July 4, 2003 INTERVIEW ARCHIVES Support BuzzFlash Get a copy of click image -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- SEND THIS PAGE TO A FRIEND -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- MORE BuzzFlash INTERVIEWS WORLD MEDIA WATCH P.M. CARPENTER MAUREEN FARRELL BARBARA'S DAILY BUZZ SOUTHERN STYLE CARTOONS THE ANGRY LIBERAL EDITORIALS CONTRIBUTORS MAILBAG PERSPECTIVES ANALYSIS NEWS ALERTS LINK ARCHIVES SEARCH ABOUT FAQ Jeff Blodgett, Former Campaign Manager for Paul Wellstone and Executive Director of Wellstone Action A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW Paul Wellstone's Legacy Lives On Jeff Blodgett was the Campaign Manager for the late Senator Paul Wellstone's '90, '96, and 2002 Minnesota campaigns. He also served as State Director on Wellstone's staff from 1991-1996. After the tragic events of last fall, Jeff, along with Wellstone's two sons, Mark and David, decided it was important to keep fighting for the ideals and values that separated Paul Wellstone from other elected officials. So, they created "Wellstone Action." Wellstone Action is a non-partisan, tax-exempt organization that works with progressives around the country. Blodgett, the Executive Director of Wellstone Action, is planning on holding several "Camp Wellstones" across the country. Stay tuned to BuzzFlash.com for more information. Meanwhile, here is an excerpt from a BuzzFlash editorial posted just after the Wellstone memorial event in Minnesota last year: "Something happened last night in a Minnesota auditorium filled with 20,000 mourners. Something extraordinary happened: the Democratic Party reconnected with its soul. The memorial "service" for Paul Wellstone, his wife Sheila, daughter, and staffers turned grief into a celebration of the core ideals of the Democratic Party and a celebration of the American dream. If the Democratic Party has, in the past few years, been on artificial life support, last night, through the transfusion of Paul Wellstone's spirit, its heart began to beat again. Grief gave way to humor and personal memories before soldering into a steely resolve to fight for Paul Wellstone's ideals and principles." --BUZZFLASH EDITORIAL on the Wellstone Memorial Event in Minnesota, "Speak Up, Keep Fighting," October 30th, 2002 [LINK] Jeff Blodgett's comments on the Democratic party draw on his own personal views and experience and are not the views or position of the organization. * * * BUZZFLASH: You stated, "The silence that Senator Paul Wellstone's progressive voice once filled is deafening." BuzzFlash couldn't agree with you more. Wellstone fought for working people. He stood up for the little guy. Wellstone understood that fighting for what you believe in doesn't mean you're partisan. It means that you have integrity. JEFF BLODGETT: Right. BUZZFLASH: My question is, why don't more Democrats understand this very basic concept? If they did, we think that Democrats would sweep elections because Americans would feel that someone is speaking up for them and their issues. BLODGETT: It's a good question. I do think that conviction politics is both the right way to operate and also a winning politics. And why other people haven't gotten that, I don't know. I'm not sure it's a conscious decision. I think there's been a trend in modern campaigns, particularly for Democratic candidates, which have focused on really parsing the electorate and zeroing in on subgroups, and messaging just for those subgroups, and leaving behind the overall theme and the big picture of what we really believe in. I think that's really been one of the causes. And so we have to get back to a politics that lays out a bold vision for the country that's an alternative to what we have currently. BUZZFLASH: You bring up a good point because Karl Rove's theory is that you should run a political campaign as if someone's watching the TV with the mute button on. Campaigns are about marketing and branding a candidate's image and identity. Americans are so busy that less than 10% read the newspaper. That makes it difficult for Democrats and progressives to discuss policy, which is what really affects people's lives. It seems to me that one of the answers is that the Democrats could group their policy ideas into a world view. In other words, this is the world we as progressives envision, versus what the opposition does, and take that straight to the voters. BLODGETT: I think the Democrats need to figure out again what they really believe in, and tie that to our common values. And then figure out a big message that resonates and connects with people. And those aren't the kind of campaigns we've seen running lately. I think that is the campaign that President Bush ran, and that is the way he operates as President. And we have to learn from that. It's really about a clash of these two views. BUZZFLASH: We believe that Greens and progressives and Democrats agree more than disagree. But having said that, over and over again, we've witnessed the Democrats not standing up to the Bush administration and the right-wing agenda. And if you're a progressive, what options do you have? On one hand, you have the option of supporting an independent or a Green candidate whose chances of winning, at least in larger elections, are slim to none, or supporting a Democrat that doesn't appear to be standing up for you. I think this is the core of the problem in terms of the progressive movement. And it's that void that Paul Wellstone filled. Would you agree with that? BLODGETT: I do. I think that Paul Wellstone's view was that a candidate or an elected official should stand up for working people. Whether you always win or not always win is really beside the point. What's more important is people see that you care, and that you believe in things, and you work for them. And that's I think, the kind of politics most people want. It's certainly the kind of politics that the base of the Democratic Party wants. And I think, you know, the one basic problem that faces this party is it's deflated and not energized the way it should be. I do think that's changing. The other side is, and it's the problem you just pointed out, people are disheartened by the lack of fight in their leaders and the lack of definition on the issues. And it's not just Wellstone, but there are other people that represent that point of view. He wasn't the only one fortunately, but there are precious few. One of the tragedies of all that happened last fall is that Paul Wellstone was going win his re-election to the U.S. Senate. And that victory would have been an important example for Democrats to look at how a progressive can actually win and hold high