In response to 'Strip-mining the Grassroots'
by Lockse, Thu Jun 22, 2006 at 10:30:31 AM EDT
I've been frustrated with Greg's series, at first because it seemed to me that he was out to `take down' something that I've put a lot of myself into. I worked in the PIRG world for many years--all my adult life. I was one of the people who built Grassroots Campaigns. I've since moved on from GCI, into a new life; but it still means a lot to me. I've had the kind of experiences that simply can't be nailed down in a few blog posts; Greg, on the other hand, worked for us for ten weeks.
But I'm also frustrated because as he pieced together his critique, I knew that it was something that essentially rings true. And the period of time that Greg worked for us was one of the most intense phases in all my experience with this model. It was intense enough to burn me out almost entirely. In the course of an extended, heated off-blog discussion with Greg, I decided that I would try to help this discussion by providing some context from above. (This is cross-posted from Kos.)
From the beginning, Grassroots Campaigns, Inc was a new step for everyone involved. None of us had worked in anything partisan before. We always took pride in being exclusively 'issue-based.' We believed that regardless of who was in office, corporations were still going to be compromising the public interest. So when I joined GCI early on, I felt ambivalent about working for the DNC. Not only are my politics more progressive than the Democratic party, but I didn't necessarily trust them to a)give us the backup we needed to run this successfully (and in hindsight that mistrust was well-founded) or b) use the money efficiently. I think many of us had the same feelings, but the circumstances made it easy to cast those misgivings aside. It was freakin' George W. Bush. As I understood it, we wanted to have the biggest impact we could have on the 2004 election; raising more money for the DNC meant we'd be doing our part to beat Bush within the structure that already existed.
So we went with the DNC--or rather the DNC went with us--on a trial basis. They were only interested in how much money we could raise--contrary to Greg's insinuation, they insisted that we canvass without voter registration forms so we could focus all of our energy on fundraising. We had to prove our ability to raise money first, then they would take us in, pay us, and reinforce us to the best of their ability.
So we worked our asses off. At first, we thought we could open 25 offices and raise a few million. We were already behind, it was January 2004 and we had to MOVE. We worked out of Starbucks because we had no offices, we crawled through office space we didn't own--I was running on five to six hours of sleep, and only if things were running well. Our recruitment goals were intimidating. There were a handful of people laying all the groundwork for a staff of hundreds in a few weeks--hard work. But recruitment turned out to be E-A-S-Y. Everyone wanted to beat George Bush, and we were hiring for paid jobs, which set us apart. We soon grew far beyond our goals, and then beyond our means--the organization was being packed with people who'd never taken on this kind of work before.
We all implicitly agreed that we should get as big as possible, regardless of the experience level of the staff we'd be able to assemble in that time. The idea being: the more people out there (face to face, in the streets), the better. This is a basic principle of the campaign philosophy I'd always operated under. But we were taking it to an extreme I'd never seen before. I remember joking at one point, 'fuck it, let's send an office to Hawaii--I'll take that one.' In the meantime, the core group of experienced staff managers wasn't grown. We built out, not in, and took it all on ourselves. Eight people managing 52 offices. It was hectic to say the least. But GCI was staffed with some of the people who built the model - we had it down to a science, so we figured we could handle it. And if we couldn't keep everything all together, that was OK too. Especially in this election season, we knew that even offices that were almost falling apart would be able to push forward into decent numbers on the steam of anti-Bush fervor.
Of course, things didn't go smoothly. We didn't have professional staff to oversee the administrative functions. As several commenters noted, some people weren't getting paid on time or reimbursed for office expenses. At the time, it seemed like these were relatively small things; but almost every team suffered for them. I spent much of my time running around to different offices, putting out fires. I'd like to think that my region was one of the best, since I was willing to work 18 hours or more a day to make things right for my directors.
