A View from the Summit

Jon Perr

Democracy for Oregon held its first Progressive Leadership Summit at Portland State University on Saturday.  By most measures, DFO''s inaugural event was clearly a success. Well attended and well organizated, the Summit featured stirring speeches and information-packed sessions. But while there was no shortage of inspiration or instruction, what was not on the conference agenda was perhaps a more telling yardstick of the health of progressive politics.

The morning and afternoon keynote sessions brought together some heavyweights of the progressive universe with an audience of 300-400 that was somewhat grayer and much, much whiter than I expected.  Jim Dean, chairman of Democracy for America and brother of the DNC chairman, brought a crowd featuring many former Deaniacs to its feet with tales of "Dean's Dozen", fundraising success and electoral progress.  His focus on "best practices" and reaching out to form effective coalitions across issue groups had many heads nodding. 

Dean was followed by Congressman Earl Blumenauer, who received a warm and enthusiastic reception from the attendees. Blumenauer implored the audience to focus its message on the struggles of typical American families, today's "Ward and June Cleaver", whose incomes are not keeping pace with costs of education, health care, housing and transportation.  "Remember the Cleavers" became a rallying cry of sorts, one given added voice (and humor) by The Bus Project leader Jefferson Smith.

KPOJ AM 620 and nationally syndicated talk show host Thom Hartmann was a major presence throughout the day.  At lunch, Hartmann spoke eloquently about corporate power and the movement to undo the "corporate personhood" construct in place since  the 1886 decision in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad.  During the afternoon keynote, Hartmann made an impassioned plea to those on the further left to join and influence the Democratic Party from within.  In a reprise of his comments at the May 10 Democratic Party event with Al Franken, Hartmann spoke of the fears of founding father James Madison about the dangers of faction and the inevitability of two parties in our winner-take-all system. And in an afternoon breakout session, Hartmann expressed great optimism for the future of liberal radio, if not for mainstream media and alas, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The Summit's most stirring oratory came from Ashland Representative Peter Buckley (D-5).  Buckley's described his path to political participation, influenced by the Second Bill of Rights of FDR's 1944 State of the Union and the tears of his distraught father with the news of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.  But it was the letter of a supporter, describing the boundless optimism and confidence of the people in emerging world power China, Buckley said, that made him want to recapture that quintessentially American feeling at home.  For Buckley, now is the time for that "Second Bill of Rights" and "a heightened sense of citizenship" among the people of Oregon.

More than soaring rhetoric, the Progressive Leadership Summit offered real world advice and instruction on best practices for grassroots organizing.  DFO's Jenni Simonis was joined by BlueOregon's own Kari Chisholm and Onward Oregon's Lenny Dee in a helpful and upbeat overview of  bringing technology to bear for progressive politics.  Among the sessions I attended, Oregon DNC committtee person Jenny Greenleaf helped explain the labyrinth that is the national, state and county Democratic Party organization.  And DFO's Moses Ross and the Rapid Response Network's Ruth Adkins joined Thom Hartmann is offering strategies and tactics for using press releases, letter to the editor campaigns, and positive reinforcement to drive progressive news and messages to print and broadcast media.

While the DFO's Summit offered plenty of "best practices", it offered little in terms of "best ideas."  That is, the Summit was understandably and rightly focused on the "how" of progressive politics, not the "what."  Rebuilding the grassroots of the Democratic Party and mastering 21st century technology and communications are the necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for a liberal return from the wilderness.  That requires a program for change, with new ideas that can be quickly, easily and powerfully communicated in today's "infotainment" media environment. And a Lakoffian framing exercise alone is not the answer.

