Friday, August 12, 2005

Kucinich campaign, July 02003 - May 02004

Back around May 02003 I learned about Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich via's straw poll primary. It featured a page for each of the nine candidates vying for the Democratic nomination. Each page included an opportunity for the candidate to write a letter/statement to voters, and the candidate's responses to a set of questions asked of each candidate. I read through all the candidate pages, and was starting to feel despair as all the answers ran together as vague political rhetoric and non-answers to the questions. But when I hit Kucinich's page, I was blown away by his sincerity and the fact that rather than attacking Bush he actually discussed root problems and how he would address them. Kucinich's policies made sense right across the board in light of the reading I'd been doing. Most importantly, Kucinich was the only candidate who clearly stated his support for some of the basic steps needed to address our environmental crises, while integrating that enviromental message into the rest of his platform in systematic big-picture thinking.

I actually did a good bit of work on the Kucinich campaign in Cincinnati before moving to Portland. I attended one Cincinnati meetup, and joined another fellow in handing out literature and talking to attendees at an IBEW picnic. For anyone who knows how shy I was (and to a large extent still am), that in itself tells you lot about how important the Kucinich campaign was to me! On a more familiar and comfortable front, I compiled excerpts from multiple interviews with Kucinich to create an audio CD giving a good overview of several of the points from his Ten Key Issues. I distributed a few CDs around Cincinnati, sent a copy to the national campaign (which supposedly was going to be given to the Dave Matthews Band, and may have played a part in Tim Reynolds' later support?), and brought it with me to Portland where we wound up distributing hundreds of copies.

In Portland, my first exposure to the local campaign was at a birthday party for Kucinich at the new office, on October 7. I dropped by, met some people, gave out some CDs and left a pile for the office to use, and signed up for a volunteer office shift and for the Cyberteam. I quickly wound up practically living in the office spending nearly all my waking hours on the website and other tech projects, such as implementing an events system, automated email sign-ups, and other dynamic features. Later on, in preparation for the WA state caucus I built a database for managing phone calls to voters. My favorite and most difficult project was the Dennis Jukebox, an interactive audio jukebox of Dennis speaking on various issues, which the user can arrange into a track list, download, and listen to or burn to CD. I was also drawn into many other tasks, including composing email newsletters for the local listserve, doing battle with national's volunteer database, managing the local volunteer database and training office volunteers to use it, publicizing events, moderating listserves, getting national's Oregon page updated, burning CDs, writing letters to the editor, helping out other office volunteers, answering phones, coordinating hand-letter writing to IA and NH, and so on.

By December and January, the toll of continued media suppression of Kucinich's campaign, still-dismal poll numbers, and not enough experienced coordinators had driven off many of the volunteers and much of the energy from the local campaign. We still had a small core steering committee and several regular office volunteers and other dependable volunteers, but not nearly enough people who could devote 20+ hours a week to organizing the local campaign and leading projects, let alone people with prior campaign experience or knowledge of what we should actually be doing! By default much of the work came to me, since I was around all the time and willing to do whatever needed doing. An office volunteer, Theressa, had also stepped up big-time to help me out. As time went on the two of us became the primary organizers and coordinators despite having little idea of what we should be doing. We also became close friends.

The Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary in late January were dismal showings for Kucinich, and although he slowly gained momentum in succeeding states, to the point of winning 2nd place with 31% of the caucus vote in Hawaii, it wasn't enough to gain the necessary media attention. (The AP headline for Hawaii was to the effect of "Kerry wins first place, Edwards third place") After Super Tuesday on March 2nd, it was clear that Kucinich would not be able to catch up to Kerry.

My stash of Prozac which I'd built up before leaving Cincinnati had run out by now, and with the stress and disappointment of the early state results I slipped back into depression. Fortunately, I discovered that taking St. John's Wort and 5-HTP as natural supplements worked about as well as Prozac and did not require expensive prescriptions. The 5-HTP provides a precursor for serotonin to be built in the body, and the St. John's Wort is a serotonin uptake inhibitor, so that the serotonin floats around longer and is more effective. (I've since cut out the St. John's Wort and am just taking 5-HTP...with experimentation to find the proper diet with enough natural serotonin building blocks, I can hopefully eliminate even that!)