political office, even in the toughest of environments. Paul Wellstone was seemingly bucking all the trends - outspoken, progressive, running against the hand-picked candidate of Karl Rove. Wellstone was boldly speaking out on issues in a year when Democrats were very timid. BUZZFLASH: Wellstone took a stand on the politicized Iraq war debate. BLODGETT: That's when he decided that he was going to do what he thought was right and let the chips fall as they may. And in fact, even though voters may or may not have agreed with him on his position on Iraq, they rewarded him for his courage. They rewarded him for his convictions. That's an important lesson right there. The other thing that Paul Wellstone did, which actually didn't happen very well in 2002, he ran a campaign that mobilized hundreds of thousands of people. And that was in a year when Republicans beat Democrats on the ground in many states. So the campaign that he was running was going to win in 2002. I still think it is a very valid example of how Democrats can and should be contesting for elected office right now. BUZZFLASH: That leads us to the next part that I really want to get into, and that is talking about Wellstone Action. Could you tell us about how Wellstone Action came into being, what your goals are, and give some insight about the program? BLODGETT: Wellstone Action was created by Mark and David Wellstone, Paul and Sheila's two sons, after the tragic events of the fall. They pulled together a group of key people who had been part of Paul's inner circle for years. It was unanimous that it was important to create something to keep the work alive of Paul and Sheila Wellstone. No one wanted to or thought the Wellstone legacy should end the way it ended, and that there was an opportunity and a responsibility to use the model that Wellstone helped develop and practice in progressive politics to teach others and apply it to rebuilding progressive politics in this country. That was how it was born. BUZZFLASH: What was Wellstone's philosophy to campaign in electoral politics? BLODGETT: It's actually a number of things. 1) It is an integrated approach to political action which involves looking at progressive politics in the larger sense. It includes elections. 2) It includes community organizing and base building, and issue advocacy. 3) It includes having candidates who support that framework and work within that framework. So it's this triangle of action that we're going to teach. BUZZFLASH: What could someone expect by supporting your institute or by attending Camp Wellstone, which is a training program you're offering? BLODGETT: There are three tracks to Camp Wellstone. One is for people who are most interested in campaigns and elections. The second is for people who are interested in issue advocacy and activism. And the third track is for candidates seeking elected office. All three tracks have an integrated approach to political action. Another is the very heavy emphasis on organization and base building, and effective mobilization. We place a very strong emphasis on the skills of building a base, energizing a base, mobilizing a base. We emphasize the connections between the campaign and ongoing community organization. There's also a component of just teaching a kind of leadership model that is about operating from your convictions, figuring out ways of inspiring your base, and building your base through messaging. And that's generally the model we're teaching. And the camps are for anyone who's interested in being a more effective volunteer on a campaign, working or being a more skilled leader in a community organization or issue advocacy effort, or wanting to run for office. BUZZFLASH: Your leadership model brings up an interesting point. I think that when Democrats try to cherry pick what issues to stand on, or when they try these subtle and nuanced arguments to stay on the fence, they get defined by the right-wing media -- and I think the general public smells this as well -- that they're unprincipled. They get defined as a person who's willing to say anything to get elected, such as how the right-wing branded and attacked Al Gore. At least that's the perception, even when it's not true. That's the disadvantage of not using Paul Wellstone's approach. You've said that the progressives need to match the infrastructure and organization of the right wing. Wellstone Action seems to be at the heart of this idea. BLODGETT: First of all, I need to say Wellstone Action is a non-partisan effort. We'll be operating as a tax-exempt organization, meaning that as an organization, we aren't going to be part of any political party. We certainly are, however, going to be progressive and teach our leadership model. But what people choose to do with that and how they choose to act is going to be their choice. And so it will be for people who are interested in politics to get training and education. My views on politics are mine and mine alone. The thing about Wellstone Action is that we see this organization and this whole challenge of rebuilding progressive politics as a long-term effort. It's going to take a number of years for us to get back to the point where I think we successfully counter the power of the other side. And that's the way we all should be looking at it. Certainly 2004 is an important year. But putting all our eggs there is, I think, a mistake, because it's a building process. So we're building our own organization in hopes of sustaining Wellstone Action over many years. And I do think there is an infrastructure challenge on our side. For instance, on this whole issue of training, with the exception of a few outstanding organizations, there's very few places for people who want to get involved, or want a job in this kind of work, to get some professional introductory training. And so that's just an example. I think we're stepping right into a big void on our side. We do have a tendency of diving right into advocacy, but we also need institutions and entities and to build an intellectual side of this movement to help us figure this out. And it takes time to build organizations that have the resources to put out good writers and thinkers who can interact with the people on the ground doing the work. I also think there's a whole communications challenge. Obviously the dominance of the right in talk radio and other news outlets has permeated into the mainstream media that BuzzFlash helps to challenge. I think we need to talk about, which some advocates are, a progressive radio network. So I think there's a whole big puzzle and different pieces that have to be fit in. We see ourselves as one small piece of that. BUZZFLASH: The National Rifle Association has replaced the Christian Coalition as the foot soldiers for the right wing, and for the GOP. And one of the things they do is they are very good at local organizing -- get out the vote campaigns, and registering people to vote. Do you foresee Wellstone Action learning from the other side with respect to how they operate? BLODGETT: I actually think the other side learned from us. The kind of campaign work and mobilizing, and the energizing of people that once was done very effectively on our side, fell by the wayside for us, and the other side learned from it and has actually improved upon it. I do think we have to go back to things we did before and learn from the other side as to how they perfected it. An example is what happened in Georgia. Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition and now the Chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, had over 300 door-to-door canvassers in the suburbs doing focused, targeted persuasion work on the ground. That's an example of an organizational approach to message delivery and winning elections. Our side has chosen to take our money and dump it all on the television and mail which has become a less and less effective way of communicating with people, so I think there are things to learn. I think a lot of it is going back to what we used to do pretty well. BUZZFLASH: If you could give some advice to candidates what would you say? What needs to happen for progressives to win in 2004? Not just in the presidential election, but across the country. BLODGETT: It's really figure out a message that resonates with people and use that to build your base. And do it in a way that also sets you up for the general election. And again, I think that there are some instructive things in Wellstone's practice. His message really zeroed in on a very strong popular economic approach. And I think that the Democratic candidates have nothing to fear about being as boldly populist as they possibly can be when it comes to the whole economic arena. And so I would say don't be timid on economic issues because speaking out will help energize your base. Think big. Think bold. Be funny at times so that people can see the human side as well. And figure out ways that you can really run from a very strong power base, which is what the other side's doing right now very well - consolidating their base. BUZZFLASH: One of the most important things that BuzzFlash advocates is to define the debate. Define what the issues are. And of course, that's very difficult with such a well-organized right-wing media that is set on attack mode 24/7. Added to that is the mainstream media's conservative bias. What's your view of candidates getting their message out? BLODGETT: I think it is hard. When you have the White House, you can control the agenda in a way that no other high elected official can do. So I think I'd give all the candidates credit for being in the fight. It is a long process and yet our job must be to figure out a message that is working with the folks who are paying attention right now and then mobilize our supporters. Once the decision-making process is done on the primary side, we have to come together in a united effort that allows us to deliver a message from top to bottom that's focused and consistent. It's hard to do it now with all the candidates out there, but at some point, and it's not going to be easy, we've got to really be strategic and focused and coordinated. And I hope we do that in '04. That is what an opposition party does to rebuild itself and get back into power. And I hope we see that and do that in '04. BUZZFLASH: Tell us about the Sheila Wellstone Institute. BLODGETT: It's another piece of the work of Wellstone Action, and that is to continue the important work of Sheila Wellstone over many years on domestic violence prevention. She took this issue on in a big way. She helped write the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, became a national spokesperson, and organized advocacy groups and supporters. After the tragic events of last fall, a large coalition of Minnesota and national domestic violence prevention advocates came to us and said that we lost a lot when we lost Sheila Wellstone, and we'd like you to help us try to fill that void. So we have an institute here that will be a coordinating point on public policy issues around preventing domestic violence. That will be the main focus of our work. BUZZFLASH: One of the ongoing questions that we get from readers, and so we ask the people we interview, is what can people do? What action can people take to take their country back? BLODGETT: It's a good question. And it's not always easy to answer. And we'll really be on our game when we can always answer that question for people to give them a step or an activity to help. I think a couple things, from our perspective. You can pay attention to our organization and to our web site. We have an e-mail network, and we plan on putting on dozens of these Camp Wellstones around the country so that most people who are interested in going to them will be able to attend. And you can stay in touch with that through our Wellstone Action Network. That's one small way. I think there's exciting national activity going on. There's an effort to do serious base organizing and mobilizing in key states around the country. And people may want to get involved in those efforts. The Partnership for America's Families is one effort that's doing great work as is the Campaign for America's Future. MoveOn.org is another great one. A lot of these groups are in conversation about really linking up in a better way. So if you can get on a couple of e-mail networks you'll be right in the middle of big national activity going on. But then I would also look for local activity and local organizing. People and organizations that look like they're on the ball in terms of ongoing organizing with people around issues and effective electoral work as well. I think people should be on the lookout for local opportunities to get involved, because ultimately, that's where we have to make the differences on the ground in many, many states. A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW * * * Resources: Wellstone Action http://www.wellstoneaction.com New York Times Article on Wellstone Action http://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/30/national/30WELL.html BuzzFlash Editorial on Memorial Service for Senator Paul Wellstone http://www.buzzflash.com/editorial/2002/10/30_Wellstone.html MoveOn.org http://www.moveon.org/ Campaign for America's Future http://www.ourfuture.org http://www.4wellstone.com