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Soldiers of Politics Report to Camp Wellstone

Weekend ‘Camp’ Aims to Be Nonpartisan Training Ground for Activists

A group of 140 progressives descended on Washington, D.C., this weekend from areas ranging between Minneapolis, Minn., and Orlando, Fla., to participate in the 49th Camp Wellstone.

In the wake of the tragic death of Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), his wife, Sheila, daughter Marcia, and several campaign aides, Wellstone’s surviving

sons David and Mark founded Wellstone Action. The group’s primary project has become Camp Wellstone, a series of weekend programs designed to give political activists of all ages the tools they need to help advance their agenda. Since the first camp in October 2003, more than 7,000 students have attended the programs, and several have seats in state legislatures.

Students at the two and a half day programs first gather to hear lectures on the life of Wellstone and the purpose of the camps, as well as general information on how to develop a message. Jeff Blodgett, the executive director of Wellstone Action, delivered the opening speech, “Politics the Wellstone Way.”

In the speech, which opens every camp, Blodgett emphasized that Camp Wellstone is nonpartisan. “Usually some people laugh at that,” Blodgett said, but he stressed to participants that the goal of the camp is party neutral. “We try to avoid partisan talk this weekend.”

Indeed, the goals of Camp Wellstone are broad enough that they could apply to a group of College Republicans just as easily as a crowd of progressives. The objectives of Camp Wellstone include helping candidates and campaign staff develop concrete skills, and challenging participants to think of themselves as leaders in their nascent movements.

The message development speech followed Blodgett’s introduction, and was delivered by Diane Feldman. Feldman was treated like a rock star by the crowd; when it was revealed that she helped lead Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa to victory earlier this month in the Los Angeles mayoral race, the group spontaneously broke into cheers.

“I was Sen. Wellstone’s pollster in 1990, 1996 and 2002,” Feldman said in an interview after her talk. “I have no formal affiliation with the camp, but I’m friends with a lot of the people who are involved since we were all involved with Paul.”

Feldman has been an active participant in the camps since they first began. “I did the message lecture a whole bunch when they first got started, probably eight times,” she said. “The lecture is now a standard part of the camp; we all kind of developed it as a group in the initial first few camps. I drafted something, then everyone critiqued it, and it sort of evolved over time.”

In the question and answer session following her speech, Feldman tried to deflect questions away from Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) failed presidential campaign last year and back toward developing a credible message and skill sets that will help move the progressive movement’s message forward.

“The ultimate goal is to train people and give them the technical skills … they need to be more effective,” Feldman said. “The larger numbers we have, the more successful we are.”

Camps so far have been held in 25 states. Participants in the D.C. camp came from across the country to take part in the program.

Michael Vaudo and Cory Swales traveled together from Florida to attend the camp. When asked why they came half way up the East Coast to participate, their answer was simple: “This is the closest camp any time soon.”

Vaudo approached the camp as a chance to pick up some new tricks. “I’m looking at it like a learning experience. … I want to gain knowledge from people who have worked on a campaign and been involved in politics.”

Swales, on the other hand, had a more concrete goal in mind. “I’ve been flip-flopping between whether or not to run for a local position, a seat on the city commission,” he said. “Basically, I’m using this as a catalyst to help me decide whether I’m going to do it or not, to help me make my decisions in the future.”

Though the camps themselves are strictly nonpartisan, those who participate lean decidedly toward the Democratic Party. “In working the Kerry campaign,” Suzanne St. Cyr said, “I saw a lot of things that didn’t work very effectively. … I’m hoping to learn some techniques to help the Democratic Party be more efficient in getting people to the polls.”

St. Cyr said that her party needs serious organizational help, and that she hopes to pick up the tools to solve its problems at this camp. “I saw voters telling us not to call them back, that if they had any more calls from us they were going to vote for the other party,” she revealed, adding that “the people above were totally ignoring that, saying to ignore the voters and just keep doing it.”

Others were more interested in advancing the cause of liberalism more generally. “Recently in politics, people are scared to say ‘liberal,’ scared to say ‘progressive,’” said Courtney Spellacy, who assists women with political training as part of the International Women’s Democracy Center. “I’m looking to get some of the language, some of the skills that Wellstone and his people used as a means to infuse it into the training that I do. I want to make people running in politics, particularly women, not scared to say ‘liberal.’”

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