Commentary

Gagnon: Maine liberals can’t win with a grassroots organizing army

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I have never been much fan of spiking the football.  I like to let victories speak for themselves, which is why I wasn’t planning on rubbing salt in the wound of the Maine People’s Alliance after its stunning, spectacular train wreck failure in the Lewiston Mayor’s race earlier this month, but when hilariously incompetent attacks are levied by the MPA at The Maine Heritage Policy Center, I suppose they have left themselves open to a little good natured ribbing.

This morning, an “article” appeared in the MPA’s adorably charming rip-off of The Maine Wire, The Maine Beacon (you see what they did there?), titled, Maine conservatives can’t win with astroturf organizing, which accused MHPC of engaging in “Astroturf”, because we have decided to pursue the creation and growth of a grassroots advocacy network.

That anyone at the Maine People’s Alliance would lecture, well, anyone about “not being able to win” after their recent string of spectacularly disastrous political campaigns, most notably in the Ben Chin for Mayor campaign, as well as the Mike Michaud for governor campaign, is so absurd that I almost thought it was satire.

Believing in what you are doing is great, but perhaps a little humility would be more appropriate in the face of repeated losses, especially that of your Political Director, who raised nearly $90,000 for a Mayor’s race, and used the full MPA organization to run its campaign, including a statewide progressive activist network that shipped people from all over the state to knock on doors and make phone calls, and couldn’t beat a guy who raised $5,000, and didn’t seem that interested in campaigning at all.  Oh yeah, in the single most important town for Democrats in the state, with a 2 to 1 Democrat registration advantage.

Perhaps the lectures about “winning” and how you know so much about it might just be something to save for another time.

But let’s deal with the substance of what the author, Mr. Grady Burns, who happens to be an Auburn City Councilor and President of the Maine Young Democrats, says about us.

Astroturf?

Mr. Burns’ chief accusation was that what I outlined at the MHPC luncheon that we hosted in Auburn on Wednesday, was the creation of some kind of “Astroturf” grassroots organization, and that it was doomed to failure because I, and we, have no idea what we are doing.

First, I think it may be helpful for me to define Astroturf for you, in case you haven’t heard the term before.  It is obvious that Burns has absolutely no idea what it means.  It happens to be a subject I’m well acquainted with, having worked for ten years in national politics, with a special focus on online campaigns.

Astroturf in the real world is “fake grass.”  It was used on baseball and football fields for years, as a replacement for real grass, so fields could exist inside domes, primarily.

In the political world, Astroturf is a rather nefarious concept, whereby a person or group is attempting to create the impression of real, grassroots support, by paying them to pretend to be supportive.  It is primarily an activity that you see online (where anonymity allows you to mislead more easily), and typically comes in the form of flooding comment sections of newspapers, posting on message boards, emails to political leaders from fake accounts, as well as real world activities like phony letters to the editor.

Burns seems to think that “top down” grassroots organizing — which, incidentally, is not even remotely what we are doing — somehow amounts to Astroturf.  But Astroturf is fake grass. Whether an activist network springs up from the bottom up, or somebody at the top tries to organize it down, if it is made up of genuine people who really believe what they are advocating for, it isn’t Astroturf.

Those In Glass Houses (made of Astroturf)…

I find this particular attack curious, when it comes from the Maine People’s Alliance.  I have never questioned their methods or called them out in any way for how they do what they do, and in fact have been extremely complimentary toward them in the past.  In a column I wrote for the Bangor Daily News in August of 2013, I complimented them quite a bit:

MPA empowers the liberal grassroots activists in the state; it identifies and organizes voters; it persuades fence-sitters through smart voter contact; and it ramps up turnout on behalf of so-called progressive candidates and issues.

Quite a contrast, no?  Derision and arrogant lecturing from them about what we are doing, and grudging respect and compliments from me about what they are doing.  Something I have repeated frequently, I might add.

But since I was just accused of setting up a phony Astroturf organization, let’s talk quickly about the model that the Maine People’s Alliance uses to organize their supposedly “community empowered” and “bottom up”, genuine grassroots organization.

On the organization’s webpage, under the staff heading, we find four paid community organizers, and three paid canvassing directors.  Okay, that’s a lot of paid employees responsible for grassroots activity, but in fairness, you do need full time staff to organize your volunteers and activists.  So, not too concerning, if a bit top-heavy.