Consider the conservative ascendancy from the days of Goldwater to today's governing GOP majority.  Over time, a very disciplined Republican Party perfected a 1-2-3 formula for success, one with no counterpart from Democrats.  The GOP formula:

  1. The Worldview. For conservatives, there is no ambiguity: markets good, government bad, terrorism evil.
  2. The Program for Change. Like it or not, the Republicans have become the party of new ideas. Across the board and consistent with their simple (and, I would argue, blighted) worldview, conservatives offer a program for reform.  From tax cuts, social security privatization and health care accounts to school vouchers, pollution/emissions credits, and more, President Bush and his amen corner have a positive, foward-looking program to implement their "Opt Out Society."  That program would be disastrous for the United States, undermining any notions of national unity and an American social contract, but at least it's a program.
  3. The Messages.  The final ingredient in the GOP formula consists of clear, concise and emotive messages, easily articulated and digested in today's media environment. Terms like "culture of life", "death tax", "school choice", "healthy forests" dominate political debate.  That these unopposable utterances and opposites attacting terms are often deceptive sadly makes them more effective in branding the GOP.

This absence of this larger issue of the Democratic "what" from the DFO Summit is no fault of the organizers: it simply was not part of a day focused on tactics, tools and organizing.  But for the wide array of groups represented at Portland State on Saturday, the questions of what we stand for, what positive program for reform we offer, and what messages we use to communicate it cannot wait until 2006.  Terms like "justice and fairness" are no substitute for offering Americans a positive vision of economic, health, retirement and homeland security.  Without that vision, we will be less than the sum of our parts.

  • (Show?)

    Excellent summary John. I attended both the Friday evening event and the Saturday session at PSU. Like you I was encouraged by the topics and tone of the sessions. In the AM I attended the Grassroots Organizing session run by SEIU's Arthur Towers. Towers did a great job with the time allotted and I'm sure that a lot of people left that session with better tools than they came in with.

    Sal, Ginny, Jenni, Jenny, Judy, Moses, Chris, Kari, and the rest of the organizers did a hell of a job on short notice and it went off mostly without a hitch.

    I also learned about a dozen new factoids from listening to Thom Hartmann's three presentations. I'm now a True Believer and hard at work on a tiny Hartmann altar where I can worship our newest progressive.....er, make that liberal..... voice in Portland with sandalwood incense and all that.....

  • (Show?)

    Pat, I can't take any credit for organizing the event--which I also thought went very well. I just showed up and attempted to explain the structure of the Democratic Party and where to go to influence it.

    Jon, you're right that we need to focus on the what as well as the how. In the Party world, Howard Dean has been asking all of the local parties to feed what works in their counties to their state parties and then on to the DNC. The idea is to build from the grassroots a small set of things Dems throughout the country can can champion as part of their platform. This needs to translate to, like you say, a worldview, a program, and a set of consistent, easily understood messages. It's hard for us, though! Liberals/progressives tend to see things less in black and white and have a propensity to honor and respect divergent views.

    In any event, it's great to see progressives uniting like this. In many states, DFA and other organizations are fighting turf battles with the Democratic Party. I'm delighted that we're all working together as allies here in Oregon. We're a lot stronger together, and I think Oregon can lead the way in many cases.

    And, yes! Thom Hartmann is most welcome to Oregon. We're lucky to have him.

  • LT (unverified)

    Great as far as it goes. However, I think there should be some real world outside Portland discussions as well. Gen. Wes Clark said in the military there were always "lessons learned" discussion after every military operation. The same should be done with campaigns. In Oregon, Democrats did pretty well in every area except for House and some ballot measures.

    Had 3 House races gone the other way, the result would have been a 30-30 House and prob. not Minnis as Speaker and Scott as maj. leader. What could have turned around 900 votes in each of those 3? Was it message? Was it turnout? Could it have been out of town caucus people saying things were supposed to be done to please the caucus rather than to win local votes?

    Why did Sen. Bates and Rep. Buckley win in the same county represented by Sen. Atkinson and Rep. Richardson? Was it message and short snappy soundbites? Was it candidate quality--"everyone knows Dr. Bates" and a very upbeat Peter Buckley who is so charming in person? Was it (as I heard from a friend working on the campaign) paying attention to local concerns rather than listening to (his words) "Portland central control"?

