The combination of today’s NH primary, on which I worked way back in 2003, and last night’s concert by The Strokes reminded me to liberate these old notes.
In early October, I was interviewed by a political podcast about our investigative journalism at Sludge, and the conversation reminded me of some of the wild tales from my work on the campaign trail, around 17 years ago, when I was fresh out of college.
The thing about most political campaigns: it’s pretty much an insane enterprise, if the goal is facilitating social change. Campaigns throw together hilariously mismatched people in ad hoc structures with round-the-clock demands and terribly little infrastructure, and expect motivational miracles of volunteers. They were totally thrilling, and burnout-causing.
Some of the hazy experiences I remember from working in the field on voter registration and turnout:
- As an earnest regional field director, I was burned in effigy by disgruntled canvassers in El Paso, TX in 2002 (they wrote my name on a doll’s t-shirt, lit the doll on fire, and flung it at the front door of the campaign office. I heard a thud.)
- Police arrived at the scene in Youngstown, OH on Election Night 2004 after parking lot protests, when the regional GOTV coordinator that morning failed to properly gather the necessary paperwork for paid door-knocking shifts. Overall, still one of the worst nights of my fortunate life.
- I was kicked out of several cities by sheriffs (and somehow supposedly “banned”?) for placing and removing campaign signs on public highways: Texarkana, TX (2002); Bismarck, ND (2003); Knoxville, TN (2003).
- I suddenly found myself “staffing” the Ying-Yang Twins one afternoon in a closed check cashing location’s parking lot in Cleveland, OH in 2004, as they recorded a local TV hit for voter registration. I think only D-Roc came out from the tour bus, and they did not require my staffing abilities.
- I was roasted backstage by the candidate’s wife for my food-consumption abilities while eating lunch at a picnic table with Garrison Keillor (??) in 2003 outside Manchester, NH. The burn phrase itself involved “popped corn”.
- There’s one more El Paso story involving a parking lot scuffle that can only be told in-person, but hopefully that teaser goes to show the level of craziness that happens in campaign fog.
While so much political chatter is driven by candidate personalities and the horse race of the primaries (“which ticket will do best with which voter segments in which battleground states?”), coming out of campaigns I saw a critical opportunity—to build more public knowledge on the substance that really matters when life crashes and people have to interact with government.
Re-focusing distracted public attention on the empirical metrics of our lives and time on Earth: is basic healthcare free for everyone, do we budget for public education first, is the environment a priority over weapons making, how is the republic doing on immigrants’ issues and life-or-death matters of criminal justice reform.
This was part of the mission of our previous work on the non-profit site OpenCongress: to make everyone an insider, and to demystify the opaque legislative process to understand how power advances its agenda.
Doing the Great Battlefield podcast, I was reminded of the epiphany I had in 2006, when as the GOTV Director of the Ohio Democratic Party, I called around to investigate why there was apparently no budget to print up walk cards with local candidate slates down the most-local districts — something that community leaders loudly informed me was absolutely necessary for GOTV purposes. (Nothing focuses your attention like getting yelled at by local activists, in a good way. It can be really productive—more people in power should be able to be yelled-at over the phone by people affected by their resource allocations and decision priorities. )
Through a combination of blog (yes) and news research and phone calls to friends in the Beltway, that afternoon in a conference room in Columbus I discovered how the Democratic Party shifted millions in funding between various entities and party committees: the DNC, DSCC, DCCC, DGA, state parties, and candidate committees, not to mention joint fundraising committees, outside groups, etc.
It was the first look I had into the reality that it’s not the case that the DNC raises, say, $25 million and spends $24.5 of that on an election; rather, party leaders are constantly funneling millions from state to national bank accounts, and if one group is laggard in fundraising, the difference comes out of, say, a state party’s ability to pay for localized slate cards for its volunteers.
Now, with our forthcoming DNC member reporting series, Sludge will have the opportunity to raise questions in an open public forum with party leaders about how political campaigns are funded and whether the future of the Democratic Party lies with corporate lobbyists and industry PACs, or with an engaged base of small-donor, grassroots activists.
If the goal is responsible public policy making in government, campaigns that are funded by continually-involved, locally-rooted small donors are likelier to have lasting impacts than frenzied campaign operations that parachute in and leave town in a rush the morning after Election Day (or in some cases, as soon as polls close). The impacts of Big Money and systemic corruption (compared with people you can meet and talk to) on public trust in representative democracy and accountability in government are currently being under-emphasized by some voters in the Democratic primary, but they can make all the difference in a winner-take-all system.
After the election craziness subsides, Sludge will keep working to stay focused on following Big Money’s much-weightier influence through lobbying and the revolving door, so that the public benefit has a fair chance to be heard over the primary-fueled political din. Get our free weekly newsletter and share our free-to-read muckraking, @Sludge.