But I also put my staff under incredible pressure to hit numbers (in canvassers and in donations) which were higher than any other campaign I'd ever been in. Many of my directors saw their personal lives crumbling under the demands- but then again, I didn't have a personal life of my own. Was their personal life more important than beating George Bush? So my job was mostly to make my staff feel better about their lives in the campaign. And I was good at that. Unlike many other offices, most of my directors stuck it out, because I made them believe it was that important. Looking back, I know that some of my staff were put in really shitty situations by this job - people stopped paying their student loans, skipped friends' weddings, funerals, life events. But at the time, these were sacrifices that most everyone was willing to make - for the good of the country.
And at the time, it seemed like all of these sacrifices were making good. Our averages kept rising. Greg writes about the New York City office in his book, noting that in the last week its average ranged from between $650-1200--and I think he's probably right to suggest that these were the most successful canvassers in the history of canvassing. By the final days before the election, as we left our offices to head out to the MoveOn PAC GOTV campaign, we walked away from a canvass operation that was successful beyond anything we'd anticipated.
And now the meaning of that success is being called into question. I was shocked to find myself unprepared to answer this question. You normally canvass for long-term benefits of an expanded membership base; you canvass to increase the visibility of a certain cause or campaign, to educate the public about an issue; you canvass to put public pressure on officials and influence legislation in a positive direction. We claimed none of these objectives in our mission to beat George Bush (except perhaps for visibility, and I don't disagree with Greg that the kind of visibility and `education' we created could have been more constructive if not so centered around money). Throughout the campaign, we considered ourselves a success because we were raising enough money to cover the overhead and even give some in return - hardly any canvass campaigns do that in their first year. But did it help beat George Bush?
I don't think any of us were thinking, at any point, about the ends of our work. We just never made a distinction between raising money and working on the election. We were simply doing what we could do best, doing it as hard as we could.
For a while, I thought that Greg was accusing us of being dishonest, of cheating. But at one point in our extended off-blog discussion, to show me exactly what he was talking about, he pointed to a comment in one of the threads made by one of our canvassers, and this quote made me pause:
I wasn't doing the job for the money, and a lot of the time I wasn't even doing it for the campaign- I was doing it to "raise my score"- the whole thing became like a giant videogame and I wanted to be number one, I wanted to beat all my ...friends and come out on top for that day. It was a challenge: "that person looks like a $50, no she's a $200", it was kind of like Duck Hunt I guess.
That quote is from Mitch, Mitch the Jeweler, a legendary canvasser who was widely known around the campaign. Now, I don't mean any offense to Mitch--his energy and skill are invaluable to our cause. But reading those words kind of makes me kind of sick to my stomach. I've always believed our campaigns to be serious, hard, good, political work, yet part of me totally relates to Mitch. I know that no one there was `doing the job for the money.' But then when I catch on to what Mitch is implying about `not doing it for the campaign'...Well let's just say that we didn't think of it like Duck Hunt, but that gamer mindset was ours.
I'm still proud of the three quarters of a million names we gave to the DNC and I'm proud of how hard we worked to do that. For a long time, part of me simply refused to accept that I could have worked so hard for a year on a mission that didn't help the 2004 election. But when asked whether we could have better served the very base that we will need again in '06, '08, and so on, I have no concrete answer for what we did do except: `We worked for the DNC, and we worked really hard.'
Working hard for the right side--how could it not be the right thing? That question never came up.
Now it has. I anticipate that publicly participating in this conversation might make me a pariah among my former co-workers (assuming they can guess who I am). I have such great respect for these people - saying this might not change their reaction, but they are my friends of many years and I would do almost anything for them (except go back to work for them). But my interest is not in protecting Grassroots Campaigns--it's in making Grassroots Campaigns better. From my brief encounters with GCI in the time since I left, it seems that many of the big problems have been fixed - payroll works now, they're more in control of the size of their operation. But the game hasn't changed - the mindset hasn't changed. I no longer think its ok to just play the game. Leadership entails more.
A number of people have defended GCI by saying that it's not its responsibility to save the Democratic Party; while in a strict sense this is certainly true, I find it to be a deeply disappointing defense. It's our responsibility to make a truly positive contribution to the progressive movement--and when someone questions how we do that, if we can't give a clear and convincing answer, then we have some rethinking to do.