    Could it be the nonpartisan bill passed the Senate because some believe party caucuses have too much power?

    Is it time to re-evaluate the relationship between caucuses (esp. House since that one failed to win majority) and local Democratic activists/ Democratic party?

    Is it that Jackson County is different from Crook County is different from Marion County is different from Multnomah County?

    Just because Republicans won a narrow 2004 victory, do not believe that will always be the case. Columnist Kathleen Parker has a column today worth reading--that even a meat eating liberal bashing conservative had to notice that Bush Administration bashing of Newsweek was ironic given that they both had problems with lousy intelligence.

    All the world view, message, and grand ideas on Soc. Security will not win over the loved ones of those who are Iraq casualties, those whose lives are financially unstable, or otherwise see the GOP spin for what it is.

    There do have to be positive proposals, and EJ Dionne had a great column titled Getting Democrats From No to Yes.

    There also need to be more Democrats who are out there discussing the details of issues and not just the spin. Politicians answering questions in a forum open to the general public are a Democratic strength. Sen. Kurt Schrader did a good job of this at the Salem City Club on Friday.

    And what do Republicans offer in return? Minnis and Scott get out of speaking engagements with questions from the audience by pleading "scheduling conflicts". Those like Rep. Morgan with expertise seem to be prevented from speaking for the party --for their "sin against ideology" of voting for the bill that became Measure 30. So which Republicans are actually willing to discuss the budget in public?

    Seems to me that if Democrats stick to the tried and true of 2 way campaigns (dialogue with voters, not just preaching the Democratic partyline), quality candidates in tune with the district where they are running, resources in terms of volunteers and money, being involved in the community, and attending to local concerns and participating in debates, they will do better than Republicans in 2006.

    But if the word comes forth from Portland that independent thought should be minimized while preaching the partyline without local emphasis, and all candidates should be following a script which supposedly will work in any district, then we may have the same disappointing result as 2004 and the past 10 years of attempting to regain House majority.

  • (Show?)

    Sounds a bit like wishful thinking to some degree, LT. I agree with you on many points, but my experience (working for a losing candidate) goes more toward the points that you mentioned but didn't stress. Our republican rep has three assets. Period.

    She is a reasonably attractive, middle aged female. She has a reputation for being "nice". She's the incumbent.

    She could use the FuturePAC message, or your message, or mine. Wouldn't make a bit of difference.


    The DFO effort is a good start toward getting people to pay attention to broad message issues, but mostly they're also precisely about paying attention to talk coming from the grassroots, and so far they seem to be doing just that.

  • (Show?)

    Pat, I'm with Jenny - no credit here for organizing it. I just showed up, talked about my passion and answered some questions. From my vantage point, it was a great event with a great crowd.

  • Ruth Adkins (unverified)

    Thanks so much for the report Jon! You are right, the DFO summit was deliberately designed to be a "how"-focused event as well as chance for progressives to connect, get (re)inspired and draw strength from each other.

    I've posted a report on the DFO site with more details from Thom's excellent media talk as well as today's alert from the Oregon Rapid Response Network.

    It would be great to have another summit focused on message. We're collecting feedback and ideas for next time on our site--link will be up shortly.

  • Ruth Adkins (unverified)

    Thanks so much for the report Jon! You are right, the DFO summit was deliberately designed to be a "how"-focused event as well as chance for progressives to connect, get (re)inspired and draw strength from each other.

    I've posted a report on the DFO site with more details from Thom's excellent media talk as well as today's alert from the Oregon Rapid Response Network.

    It would be great to have another summit focused on message. We're collecting feedback and ideas for next time on our site--link will be up shortly.

