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The DNC wages a pre-packaged "grassroots" campaign in Vermont


Published June 16, 2004 at 6:10 p.m.

When 19-year-old Kait O'Donnell moved to Burlington this spring, she scanned the papers for a job. An ad from the Democratic National Committee caught her eye. "Campaign Jobs to Beat Bush," it said. "Earn $300-$500 a week going door to door as part of the Democratic Party's largest grassroots fundraising and voter mobilization initiative." O'Donnell was thrilled. "I'm a poor college student," explains the Wesleyan University sophomore from Brookfield, Vermont. "I saw the 'Beat Bush' ad and I thought, 'Can I get paid for this?'"

O'Donnell recounts her job search while standing on my front porch in Winooski; for nearly a month now, she has spent every weekday evening from 4 to 9 going door to door, asking Vermonters for money to defeat W. On this sunny June day, my house is part of her "turf."

O'Donnell admits she's had her ups and downs -- her nightly totals have ranged from $35 to $220 -- but most of the time, she says, she does pretty well. It's easy to see why. For starters, her outfit -- a black skirt and light blue tank top -- suggests a degree of professionalism, while her orange backpack and springy, curly blond hair impart an idealistic, youthful touch. She appears both confident and articulate as she presents her case: George W. Bush is amassing the largest campaign war chest in history, and if the Democrats have any hope of matching it, they need my help. She's not flustered when I say no, or when I ask questions. And she always manages, in a polite but insistent way, to bring the conversation back to money. "That is why I'm here," she reminds me.

On the surface, asking Vermonters to contribute cash towards beating Bush sounds like a fairly easy job. After all, anti-Bush sentiment runs high in the Green Mountain State, especially in the People's Republic of Burlington. And Vermonters recently demonstrated their willingness to fund a Democratic campaign: Howard Dean raised hundreds of thousands of dollars here, and continues to rake in donations from Vermonters for his new organization, Democracy for America.

But O'Donnell admits that often much of the opposition she and her co-workers face comes not from Republicans, but from members of their own party. Whether it's lingering resentment over the DNC's treatment of Dean during his presidential bid or a creeping suspicion that this is not exactly a "grassroots" campaign, some Vermonters are wary of these doorknockers.

O'Donnell and her 15 or so co-workers aren't the only ones canvassing to defeat Bush this summer. The DNC is running offices in 37 cities and will likely open more before the election season is over. This is actually the first time that the Committee has paid people to fundraise door-to-door on a national scale.

Though canvassing plays a role in most campaigns, it's usually a volunteer job. And campaign canvassers are more likely to be registering voters or handing out literature than raising money. That's because canvassing is not a particularly efficient way to fundraise. Compared to direct mail or an email appeal, canvassing is costly and time-consuming. This is especially true in Vermont, with its scattered, rural population.

So why is the DNC paying people to do it? They won't say. DNC National Press Secretary Tony Welch did not respond to repeated requests for information for this story. And he instructed Burlington canvass employees not to speak with the media. But there are plenty of clues.

In 2002, Congress passed the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law, which makes it illegal for political parties to accept unlimited donations from individuals, businesses and political groups. If you think this would only hurt the Republicans, think again. The GOP is unmatched at collecting small donations from individuals.

It's the Dems who have depended more heavily on "soft money." In the Federal Election Committee filing period that ended May 20th, the average donation reported by the Kerry campaign was $100. Bush's average contribution was just $85.

That's why Howard Dean's fundraising was such big news. During the third quarter of 2003, when his campaign set a record by raising $14.8 million in one quarter during a primary season, Dean's average contribution was $73.69. For the first time in a long time, a Demo-cratic candidate was inspiring the rank and file to dig deep for the cause.

Now the Democratic Party is trying to aggressively court these small donors to try to match Bush's $200 million coffers. But while Dean built his Web tools and let supporters find him, DNC chair Terry McAuliffe is trying to bring the DNC to Democratic doorsteps across the country.

Er, sort of. The canvassers aren't actually DNC employees. They work for a for-profit company called Grassroots Campaigns, Inc., which is based in Boston. The DNC pays GCI to run the canvass offices, though it's unclear exactly how they're paying, or how much; no one at GCI is willing to speak with the media.

This doesn't surprise Alexi Bonifield, who attended GCI's canvass-director training in Washington, D.C., in April. A 50-year-old public-relations specialist from Nevada County, California, Bonifield was a new director recruit. She quit at the conclusion of her two-week training, and wrote an article about her experience for "I was astounded to learn when I arrived in D.C. that there was no press sent out about the program or the 250 people gathered from around the country to train as campaign managers and canvassers," she writes in an email. "In fact, I was told they 'didn't really want a lot of publicity.'"

In a phone interview, Bonifield reveals that GCI plans to open up to 60 DNC offices this summer. It hopes to identify 30,000 new donors each month and raise $15 million in small contributions -- an ambitious goal, considering that the money canvassers raise also has to cover their salaries, office expenses and GCI's administrative fees. The DNC plans to use the money for get-out-the-vote efforts in swing states.

After this race, GCI intends to run canvasses for local, statewide and regional races. During her two weeks as a canvasser in the D.C. office, Bonifield says, GCI seemed to be stretched thin. "It was obvious they were extremely tight on funds," she says. Though the office pulled in $7000 to $8000 a night, GCI hadn't yet provided promised materials such as T-shirts, ID badges and handouts.

