Page One Hopes to Pick A Candidate

Friday June 20, 2003

A recent straw poll taken by the political advocacy group named Dennis Kucinich, John Kerry and Howard Dean as the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination among its members.  

The three candidates were then invited to write an e-mail introducing their platforms to the online political community. Now, though the country’s first primary is still seven months away, Berkeley-born MoveOn is a few days away from its 48-hour primary, which begins June 24, to determine who will receive its endorsement. 

“The choice will pretty much be set in stone eight months from now,” said Carrie Olson, MoveOn’s chief operating officer. “If we’re involved now, perhaps we can make a change from what otherwise might be handed down based on what the Washington political scene tells us is best for us.” 

The endorsed candidate will receive a significant campaign contribution. In 2002, with membership less than 500,000, the Political Action Committee—a legally separate entity that solicits contributions for candidates for political office—raised $4.1 million to put toward election campaigns. With 1.4 million members today, the goal is $10 million. 

But endorsement, said Olson, is more than the money: “To have a committed base of people who are willing to volunteer their time and tell their friends and have house parties and do leafleting, write letters to the editor, keep their eyes on the issue as it moves along. That is invaluable to the process and to any candidate.” is a rare breed of advocacy group that works from the ground up. Although members receive e-mails that draw attention to compelling issues, it is their response that determines the shape of MoveOn’s action. Members also write in independently about what concerns them, respond to each other’s suggestions and propose strategies for effecting change. 

Software entrepreneurs and husband-and-wife team Wes Boyd and Joan Blades founded the Internet-based MoveOn in 1999, amid the Monica Lewinsky scandal that paralyzed Congress. They set up a Web site with a petition urging Congress to censure President Clinton, quickly, and move on to more pressing issues. When the House voted to impeach, in December 1999, the nascent group began a pledge drive with the words: We will remember. 

The following year, the PAC contributed $2.3 million to 30 congressional campaigns in which the candidate ran against someone who had voted to impeach. Thirteen of their candidates won, including four senators. The crucial balance of the Senate almost tipped.  

MoveOn has not looked back since that November, and the stakes have only increased for Americans whose politics run to the left of center. It has provided an outlet for the unease, anger and frustration of an unknown multitude. “There are tens of millions of people out there, each of whom have real talents,” said Boyd. “When put together in a coherent way, they become unstoppable.” 

Although Boyd, Blades and Olson all live and work in Berkeley, the city does not serve as headquarters in any traditional sense. MoveOn has only four paid employees, spread from San Francisco to New York City and Washington, D.C. They rely on the members who log on from across the country to form the group’s collective consciousness. MoveOn follows where the majority leads. 

Where that’s been is into every area of government policy, foreign and domestic. In February they focused on Bush’s reshaping of the judicial branch, flooding Senate offices with calls in support of the filibuster to prevent confirmation of conservative nominee Miguel Estrada. In May they fought media consolidation, overwhelming the FCC with so many phone calls and e-mails that, several days prior to the vote, the commission’s voicemail system and Web site went down. They have, most recently, partnered with Win Without War to purchase a full-page advertisement in The New York Times, asking Congress to establish an independent commission to investigate the distortion of evidence regarding weapons of mass destruction. 

Of late, the overarching message has been clear. Said Olson, who reads much of the member e-mail: “They are angry. They are motivated. They want to be involved.” 

“Folks from all walks of life are waking up and saying we have to do something, or we’re going to get into trouble,” Boyd said. “We all have to take responsibility.” 

The membership surge that has made dreams of regime change possible coincided with MoveOn’s stand on the Iraq controversy, said Olson. MoveOn was already backing candidates for 2002 mid-term elections, and sent members a message in support of those who had stood up and said the country shouldn’t go to war in Iraq. They called them heroes. 

Over the next five days, MoveOn was flooded with tens of thousands of e-mails. “We thought we were taking a stand we’d have to defend,” said Olson. And it turned out it was exactly what a lot of people wanted to hear. 

“It seems that every time we take a strong stand and fight on an issue, our membership grows. Folks are looking for leadership where they’ve seen a vacuum. For too long voter apathy has been seen as a voter problem, a constituent problem, but it’s not,” she said. “It’s a leadership problem. Folks are looking for great leadership. They’re just not seeing it. They’re waiting for it.” 

“Washington, D.C., is a wasteland when it comes to ideas,” said Boyd. “People talk about the same things over and over. There needs to be a process of renewal.” 

Looking ahead, Olson said there may be no ideal candidate who can be all things to everybody. But she hopes people can come together to back the one, whoever that may be: “The mainstream media is definitely looking for divisive game playing,” she said. “They want to be able to say the Democrats can’t get their act together; neither can the Greens, and it’s all going to fall apart. They’d love to be able to run that story for the next year and a half. I would love for us to be able to bring together all of our differences and not feed that monster. And instead work toward true change.”