  • LT (unverified)

    Check out the Meet the Press website for the Dean interview. Transcript is available and if you have the right computer you may also be able to watch. There were slips of the tongue on both sides (the funniest being that Russert showed pictures of supposedly 3 former DNC chairs but above the Scoop Jackson caption was a picture of Lloyd Bentsen) but it was very intelligent. Not that I plan to watch but my guess is that there will be more spin and less down to earth talk when RNC chair is interviewed in a couple weeks.

    Dean did an especially good job talking about message, talking about "our moral values mean..." things like no one should go to bed hungry because they don't have enough food, talking about how to handle the topic of abortion, talking about religious faith being private and not necessarily evangelical. He's the right guy for the job in 2005.

    And it will be interesting to see what comes of his "locally hired DNC paid staffers" that he talked about. In Oregon's case that could be a real gift if it is someone along the lines of Jenny Greenleaf who listens to rural Democrats. But if it is someone of the "Portland consultants know best what works in all 36 counties" variety, they should save the DNC money for something else.

  • (Show?)

    Many thanks to all who attended our DFO Summit, and a special thanks to Mr. Jon Perr for his insightful review and for everyone's comments so far. I've recovered from my extended post-event daze (I hope) and found the event surveys on top of my post-event heap. I barely have two brain cells left to rub together so I won't attempt to give you my view of the Summit yet, as one of the producers, but I thought I'd just share a few of the attendees' comments instead and maybe throw in a few answers.

    First off --- The keynote speakers were all terrific!! Thom Hartmann received extra kudos for his stellar trifecta: spectacular performances at lunch, at the pm keynote and in his breakout session. Oregon loves Thom! This much is abundantly clear. "Electirfying," "inspirational," "informative" were some of the spot reviews for Thom, but attendees often used them in conjunction with all the other keynote speakers as well as "that Oregon Bus Project dude."

    Incidentally, Jefferson must have set his entire classroom on fire based on the comments coming out of his "Message and the Movement" session. Can I get the Cliff notes someone?? Rest assured Jefferson will always have a key role in any event of ours containing the words "progressive" and "leadership" in its title.

    And we will also do our best to have return performances of the fiesty and eloquent Peter Buckley and our terrific Congressman Earl Blumenauer in future Summits. People generally liked the mix of national and local speakers, and we'll continue to try to strike that balance.

    Some of the luminaries requested for future Summits include Molly Ivins, Tom Potter, Barbara Roberts, Les AuCoin, Barbara Boxer, Jim Hightower, Ron Wyden, Jeanine Garafalo, Amy Goodman, Jonah Edelman and Howard Dean himself. We also got requests for more from breakout speakers Scott Borduin and Jefferson Smith. Well...okay....but can we charge a little bit more if we can pull all of this off?

    Some people said they couldn't get into the session they wanted -- all full -- or that the title played fast and loose with the content of the class in a few cases. We will do our best to get a spacious venue and room for everyone for our next Summit adventure and also give a good class description. Next you'll want to have an abstract, I know. But perhaps by then we'll have 6 different webcams allowing us to all see the sessions in real time, together with instant blogging as well. Kari?

    Finally, from the miscellany dept., just to clarify for one of the attendees --- I know 'Goodbye Earl' is a story about a homicide. Sheesh! There's this thing called a "joke." 'Sides --- for me it's about how we are saying 'Bye! to Earl as our Rep. & HELLO Senator B! Just trying to be (or sing) the change I seek, okay?

    Well it's time once again for another recovery nap or just a short face plant of exhaustion, whichever comes first, and then onward to Monday! It's time to move on to that other thing one does besides cutting one's progressive political teeth on big ol' event organizing, that is: The Day Job. Luckily I'm self employed! So I can wake up, look in the mirror and say, "You're Fired!" But I hope I can also say, based on the kind words of support from the DFO Summiteers blogging here, we had a good kick off/coming out party for DFO, a band of a dozen weary but stubborn Dean democrats who simply will not let go of the spectacular Howard Dean Presidential campaign of Oregon and what it stood for: regaining citizen ownership of our democracy.

