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Dean Camp's Tactics Applied to Colorado

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By Brian Faler
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 9, 2005

A small advocacy group in Colorado is betting that it can take one state-of-the-art Web site, add half a million dollars or so and end up with a potent tool that will enable it to organize the state's entire community of liberal activists.

ProgressNow, formed two years ago, is borrowing some of the online tactics that helped fuel the 2004 presidential campaign of Howard Dean, now the Democratic National Committee chairman. It has invited activists from across the state to use its Web site free to push most any issue they like.

The goal is to create a go-to site for Colorado activists -- a sort of online hub for everyone from environmentalists to abortion rights advocates to those concerned about the direction of their school boards. The group hopes liberals will use the site -- ProgressNowAction.org -- to find each other, organize and meet people working on other issues. In the process, it hopes to assemble a statewide network of activists and, ultimately, give Democrats a new and easily replicated model for local political organizing.

"We're taking what we learned from the Dean campaign and are applying it to a state," said Bobby Clark, who worked on Dean's Internet team before becoming deputy director of ProgressNow. "If we do our job right, when election time comes around, we will have a much more engaged electorate."

It is one of the more unusual -- and ambitious -- efforts in grass-roots organizing at the state level. Notably, the group has no connection to the Democratic Party, which has launched its own effort to rebuild its state parties. The site is run by what in political action lingo is a "501c4," after the section of the federal tax code that governs its finances. Those organizations may accept unlimited financial contributions but cannot coordinate their efforts with a political party.

ProgressNow so far can make only modest boasts in people and money. It has a $500,000 budget, roughly equivalent to that of the Colorado Democratic Party but only a small fraction of that of many traditional liberal groups. It has five people on its payroll.

What's more, for all the attention in recent years to the role of the Internet in politics, it is still unclear how useful it is at the state and local levels. The most successful organizing efforts thus far have been run at the behest of some national organization, pushing some national issue to a national audience. These include presidential campaigns or MoveOn.org.

Still untested is whether it is possible to mobilize liberal activists around something other than a looming election, particularly in a mid-size state with a traditionally conservative tilt. There are few examples of the Internet making a difference at that level, where the issues can be decidedly parochial and the pool of potential supporters small.

But Clark sees an opportunity.

"That's what's been missing," he said. "MoveOn has been around for years, and they've done an amazing job of organizing around big, national issues. But that's not enough. There are local issues happening all the time that people are concerned about."

He said he hopes activists will use the site to organize around everything from bills moving through the state legislature to fights over Wal-Mart. ProgressNow also said it will try to steer users toward various causes, such as supporting an initiative on Colorado's November ballot that would relax caps on government spending.

The effort recently got a boost from MoveOn.org, when the online giant messaged the 24,642 Coloradans on its e-mail list, urging them to visit the site.

"We are always on the lookout for interesting initiatives that leverage technology to get people involved. Maybe we're not looking in the right places . . . but I haven't seen another approach exactly like it," said Eli Pariser, the executive director of MoveOn's political action committee. "If this works, obviously, we would be interested in helping expand it beyond Colorado."

The site, much more sophisticated than the state Democratic Party's site, features a range of tools that will be familiar to anyone who followed Dean's presidential bid. There is a knockoff of the Web site Meetup.com, which helps the like-minded find each other and that the former Vermont governor used to rally thousands. There are tools to set up your own Web log, or blog. There is a database of Colorado voters and their addresses, so that activists can write them letters urging action on some issue. There are profiles of individual activists. Soon groups will be able to set up their own fundraisers on the site.

So far, attendance has been light. Clark estimated that a "few hundred" people have been actively using the site since it was unveiled last month. There is a small group organized by Denver-area college students. Another focuses on gay and lesbian issues.

ProgressNow said it has encountered some resistance from local Democratic Party officials who fear the effort will siphon people and money from their activities. Patricia Waak, who heads the state party, acknowledged that some see the group as little more than unwanted competition. She said that she wished it would somehow work through the party, but that she nevertheless supported its efforts.

"The fact is that they're going on a premise here that worked for Howard Dean when he was running and was pretty effective for him," Waak said. "But in the end, it still only picks up a certain group of people. There are still tons of people out there who don't even have a computer and who could care less what blogs say."


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