Grass Roots in a Virginia Basement

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, March 8, 2007

Three young guys hunch over computers in a basement finished with jumbo maps of election precincts. Nate, Mike and Sean are busy multitasking -- plotting a path toward victory for a candidate who just moved to the state 10 months ago, trying to swing political control of Virginia back to the Democrats, and recruiting a new generation of candidates for public office. Oh, and launching their own careers in the election game.

This underground war room in suburban Clifton is home to the Next Generation Democrats PAC, a start-up that aims to dish out enough money to make a difference -- both in the outcome of elections and in the role that young people play in politics. The guys plan to funnel donations to young candidates, but older office-seekers are eligible for gifts, too, if they use the cash to pay stipends to campaign staffers in their 20s. This PAC has ambition, swagger and about $2,500 in the bank, raised from family and friends.

Well, you have to start somewhere.

These guys are starting in Morris Meyer's basement. Meyer, the grown-up of the bunch, is the candidate, a 42-year-old transplant from Texas who ran for Congress in 2004 and garnered but 33 percent of the vote against a 12-term Republican. Meyer, a software consultant with a heavy focus on things green, moved to Fairfax to marry his longtime sweetheart; now, he's decided to take on Del. Tim Hugo, a Republican who ran unopposed in his past two elections. Meyer has this going for him: The district did go for Democrat Tim Kaine for governor in 2005. But first, Meyer has to get past a Democratic opponent, Rex Simmons, in the June primary.

The guys aren't into quixotic endeavors. They think Meyer can unseat Hugo because the delegate hasn't had to face any real competition before, because Virginia's transportation mess has discredited the Republicans who control Richmond, and because Meyer understands how the Internet and concerns about the fate of the Earth are changing politics.

The guys also like Meyer because he's enough of a long shot to adopt them as the brains and brawn of the war room. Nate de la Piedra, 24 and a student at George Mason University, lives with his parents in McLean. Mike Burns, 24, was going to be a teacher like his mother until he volunteered on Kaine's campaign and caught the politics bug. Sean Sukol is but 18, fresh out of West Springfield High and already a veteran of three campaigns.

The trio has taken charge of identifying the few thousand voters in the Centreville-Clifton area of southwest Fairfax whom Meyer would need to pull off a big upset -- mostly the Hispanics, blacks and "green Americans" who have moved into the district's burgeoning townhouse developments and who probably would lean Democratic, if they could be persuaded to vote in a legislative election.

"We wanted to get behind someone who is a fighter, someone who's going to build a campaign infrastructure and knock on doors, not just enrich networks and local TV stations," says de la Piedra. No danger of that: At the end of 2006, Meyer's campaign had raised $8,000 to the incumbent's $95,000.

Together with the guys, Meyer is focusing on using online communities such as MySpace and Facebook to find potential supporters. Meyer trained to be a presenter of Al Gore's slide show about global warming, which he narrated at Mason last night. Now, the challenge is to get voters to see a connection between climate change and Fairfax's clogged roads, and to back Democrats in rejecting the GOP's transportation bill because it puts too much of a burden on Northern Virginia taxpayers.

The Next Generation guys deeply believe that the right ideas, deep knowledge of the new campaign technologies and the energy of young people willing to work for a few hundred dollars a month can make the difference in an election. De la Piedra says the PAC intends to raise $50,000 and get involved in five legislative races this year. "The $25 that a young person gives us for candidates like Morris instead of going out for dinner means more than the $1,000 that a millionaire sends to Obama," Burns says.

Well, maybe. But even if the big money does win out, the guys in the basement will have demonstrated that a democracy in danger of falling into dormancy -- two years ago, 50 of Virginia's 100 delegates ran unopposed -- is worth fighting to reclaim.

Join me at noon today

for "Potomac Confidential" at

© 2007 The Washington Post Company