But then we see on their job board, they list positions for paid phone organizers and paid field canvassers, who can expect to earn $450 per week.  People paid to be on the phone contacting members, and then paid field canvassers (these are the “shock troops” of politics, that will likely end up knocking on your door)?  I thought this was a “bottom up” organization of “concerned citizens” who were doing it for the love of the game.  Wasn’t that what you said, Mr. Burns?

MPA’s issue advocacy is derived from the collective desires of its community chapter members across the state, in a bottom-up structure that is wound into its institutional DNA. MPA members (myself included) show up because we not only see our values reflected in the organization, but also because we as members are the organization.

Yes, that is indeed what you said, though the emphasis is mine.

Then you take a gander at Craigslist and you will frequently find a gold mine of jobs for canvassers.  Here is an example of a cached ad from 2013, that demonstrates how they recruit those people that you see going door to door (in this case, for $65 a day):

MPA

So, paid staff at the MPA to manage their grassroots empire.  Paid phone organizers.  Paid field canvassers who are the ones who do the bulk of the work going door to door.  That reeks of a very well developed “top down” organization.  When you pay people at virtually every level, and the motivating catalyst for people doing the hardest work in a grassroots movement (door to door and other forms of direct contact), they aren’t showing up and doing that hard work because of motivated self interest based on belief in issues.

The point is not that The Maine People’s Alliance does anything wrong here.  In fact, they (usually) do it right.  If you want to have a large, powerful, influential, motivated activist base that engages with their community and Augusta and informs the issues you work on as an advocacy group, you need to have some form of professional staff, and you need to have an army of people doing the hardest work, both of which require financial compensation, typically.

What I’m particularly offended by, is the assumption that what Maine Heritage is doing is somehow, by comparison, “top down” and “Astroturf”, while the MPA can get away with fielding an army of paid staff and somehow be considered “true grassroots.”

What I Really Said

My presentation, which Mr. Burns did not attend (always dangerous to talk about things you didn’t witness), contained a comprehensive plan to build a grassroots advocacy organization that was, you guessed it, built with the “bottom up” in mind.

I have been doing professional grassroots organizing for more than ten years now in a variety of capacities.  I have run campaigns in 49 out of 50 states (Mississippi is the only holdout, if you are curious), at every level, from state legislature, to gubernatorial races, as well as House, Senate and four presidential campaigns.  And I have a damn good record of wins and losses in the races I participate in.

The arrogant notion on the left that they somehow are the only ones on this planet who “understand grassroots organizing”, simply because they have traditionally done it more, and committed more financial resources to it, is preposterous.  We know how to do it just fine.

The failure of the political right has been in not emphasizing it, or believing in it as a superior method of political campaigning, over things like media, and mail.  The reasons for this are long and complex, but suffice it to say that there has been a movement on the right for years that understands this shortcoming, knows what it is doing, and is doing its best to fix the problem.

The Maine Heritage Policy Center’s goal is very simple:  to empower the frustrated and motivated grassroots activists on the conservative side, and give them an opportunity to make their voice heard in state government.

Nowhere in my presentation did I say that MHPC has any interest in a “top down” approach, nor did I even suggest that I want to “compete” with the MPA.  We have no intention of building our operation like they have built theirs.

In fact, in the six months that this project has existed, we have hired one staffer, and have operated entirely on volunteerism.  Our mission is to organize those who want to make a difference in this state, and help to provide them the tools necessary and the vehicles to make their own voices heard.  No, not to be dictated to by us, or be told what to do, say or what to believe.  But to register their opinion, and understand the power of their voice in a participatory democracy.

Already it has paid dividends.  The policy agenda that we are pursuing in 2016 has been driven in large part by that nascent grassroots organization.  The bills and issues we will be working on in this legislative session have almost entirely come from the concerns of grassroots activists we have been engaging with.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. That is why, at some point in the future, we may have a large number of paid staff and people going door to door around the state, working on this grassroots effort.  But for now, our focus is on quality, not quantity.  We want to empower conservatives in Maine, and help them band together to use their collective voices to make a significant difference in the state that we love.

Astroturf, indeed.

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center. Prior to his tenure at MHPC, Matt spent eight years working in national politics in Washington, D.C., most recently as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association. A Hampden native, Matt is a nationally recognized political strategist and communicator.

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