Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club Preaches Beyond the Choir By ZELDA BRONSTEIN Special to the Planet
For progressive activists, living in the East Bay has the defect of its virtues. It’s gratifying to reside among politically like-minded others but frustrating to find oneself mostly preaching to the choir about matters of state, national and global concern. (Local affairs are not nearly so consensual, as readers of the Daily Planet are acutely aware.) For that reason, many locals went far afield during last year’s presidential campaign. Since last fall, the missionary impulse has faded in most left-liberal quarters. But at the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club (WDRC), tapping new constituencies has remained a high priority, leading to some novel political initiatives.
Founded in the spring of 2005, WDRC now has nearly 300 members, making it one of the largest Democratic Party clubs in the Bay Area. From the start, the group’s mission has included building a progressive network in the Democratic Party from the ground up. Achieving that goal has led Wellstoners to reach well beyond their geographical base, which centers in Berkeley and Oakland.
For the last month or so, the club’s Peace Committee has been soliciting donations for an extensive newspaper ad campaign in support of House Joint Resolution 55, a bipartisan Congressional joint resolution requiring the president to begin the total withdrawal of all military forces from Iraq no later than October 2006.
The Wellstoners intend to place full-page ads next month in the Oakland Tribune, the Tri-Valley Herald, the Hayward Daily Review, and the Berkeley Daily Planet.
The ads will thank local Congressional co-sponsors—Representatives Miller, Lee and Stark—and urge readers to encourage elected officials and bodies to support the resolution. The names of donors who helped pay for the ads, which cost between $1,300 (Daily Planet) and $3,800 (Oakland Tribune) apiece—will also appear. Beyond publicizing HJR 55, the campaign is intended to be a pilot project for similar grass-roots efforts in communities around the state and the country.
Last spring, WDRC undertook an even more ambitious outreach project. Club members went into the 11th Congressional District (CD 11) seeking allies in their struggle against Republican efforts to privatize Social Security. They chose the 11th District partly because of proximity. CD 11 is a torturously gerrymandered area that includes portions of four counties—Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin and Santa Clara—and cities as diverse as Danville, Manteca and Stockton.
The 11th District had an additional appeal for the Wellstoners: It’s represented in Congress by Richard Pombo, the seven-term, right-wing Republican from Tracy who chairs the House Resources Committee. WDRC member Jody Ginsberg, a resident of San Leandro, describes Congressman Pombo as a longtime “stealth candidate” who recently gained visibility and notoriety through his proposal to gut the Endangered Species Act. (That proposal passed the House on Sept. 29.)
Pombo is circulating a draft of a bill to sell 15 national parks and naming rights to visitors’ centers and trails. He’s also been a staunch supporter of President Bush’s campaign to privatize Social Security.
The Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club had endorsed and campaigned for Pombo’s opponent in last fall’s election, Jerry McNerny. McNerny had never run for office and was operating with a shoestring budget. Nevertheless, he got 40 percent of the vote.
When Pombo jumped aboard Bush’s campaign to privatize Social Security last winter, the Wellstoners decided that working in the 11th Congressional District offered a political two-fer: they could mobilize around saving Social Security and in so doing, undermine Pombo’s base. About 90,000 people in Pombo’s District draw Social Security. It seemed like fertile territory for progressive action.
Starting last April, a team of six to eight WDRC members made weekend trips to Lodi, Stockton, Manteca, Oakdale, Pleasanton and Danville. They brought along the brochure that had been prepared by the club’s Social Security Committee and an anti-Pombo petition. In each place, the Wellstoners would hook up with local activists.
“We started going to farmers markets and sitting next to local Democratic club tables,” says WDRC member Matthew Hallinan.
The Wellstoners also worked with the Tri-Valley Progressive Action Network, the Gray Panthers and the California Alliance of Retired Americans (CARA). They discovered that every town and city in the Central Valley has a CARA club. In Stockton and Fresno, Hallinan says, CARA is “actually a force.”
The immediate response to their efforts was heartening. The WDRC piece on Social Security, Hallinan says, was “the only brochure I’ve passed out in a long time that wasn’t immediately thrown away.”
“We created a buzz every time we showed up,” Ginsberg says. “People would rush up. I’ve never had such an easy job tabling.”
In her view, that’s because Social Security is basically an economic issue, and with a few exceptions, like Danville, the 11th Congressional District is not an affluent area.
“Even if people are Republicans, they want Social Security,” she said.
Some younger people did not rush up—at least not at first.
Ginsberg says that she “saw mothers and kids disagreeing—and I’m talking about grown kids thirty years old. A mother would drag her son over to the table, saying, ‘You have to learn.’ By the end, I saw a lot more young adults who were knowledgeable on the issue. Rock the Vote has information on their website about why Social Security is important to young people. We drew on their information for our flyer.”
On May 10, the Wellstoners joined a protest in front of Congressman Pombo’s Stockton office on the 70th anniversary of Social Security. They had balloons, a cake, and a big, gift-wrapped box with a card that said, “Happy 70th Birthday, Social Security.” They were not greeted by the congressman.
In July WDRC members carried a pro-Social Security banner in a Fourth of July parade in Danville. They marched with McNerny supporters, members of the local Democratic Club and a peace group.
“I’ve never seen such a polarized community,” Hallinan says. “We were booed and cheered.” But it was also in Danville, he said, that the club had “the best luck” with its organizing efforts.
By the end of the summer, the Wellstoners decided to pull back from the 11th District.
“All of us work,” Hallinan explains. “Driving two or three hours every weekend was too much.”
And while people flocked to the club’s petition and supplied assistance, local residents proved reluctant to take the initiative.
“We became convinced that [Social Security] is a great issue, but we couldn’t get a volunteer base,” Hallinan says.
Hallinan and Ginsberg both say that WDRC will return to CD 11. Jerry McNerny has built a grass-roots network there and wants to run against Pombo in 2006.
There’s talk of a fight in the Democratic primary; Congresswoman Tauscher may back another candidate. In any case, the Wellstoners plan to register voters, to make endorsements and to work for the candidates and issues they support.
Hallinan says, “We just got our toes in the water.”
Photo: Contributed photo
Members of the Wellstone Renewal Club demonstrate in front of Rep. Richard Pombo’s Tracy office. The seven-term Republican Congressmember chairs the House Resources Committee.›