    So we thank all of you who attended and we especially thank our entire star-studded panel of speakers without whom this Summit could not have happened. We certainly hope we can count on all of you to come again and bring your energy, ideas, and enthusiasm (and volunteer time? :-)) to our election year version: The Blue Tide '06: DFO Progressive Victory Summit.

    Thanks very much for coming and for commenting in the Blue O! And now for my face plant, already in progress.

    Best to all,

    Ginny Ross Democracy for Oregon

  • glad he lost (unverified)

    Ginny, That was a great comment. Only one quibble: Les AuCoin as a luminary. Unless the point is to show how NOT to get confirmed for a state board. Wouldn't it be smarter to visit Senators and ASK for their vote instead of writing an incendiary email and not checking for the correct spelling of a Senator's name?

    Seriously, folks, I submit that incident with AuCoin's failed nomination to Forestry Board is a case study of another kind.

    People asked "Why Les? What's wrong with the guy in there now?" and anyone who couldn't give an intelligent answer to that question deserved to lose.

    That was a great lesson in coalition building. Some may not have liked the result. But when else have you ever seen such a positive example of coalition building?

    From Ferrioli's "Please SUPPORT Heffernan appointment" email (his is one of the many legislator email lists my name is on) to Green opposition to AuCoin (incl. Donnelly's posting on Counterpunch the story of AuCoin being on both sides of timber issues) it was an amazingly large coalition.

    Also a cautionary tale. One of Jefferson Smith's great accomplishments is bring cynical "battlescarred veterans" of Democratic party battles from the last century back into politics of the 21st century. I am one of those sour types who got burned out once too often.

    Les AuCoin won a lot of elections in his time. He is also the candidate who ran a nasty Senate primary, barely won, didn't reach out to those who didn't support him in the primary, and lost the general election. And from his actions when nominated to Forestry Board obviously he had not learned that bullying can backfire bigtime.

    Seems to me it is better to look at how Dean Dozen and other candidates won elections in 2004. Look at stories like AuCoin as a reminder that no one is required to be a Democratic party volunteer and if they feel insulted they can find other uses for their time.

  • (Show?)

    Thanks to everyone who came out to the event.

    I missed much of the morning events, as I was working the registration table. However, the cheering and clapping for speakers such as Jim Dean and Earl Blumenauer could be heard on the first floor (they were in an auditorium-type classroom in the basement).

    I was able to see the majority of the afternoon's events and they were great. My favorite had to be State Rep. Peter Buckely. His speech was wonderful and gave me a lot of information I did not previously know, such as The Oregon Contract of Responsibilities and Rights. My second favorite had to be Thom Hartmann. As I don't have a radio in the house, I don't get the chance to listen to him on the air. However, I thought he did a great job and gave out a lot of information I didn't know about as well.

    One of the things he said that really struck me was the fact that Roe v. Wade is about more than abortion. It overturned a previous Supreme Court ruling from 100 years prior that stated women had no rights. The rights they had derived from their husband. Overturning Roe v. Wade would also overturn the rights women were given.

    When I began working on this event, the "how" was exactly what I wanted to focus on. There has not been a lot of "how to" done in this state outside of being a PCP. And I'd like to do even more of it.

    For the "what," I think it's something we all need to work on together. I don't know that we're at the point where we can hold this type of conference and have "what" be the topic of the day. I think for that we need to have round table workshops where we hammer out some of this stuff together. We can bring in some experts to work on it with us, but they would be them assisting and guiding us instead of acting as speakers.

    This may be the type of event where all of the progressive/Dem groups need to get together and put on a large joint event. The Bus Project held a fairly successful event similar to this. We were developing the "what" in regards to the Bus Project. We could do the same thing to figure out the "what" in terms of the Democratic Party.

connect with blueoregon