Where is the next Paul Wellstone? It’s been more than three years since that fiery, unabashedly liberal voice was abruptly silenced in a plane crash just before Election Day, but some of his supporters are still hoping that a successor will arrive to rally the flagging spirits of progressive politics.
Those who hope for the sudden emergence of new national leader are doomed to disappointment, says St. Anthony Park resident Jeff Blodgett, Wellstone’s former campaign manager and now the director of Wellstone Action, the Raymond Avenue-based organization that was founded in the wake of the senator’s death.
“It’s a mistake to look out on the national scene for his successor,” he says. “There’s a leadership void on the liberal, progressive side of national politics.”
Instead, Blodgett thinks that the progressive heroes of the future are being developed right now at the grass-roots level through “Camp Wellstone,” the boot camps for lefties that have been organized in 28 states by Wellstone Action to teach the kind of activist/political skills that, in the hopes of its supporters, will win elections and maybe even change the world.
So far, more than 9,000 people have undergone Camp Wellstone training, and “graduates” of the program are beginning to wage successful campaigns for school boards and city councils across the nation.
“The real successors to Wellstone are the people that we’re finding and training at the local level,” says Blodgett. “We’re building leaders who can speak for us and represent us.”
Wellstone Action has just published a new book to show how it’s done. Politics the Wellstone Way: How to Elect Progressive Candidates and Win on Issues (University of Minnesota Press, 2005) is a kind of field training manual for the grass-roots organizers and politicos of tomorrow.
The emphasis is not on airing the grand old progressive rhetoric but on mastering the tactics—of communications, organization and fund-raising—that actually win votes and changes the minds of the electorate.
It’s a skill set, Blodgett admits, that Republicans have perfected over the last 30 years. “The conservatives had a strategic plan to win,” he explains, “by organizing, by developing candidates, by generating ideas. Plus, they had leaders.”
Blodgett is surprisingly generous in his assessment of the political skills of the national Republican leadership. “I give Bush credit for having a more authentic style in the 2004 election. Bush looked more forthright. John Kerry looked more careful,” he says.
According to Blodgett, Bush even borrowed a page from Wellstone’s playbook. Like Wellstone, Bush has a message for the voter. Blodgett paraphrases, “You may not always agree with me, but you know where I stand.”
At least one graduate of Camp Wellstone credits an emphasis on authenticity for her own success at the polls. Maria Ruud, a nurse practitioner in Hennepin County, attended Camp Wellstone in the winter of 2004. A few months later she was elected to Minnesota House District 42A, representing Eden Prairie and Minnetonka. For Ruud, authenticity meant not ducking the question when asked for her stands on hot-button issues like abortion and gay marriage.
Ruud says that she had never planned to seek public office, “but I felt I had to run because I’d seen the human cost of bad policy. As a nurse practitioner, it was a big leap for me, but the fear of doing nothing was worse than the fear of running.”
She cites the memory of Paul Wellstone as a political inspiration. “The life you live shouldn’t be separate from the words you speak.”
Blodgett never lets camp participants forget that Wellstone, in addition to being an idealist, was also someone who knew how to mobilize a movement from the ground up. “Paul Wellstone,” he notes, “was winning elections while the conservative movement was on the rise.”
Achieving ballot-box success ranks high as a goal for the graduates of Camp Wellstone. “Paul Wellstone was a progressive who won elections. We have to win to be in a position to make a difference,” emphasizes Blodgett.
For Blodgett, who describes himself as the kind of old-fashioned guy who doesn’t own a Palm Pilot, a winning strategy involves a return to some distinctly low-tech campaign methods. “Throughout the ’90s,” he says, “campaigns got away from (personal) voter contact to rely on TV and direct mail. The thinking was, if you raise the money, you make your case. But that leads to a disconnect with voters.”
The key to successful campaigning, he believes, grows out of traditional activist techniques for political organizing. “There’s an art and a science in building organizations,” he says. “Wellstone was a big believer in involving large numbers of people.”
Training at Camp Wellstone emphasizes old-fashioned techniques of one-to-one communication, backed up by modern fund-raising efforts and targeted voter outreach.
“In a well-run campaign, volunteers are sent to knock on the right doors for undecided voters,” he says. In-depth conversation with prospective voters is great, but only when it leads to what Blodgett calls “the make an ask” moment at the end of the conversation when the volunteer says, “Can we count on your vote?”
“You need quality conversations, but a lot of them,” is how he puts it.
Peggy Flanagan agrees. Flanagan, 25, attended Camp Wellstone in the summer of 2003. Months later, she became the youngest and the first Native American member of the Minneapolis School Board.
She says, “I learned how important it is to build relationships with the community. You need to get in there right away.” She stresses how crucial it was to visit all parts of the city, “not just the high voter turnout area.” Flanagan adds, “Wellstone Action has the potential to grow many new progressive leaders. I’m so glad to be a part of it.”
At 44, Blodgett is almost a full generation older than Camp Wellstone grads like Flanagan. He’s man who keeps his emotions well in check, but there are ghosts that live behind his eyes. They emerge fleetingly, as when he remembers with a trace of a smile the effervescent campaign style of the man who used to be his boss.
For him, Wellstone Action is more than a cause. It’s a way to restore his spirit. Blodgett tells a story to explain it.
“A minister told me, ‘I don’t believe the meaning was in the crash and the loss. The meaning comes from what we make of it and how we respond to those tragedies.’” He pauses. “I felt it was my calling to pick up where Paul left off. It would be a further tragedy if that went away, too. The organization has been part of the healing.”