Bonifield says she quit because she could no longer in good conscience fundraise for the DNC. "They are so concerned about the swing states," she says, "they're ignoring the progressive left. They just aren't friggin' interested. It's all about the numbers, all about the money."

She knows of others who have left, too. In fact, Burlington's original office director, Adam Alexander, has also moved on. Bonifield thinks the name "Grassroots Campaigns, Inc." is a good marketing ploy. "I don't think it's a bait-and-switch thing," she says, "but I think they have lost the ideals of it."

This kind of contractor arrangement is not unique to the DNC -- many organizations looking to field canvass operations ask someone else to run them. In fact, it's a tactic used by the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, the state's only other large-scale employer of door-to-door political canvassers. Since the late 1990s, VPIRG's canvass has been managed by the Fund for Public Interest Research, a nonprofit organization that has run canvasses for the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and the Human Rights Campaign, among others. (I worked for the Fund for three summers and a year after I graduated from college.)

The two Vermont canvasses have a few things in common. Interestingly, they both sprang from a model developed in part by Doug Phelps, founder of both the Fund and GCI. He has served on the boards of environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, and is now CEO of GCI. According to Burlington DNC director Katie Ingebretson, who spoke with me before being instructed not to, Terry McAuliffe approached Phelps more than a year ago and asked if he could do for the DNC what he's done for PIRG.

In Phelps' model, canvassers are trained with a "rap" that they drill before canvassing, then repeat at every door. This scripted approach provides the campaign with a consistent message. They're also instructed in fundraising techniques, such as how to counter the inevitable "no." And they're paid using a quota system -- how much they make depends on how much they raise. If they can't demonstrate their ability to make quota within the first few days, they're out of a job.

But though both the DNC and VPIRG employ those same techniques, their operations diverge in several important ways. For one thing, they look different. Most of the VPIRGers wear a laid-back uniform: shorts and VPIRG T-shirts or caps. They also carry clipboards loaded with newspaper articles and fact sheets describing their current renewable-energy campaign, and are eager to leave listeners with at least one of them.

When I ask DNC canvasser O'Donnell for a leaflet, she hands me a battered photocopy of several quotes from James Carville, and Bill and Hillary Clinton. O'Donnell apologizes for her lack of materials, but says bluntly, "I'm not out here to educate people."

The most important difference, though, is that VPIRG-ers are intricately connected to Vermont. The campaigns they promote at the door are often state-related -- their current effort targets Vermont's renewable-energy policy. And though many of their canvassers and even canvass directors are college students or transplants unfamiliar with the area, the VPIRG office in Montpelier is ready and willing to support them.

VPIRG's field coordinator, Drew Hudson, works out of the Montpelier office year-round, but visits the Burlington canvass office at 113 Church Street at least once a week during the summer. When I called there to speak with him, I could hear canvassers cheering as VPIRG executive director Paul Burns gave a briefing.

The DNC canvass office, on the other hand, is completely isolated from Vermont politics. Vermont Democratic Party Communications Director Mark Michaud says that the DNC never asked for permission, or for help with their canvass. Careful not to seem divisive, Michaud insists that the DNC effort will do more good than harm. "It'll raise the profile of the Democratic Party and John Kerry," he says, "and that's going to benefit Democrats here in Vermont."

Ingebretson, who moved here from Texas for this job, agrees. "In the long run, it will help them," she says. But the DNC presence might hurt fundraising for state candidates, as local Dems get donor fatigue from giving to the national party. Michaud says this is unlikely, but with a finite number of Democrat donors and a gubernatorial campaign that's going to cost a million dollars, it's not difficult to imagine.

That the DNC is waging this campaign under the "grassroots" banner puzzles Patty McIntosh. The Rutland resident was active in Vermonters for Dean and recently served as a delegate to the state Democratic convention. She's also on the board of an organization called "Grassroots for America," created in the aftermath of the Dean campaign. The group emphasizes a bottom-up, rather than top-down, approach to politicking -- which means McIntosh is more likely to be registering voters at Wal-Mart than volunteering for the DNC. "It creeps me out that people are paid to canvass," says McIntosh. "It just feels very Republican to me."

Many former Dean supporters, such as Dr. Jean Szilva, are angry at the party for adopting what they see as a pro-war agenda designed to woo moderates and swing-state voters. "Kerry's talking about sending more troops," says the Winooski Democrat and School Board member who teaches at the UVM medical school. "That's not what I want to hear."

Szilva says that although she gave money "hand over fist" to Dean, she won't give to the DNC. The canvasser who came to her house in Winooski left empty-handed. "There's no question I'm voting for Kerry," says the fiery doc, "but it really goes against my soul to give money to a campaign I can't agree with. Every time they send me a solicitation in the mail, I send it back to them saying, 'Get some guts, get some dough.'"

But other former Dean supporters have overcome their initial reservations about the DNC and have given money to the canvassers, in part because it's easier to throw away junk mail than it is to say no to someone in person. One long-time antiwar activist from Burlington's New North End, who prefers to remain anonymous, explains why she contributed a small check. She hadn't planned on donating to the DNC. "I just had this feeling that they were against Dean from day one," she says. But after a conversation with a canvasser, she softened her stance. "I think because a young person was involved," she says. She found the young woman polite and informed, and wanted to support her.

But now she sounds unsure about it. "I probably shouldn't have done it," she concedes. Like many Democrats, she feels torn between her ideals and reality. "At this point," she says with a sigh, "anything that will help us to defeat Bush, well..."

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