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Candidate Camp: Wellstone’s Living Minnesota Legacy

While Nov. 2, 2004, was a bad day for Democrats in many respects, at the state level, the party fared much better. And the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) is partly responsible for the Democrats’ legislative gains.

Democrats picked up more than 60 seats in state legislatures nationwide, returning them to a national majority in total legislative seats. In 2002 Republicans had taken a majority for the first time in 50 years in terms of the number of state lawmakers.

Democrats also narrowed the gap in regard to number of legislatures controlled by a single party. Republicans now control only 20 legislatures compared with 19 by the Democrats. Ten are split between the parties, and one (Nebraska) is a unicameral, nonpartisan body.

An increasingly effective grassroots strategy is one of the main reasons for the Democrats’ legislative pickups. A leading organization in the movement to train progressive activists and politicians at the local level is Camp Wellstone.

Founded by Wellstone’s sons after the Senator’s death in a 2002 plane crash, Camp Wellstone is dedicated to training activists who share Wellstone’s ideals. The program was incredibly successful in Wellstone’s home state; seven graduates won seats in the state Legislature in 2004 — six of whom defeated Republican incumbents.

According to spokesman Bill Lofy, Camp Wellstone held a total of 46 camps in 25 states since its inception in 2003, including eight in Minnesota alone. The camps focus on three different aspects of progressive politics: serving as a staffer on a campaign, working as an activist for a cause and running for office.

Lofy says those who participate in the candidacy track “do very hardcore nuts and bolts work.” After a lecture about Paul Wellstone and his ideals, participants are given a crash course in “what it’s like to run for office.”

“The sacrifices you and your family have to make” are emphasized, Lofy says, as well as the sometimes troubling idea that “they’ll have to ask friends and families for money.”

After financial planning, “we spend a lot of time talking about building a base. Building relationships with communities,” he says. Lofy reveals that one of the key mistakes that many liberal Democrats make when they run for office is that they “assume constituencies will be with them … for example, African-Americans, immigrants, other disenfranchised communities” are often taken for granted.

“Campaigns like that lose,” Lofy says.

Candidates are then taught how to deal with the media. They are taken through the process of developing a press strategy and attend a workshop on how to write press releases. Wy Spano, director of the Center for Advocacy and Political Leadership at the University of Minnesota at Duluth, has participated in several of these programs.

“Sometimes I played media for candidates,” he recalls. “I always found it interesting that Minnesota Democrats never did that. … I think that’s a fairly important thing to get done, a way to connect” with the voters.

Steve Simon, a newly elected state Representative for district 44A in Minnesota, is one example of the success of Camp Wellstone. Simon defeated a popular incumbent of 12 years by a hearty 11-point margin.

Simon says that the most important lesson he learned in the two-and-a-half-day program is the importance of “asking for help,” which he admits “is very difficult to do, still.”

The camp also focuses on the “importance of good organization,” Simon recalls. Because he was running “a state race, this wasn’t an air war, it’s a ground war. It’s about getting volunteers to where voters are at.”

Simon is convinced that the values taught at Camp Wellstone are party neutral.

“Despite the name and the ideological leanings of those who founded the group, the principles taught here transcend ideology,” Simon says. “Anyone can benefit.”

Another progressive organization, Grassroots Solutions, has worked on a local scale to provide results in a national race. On its Web site, the organization boasts that, in partnership with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, it got 350 volunteers to knock on more than 100,000 doors in new Rep. Charlie Melancon’s (D) December runoff victory over Billy Tauzin III (R) in Louisiana.

One Democratic operative familiar with the campaign in Louisiana said that party activists “went in anticipating a runoff.” The hardest thing for them was finding volunteers and setting up office space to run the campaign for the final weeks leading up to the runoff.

Simon’s campaign manager, Matt Filner, believes that the lessons taught by grassroots progressive organizations are vitally important for liberals to learn, if not necessarily new.

Filner, who met Simon for the first time at one of the camps, says the 2004 elections show that “there’s a lot of evidence that progressives finally understand what the Republican Party did in the ’60s and ’70s.” They are finally “getting organized at the grassroots and local” levels, which is an “incredibly important, effective tool,” he says.

Filner believes that such grassroots success will eventually be duplicated in national political campaigns.

“The only thing keeping [Camp Wellstone graduates] from winning national races is time and experience,” Filner says. It is “difficult to make the jump” directly into national politics.

“Any candidate understands that you have to be successful locally first,” he says. “It makes sense to think locally first.”

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