Democrats focus on grassroots
"Grassroots" is the mantra for the Democrats in this pre-presidential campaign year. It was the most repeated word coming from party backers and their national leader at an afternoon lemonade and lemon cookie outdoor reception that drew more than 200 people to the East Chop waterfront home of Connie and Dominique Borde last Thursday.
Howard Dean, the Democratic Party national chairman, is making similar stopovers at gatherings around the country to pump up his party faithful, and to bring in some new faithful.
"It's a great unifier for the party," said Robin Leeds, who splits her time between Vineyard Haven and Washington, D.C., where she is on the Women's Leadership Forum of the Democratic National Committee. Referring to Dr. Dean, she said, "He's positioning us for the convention. He's so committed to building the grassroots operation."
Ms. Borde, the hostess, a longtime leader of the Democrats Abroad in Paris, where she lives for most of the year, echoed the grassroots theme. Dr. Dean is the first Democratic national chairman who recognizes the needs of local Democrats, she said. "He goes everywhere.... He's poured a lot of money into the states," she said in his efforts to build a strong party structure.
The informal $50-donation affair drew other Democratic backers from Paris, local politicians and party-minded Vineyard folk, Harvard professors, summer visitors toting babies, and a congressman, U.S. Rep. Sandy Levin of Michigan. It also drew the curious who are thinking of getting on board the Democratic campaign train.
Nina Galen, who lives in Oak Bluffs about five months a year, said, "I don't know anyone here, but I'd like to get involved."
Beverly Greenberg, a summer resident, said she wanted to ask Dr. Dean who the Democratic candidate will be, knowing he wouldn't answer. Then she stated her real reason for attending the reception: "I want to see a Democrat win the White House."
Rufus Peebles, president of the Martha's Vineyard Democratic council, also said he was aiming to get "grassroots support" for his party. "Things like this help us. Dr. Dean is willing to do something for everybody."
Dr. Dean, casually dressed in open blue summer shirt and blazer, stood on the porch steps of the Bordes' Victorian home between two pink Rose of Sharon bushes and red and blue balloons tied to the pillars. He joked that he was head of the DNC because he didn't get the job he applied for during the last presidential campaign. Then he got right into the grassroots message that he hopes will help the Democrats win.
"We need a lot of hard-working people doing a low-dollar fund-raiser," he said, adding, "though I'm not sure this is low dollar for all of you here." He touted the party's democracy bond on the party's web site, where a supporter can commit a small amount of money per month, and the average donation is $22.
"It's all grassroots - getting ordinary people involved in the process," Dr. Dean said. He described the party's successful efforts in getting Democrats elected to school boards, town councils, mayoral seats, and as secretaries of state in unlikely Democratic locales like Alabama, Mississippi, Tulsa, Okla., and Salt Lake City.
"That's where it starts," he said, noting how the Democrats have learned from the Republicans' winning strategies, by going to "non-blue" states. "You can win if you show up and talk to people."
The Democrats also have been successful in pulling in a new generation of Democratic voters and party leaders, people under 30 and young evangelical Christians, he said. Another party project involves sending lawyers to focus on polling places where "they think there has been funny business," he said.
Elaine Kamarck, a public policy lecturer at Harvard University and a long-time supporter of Dr. Dean who served in the Clinton White House from 1993 to 1997, also addressed the gathering. She said Dr. Dean's 50-state strategy is working despite previous criticism from the party establishment. "They didn't believe in people," she said of his doubters, "just TV, TV, TV."
Ms. Kamarck cited the Democrats' trial effort to put paid party organizers in 39 voting districts after the 2006 election. Support for Democrats in those districts doubled, she said. "Having a person on the ground building a party in the old-fashioned way - this is the real value of the 50-state strategy," she said.
After the talk, the Times asked Dr. Dean to offer solutions to Martha's Vineyard's local issues of affordable housing, poverty, and the economy. As someone who grew up in the resort community of East Hampton, N.Y., and as governor of the tourist-driven state of Vermont, he said local leaders
need to invoke inclusionary zoning, do set-asides for affordable housing, and develop year-round knowledge-based businesses that use the Internet.