard Pombo. Specifically, although both events happened in Berkeley, I think both demonstrate a number of different ways for people in the East Bay to help out in this race without being perceived as outsiders trying to impose Berkeley sensibilities onto a place like Lodi. Although there will clearly be some resentment, especially on the part of the pro-Pombo Republicans who’d love nothing more than to make the race a referendum on Central Valley values versus (a parody of) Berkeley values, I think the truth is more complicated than the outsider/insider dynamic people seem to have in mind. And I think a lot of the hand-wringing about the involvement of people from outside the district is misplaced, or at least exaggerated. So, though I will try to faithfully recount my experience at both of these events, I will also place an emphasis on the pre-existing networks I see between a place like Berkeley and CA-11. It is my belief, and indeed my contention here, that these pre-existing networks will provide a framework upon which the efforts of people in the East Bay to fight Pombo will be seen as broadly acceptable. And as such, the efforts represent much more of an asset than a liability.

Last Sunday, the first meeting I attended was an appreciation party for the Special Election volunteers in Berkeley, Albany, and Emeryville. As you might expect, I had no clue that anyone would be thinking specifically about McNerney or CA-11. The party drew a crowd of three to four dozen people. There was about an hour of socializing, which was followed by a number of short speeches given by various organizers and local politicians.

During the mixer I somehow began talking about the Pombo race. (I’m not trying to be coy, a lot of people know about my blog and my interest in the race, I just forget the exact circumstances that prompted the topic). Anyhow, a woman who overhead me discussing the race introduced herself to me and told me that she had just retired from teaching and wanted to get involved in the anti-Pombo fight. One of the first things she said to me was that she knew at least five teachers she worked with who lived in Tracy whom she thought would be interested in helping oust Pombo.

First of all, I think this woman demonstrates the kind of political gravity that the CA-11 race is developing. I had been talking about the state of the race to unseat Pombo, not enumerating his many failings. So it is not as if I was saying anything that was particularly inflammatory or anything that would have served to talk her into fighting Pombo. Rather, almost as soon as she realized there were Democrats taking on Pombo she wanted to help them. She told me that she recently retired and now had time to get involved. And that, plus the fact that people were already fighting Pombo, was enough to make her want to work on the race in some shape or form. Even if she does not follow through one jot on what she told me, her reaction is becoming increasingly common. There is just a ton of latent enthusiasm and energy to take on Pombo. And it’s very quickly actualizing itself.

But it’s important to note that her enthusiasm did not resolve itself into some sort of missionary zeal to covert the people in the district. Rather, she knew people in the district and her first thought was figuring out how to get them involved too. That is, she first thought about how to activate her pre-existing social and professional network. Her friends and colleagues who live in Tracy are, as teachers, opinion leaders. Furthermore, if the Special Election taught us anything, it is that the voices of teachers (not to mention nurses, firefighters, police officers, and other public employees) carry a tremendous amount of moral weight even in the red parts of the state.

This woman might not be able to activate all of her friends, but even activating one teacher in Tracy nine and a half months before the election could have a large effect come November. That is, it’s very likely that that one teacher in Tracy knows a lot more than five people in the district who’d want to fight Pombo, and they in term will each know others. There is obviously some limit to how many people can be activated in this way. But a lot of people in the district don’t even know who their Congressman is, let alone the mischief he’s been up to. A short phone call from a friend is one of the best ways to get these people interested and active. And you don’t lose anything by having someone in Berkeley call her friends up about the race.

The other interesting thing that happened at the volunteer party occurred after most of the politicians and organizers had given their speeches. We were all standing in a circle during a break in the speeches and someone just spoke up and made an announcement about Jerry McNerney while handing out brochures for his campaign. It turns out that a woman who is friends with Karen Weinstein, a Co-Chair of the precinct captain operation in the Berkeley area, lives out in Brentwood (which is in the eastern part of Contra Costa County). I believe this woman helped out in the Berkeley area during the Special Election, and in any event she is now a McNerney precinct-captain in Brentwood. Now I don’t know if she heard about McNerney through Karen, who is a McNerney supporter, or not, so let’s leave that aside.

So why is this important? Well first of all, when the announcement was made a lot of people, including some of the pillars of the Berkeley Democratic Party grassroots, chimed in with their support for McNerney. This probably made an impression on the politicians and the organizers that were in attendance, including the Executive Director of SEIU Local 535 and the President of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors.

But more importantly, Karen Weinstein said that she was actually hosting a house party for Jerry McNerney in early March. Karen was able to raise a couple thousand dollars for a Special Election house party she threw, and she probably can do the same for McNerney. And unlike the Special Election house party, which was aimed at recruiting volunteers and raising enough money to run our precinct program, Karen most certainly can use her next house party to recruit other people to throw more house parties for McNerney. Frankly, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see $20,000 raised for McNerney in the East Bay before the primary. Considering McNerney might only raise $200,000 to $250,000, $20,000 could give him quite a boost.