After Super Tuesday, resources were freed up from other states (especially California), so we began receiving boxes of supplies and national campaign attention for the first time. What began as a plan for a couple of interns and one national coordinator evolved into a huge national focus on the Oregon primary on May 18, with ultimately a dozen national staffers and 28 days spent in this state by Kucinich. The goal was to have a strong showing for Kucinich in Oregon and influence the platform of Kerry as the Democratic nominee.

I'd burnt myself out somewhat, and was much less enthusiastic about trying to minorly alter Kerry's platform vs electing a candidate who actually believed in fundamental change to our broken systems. But inertia, a desire to see it through, and continued respect for Kucinich led me to stay involved, finally able to revert to being the tech guy and leaving all the rest of the coordinaton and tasks to others. I also dropped down to working only 40-50 hours a week, which helped a lot.

In the end, Kucinich won 17% of Oregon's primary vote, enough for six delegates to the national convention. It was the highest percentage Kucinich got in any primary (which are very different from caucuses), and a good addition to the delegate count.

I learned a lot from the whole experience. Aside from further developing some of my tech skills, I figured out some big-picture lessons about campaigning. The primary splash of cold water was the realization that much or perhaps even most of the tech work I'd done had been a waste of time or at least poor allocation of my time. Not knowing anything about what's needed for a successful campaign, I'd focused on what I knew how to do: geeky tech things. Unfortunately, what we really needed locally were a volunteer coordinator, a full-blown canvassing operation, and other active outreach involving talking to people. Our local campaign could have impacted the election more heavily had we focused on Vancouver and SW Washington, going door to door and using other outreach methods to recruit Kucinich supporters for the early February caucus, where one person can have a huge impact. Simply having had more of us from Oregon showing up on Washington's caucus day and talking to caucus attendees about Kucinich could have made a big difference. By attending a caucus ourselves, Theressa and I gained Kucinich at least one extra delegate to the next caucus level. This realization, and the whole process of my stepping outside my comfort zone to take on tasks that needed doing, helped me grow a bit and become somewhat more comfortable interacting with people.

I learned that there are two kinds of volunteers: self-starters who will step up and take some action no matter what, and those who need a lot more management and time to be plugged into useful work by a coordinator. The second kind of volunteer fades away without careful attention, and since the local campaign didn't have a volunteer coordinator most of the time or clear projects with coordinators into which to plug volunteers, we lost a lot of potential help. So a big challenge in volunteer-based organizations seems to be getting the infrastructure in place and having people who can work with volunteers to make sure they're utilized and feel useful. And yet, what's really needed (in the Kucinich campaign and now in facing Peak Oil) is grassroots bottom-up networks of self-starters who can get exciting projects going without needing top-down management.

I wound up meeting a lot of neat people both locally and from the national campaign, since then staying in touch to some degree with several of them, and crossing paths with others as we've all dispersed to our own circles which naturally overlap here and there. The most significant person I met was Theressa, as we've developed a very close friendship / sort-of romantic relationship, and have been supporting each other on the PUD campaign and in Peak Oil preparations ever since.

With the Oregon primary over, I ended my active involvement with the Kucinich campaign, skipping the final handful of states with primaries, and deciding not to become a Kucinich delegate to the national convention in Boston. <soapbox>Democratic voters and caucusers had blindly followed the corporate media's spin on which candidate was most "electable" and thereby nominated the elite-chosen corporate candidate. The opportunity to turn things around at a national (and thus international) level was now lost. This meant that we'd pretty much missed out on our only chance to avert looming environmental catastrophe by taking the action that had been put off since the 01970s and for which only Kucinich was issuing a clear call. </soapbox> I saw no point in putting any more energy into national politics, so I turned my focus to a local campaign: the Willamette Electric People's Utility District, or WEPUD. More on that in my next post!

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