The other important aspect here is that a house party program enjoys considerable economies of scale. Karen already knows how to throw a mean house party, and she can help her friend in Brentwood do the same. Nobody is going to say a word of criticism if Karen drives from Berkeley to Brentwood to help out with a party there. It would be fatuous to consider this carpetbagging. It’s one friend helping another. And whatever the particulars about the house parties, Karen’s expertise in running a precinct organization is only a phone call away. And whatever one’s political stripes, it borders on the absurd to suggest that one friend should not help another simply because they live in different districts. Again, there are pre-existing social networks that will mediate the activism from the East Bay to the district.

After the volunteer party, six of us went directly to the MoveOn volunteer meeting. There were at least twenty people who attended the meeting, although a fair number of them were already involved in the McNerney Campaign. Still there were at least a dozen people at the meeting, excluding myself, who were not involved in the McNerney Campaign and who were there looking to get involved. They were a mixture of MoveOn volunteers and members of the Oakland East Bay for Democracy Meetup (which is culturally, but not officially, connected to East Bay for Democracy). I was especially pleased to see that a fellow blogger, Green Boy from Needlenose, attended. We need to ramp up the amount of attention the netroots is paying to the race, and he’s in a much better position than I to get people paying attention. In any event, you can read his report about the meeting here.

As far as the meeting itself, I would say it was a little odd. McNerney was very open about what his campaign is up to and seemed to act as if the meeting were just another campaign meeting, not a real campaign event. I mean, although most of the people in attendance had decided to volunteer for McNerney, this was their first chance to meet him in person and he did not do very much to sell himself to them. I thought more could have been done to inspire the audience, but on the other hand it was interesting to see McNerney completely with his guard down. In a weird sort of way, there was a blind date aspect in that people had heard a lot of good things about him but were still trying to suss him out. But he did receive a number of rounds of applause during the question and answer session, and the people in attendance seemed to display their approval. So I guess it went well.

There is going to be a follow-up meeting in early February, and the group will decide at that meeting exactly what they want to do. But the McNerney Campaign raised a number of different possibilities, and I think it’s worth seeing how these possibilities might be viewed by residents of the district.

First, it seemed pretty clear to me that the organizers of the meeting and the McNerney Campaign were both keen on pairing the MoveOn volunteers with McNerney supporters in the district for canvassing operations. I suspect that until the primary, the canvassing operation will overwhelmingly involve talking to other Democrats. If I’m right, there is less danger of alienating voters since the audience will be primarily a sympathetic one. And by pairing East Bay volunteers with local supporters, the McNerney campaign will have a built-in mechanism to orient the East Bay volunteers about the mores of the area. Instead of parachuting in some out of town activists without any connection to the area, this type of operation almost of necessity creates networks between a place like Berkeley and areas of the district. Working on a campaign together does, after all, breed camaraderie. And by starting such an operation in February instead of in September (or May for that matter), the McNerney Campaign will almost certainly be able to bring this group very much into the fold. At the very least, I have seen a number of such operations work productively before, including the Wellstone Club’s Social Security Task Force which was very well-received even in San Joaquin County.

Second, listening to the McNerney Campaign people, it became fairly clear that there are a lot of administrative and organizational tasks that need to be done. Things like phone trees, filing, data entry, and such are completely invisible to anyone outside of the campaign. But they are very vital to the efficacy of a grassroots campaign. Frankly, nobody is going to care if it’s a Berkeley resident calling to invite a McNerney supporter to a campaign event in Tracy. In fact, I could well see McNerney supporters being uplifted by the help they’re getting from campaign volunteers, almost regardless of the origin of the volunteers.

Lastly, I walked home with Garth, who was one of the organizers of the meeting and who is a friend of mine (and my old boss). He was the one that told me about the meeting in the first place and the walk home was a chance for us to catch up, mostly about non-political things. But he did mention to me that he’d be willing to help train canvassers for McNerney and that he wanted to throw a house party for the campaign. I should note that Garth ran a campaign office for the Fund for Public Interest Research and has trained hundreds and hundreds of canvassers, including me. He is also a great canvasser and fundraiser in his own right. So he has a level of expertise that is available to the McNerney Campaign in general and to the MoveOn volunteer group he’s helping to organize. And, as for his parties, I could see him (and his fiancée, who is arguably more experienced in these things than my friend) raising $1,000 for McNerney from a group of twenty-somethings. This is a demographic group that is very underrepresented in Democratic Party politics in the Bay Area. But I see a lot of different, hitherto now independent clusters, of young people congealing around their desire to take on Pombo.

Although there are few pre-existing social networks between the young people of the East Bay and the young people of the district (at least that I know of), I suspect that it will be much easier to get the young people of the district to get involved if they see people their own age are already working to oust Pombo. Since there is a huge social component to political activism, it’s important to ensure that people my age see that there are people involved who they might want to hang out with (which mean, not only people as old as their parents and grandparents). I have already seen how the emergence of groups like the League of Pissed Off Voters in San Francisco has helped the politically active young people in Berkeley self-organize. I think there is certainly a possibility that the involvement of the East Bay Young Democrats and people like Garth (who has a ton of politically-minded friends in Berkeley) will push this process further East, and quite possibly all the way to Tracy and Stockton. For my part, I firmly believe that the social networks of the under-30 crowd are waiting to be tapped. I suppose time will tell if I’m right.

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