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February 23, 2007

Interview with Dean Nielsen, State Director of Progressive Majority

Washington State has a proud history of progressive activism that has ebbed and flowed over the years.  In the last couple of years, that activism is again quickening here, as around the country.

It comes out as a sense that we, the citizens, are going to have to step back in and reclaim our democracy and take responsibility for focusing our legislators on the issues like global warming and public transportation and universal healthcare and public financing and genuine accountability in government.  Not to mention that stupid war in Iraq and the horrendous difficulties we are placing our military people and military institutions under as well.   

There is a sense we are in the process of changing direction. The institutions of the left are coming to life, some slowly, some quickly; there are new organizations rising up as well.

When I first began writing on this blog two years ago, I did a round of interviews with leaders of several progressive organizations during what was the early time of this current quickening.  I wanted to both get a picture of where we were in the state and to better understand, as a returning Northwesterner, the breadth and focus of the organizations operating at the time.

I am preparing to do another round.  Then, as now, I choose to begin with Progressive Majority, an organization I described at the time as what the Democratic Party would look like if it were new and unencumbered with the baggage of an aging institution.  I now see that these two organizations have different roles.  The Democratic Party is working on shaking off the cobwebs and redefining their role in this new political world. 

Progressive Majority is new; they were built for this emerging time.

For those who are not familiar with Progressive Majority, it is a nation-wide organization begun in 2001 at the time the Republicans were at the helm of all our national political institutions.  They decided there were things that the left needed to learn from the right-wing institutions that had managed to whup the Democrats for the previous decade or more.  Progressive Majority decided to focus not on the Presidential elections but on the down ticket races.  Taking a page from the success of Emily’s List, they focus on finding progressives to campaign in state races from the legislature to fire districts and school boards.  They help those folks learn to raise money, run an effective campaign and communicate with their voters. 

Washington was one of the lucky three states chosen to start and got even luckier with the selection of Dean Nielsen as State Director.  My interview with Dean is after the fold.

P.S.  Progressive Majority is sponsoring a political training by Camp Wellstone on the weekend of March 9-11, if anyone would like to get some kick-ass help in becoming a candidate, helping run a campaign or functioning better as an activist. 

Interview with Dean Nielsen, Progressive Majority Washington

How do we grow the progressive movement in WA State?

DN: Other than through Progressive Majority?

We smile.

DN:  We need to have a counter to the right-wing think-tank.  We do good policy generation but nothing else.  The principle right-wing think tanks in the state – the Discovery Institute, Bob Williams’ Evergreen Freedom Foundation, and, to a lesser extent, Rabbi Daniel Lapin’s Toward Tradition, all have policy generation but also have huge communications groups.  The Evergreen Freedom Foundation (with it’s Scaife Foundation money) also has a huge legal apparatus. 

There needs to be a multi-issue, progressive think-tank in Washington State. With that kind of an institution, progressives can aggressively set policy with the media.  Right now there is a huge hole.

For example, KUOW will have a political hour – with someone from the right-wing think tank on one side and a journalist on the other.  What is that?

Is anything happening in terms of building this infrastructure?

DN: Sightline Institute is moving to fill that gap.  They are no longer exclusively environmentally-focused.  As part of the name change, they are going to move more in this direction.  But, it is not easy to change an organization’s focus.  It is a difficult task.  If they are going to take this role, they need to be held accountable.  They get time to see how they are doing, but they have to be held accountable.

Also, we need a 501C-3 that exclusively does voter registration.  If you think about it, there used to be a lot of organizations that did voter registration.  Once the motor voter bill was passed,  many organizations got out.  The Democratic Party should not be the lead.  You can do it with tax-deductible dollars.   

You can fit election protection into a voter registration role.  And same day registration.  Both are important but can be done on a non-partisan basis.

Progressive Majority was very successful with the legislative candidates you supported in the fall election.  Any room for gaining another couple seats in 08?

Sure.  There’s opportunity still out there, particularly in the House.  I’m aggressive.  Conventional wisdom says we’ll lose two seats in 08 in the Senate.  That’s possible.  But I’m thinking we could hold to one or break even.  We could take a run at a couple others where we have a R-Senator but House members that are Democratic.  We could move the House folks up.  In the House, there is still room for expansion but we would have to run the table.   We’ll take another run at suburban areas where we were close in 06.

At the end of the day, we have to be on the attack. 

How’s your pipeline of candidates?

DN: We are focused on a number of key down-ticket races.  We have three major county councils with races this year and hundreds of city council races.  There are ports, fire districts, school boards.  Cream rises.  If we put enough people in, people will move up. 

Nine of the 11 current Congressional members were once office holders at the state or county level.  Most statewide folks were officeholders at a lower level.

There is no secret about how this works.

The Republican Party used to have organizations that worked something like this.  It has been neglecting them since 1994, when they won big.  They had GOPAC, connected with Newt Gingrich and founded by Pierre DuPont. 

In Washington State, way back then, they talked about the Republican farm team.  It included Rob McKenna, Rick White, and Dino Rossi among others.

Anything else about what Progressive Majority that we should know about?

Progressive Majority is on the move.  We are in eight states and are adding several new states this year.  We hired a Minnesota operations person three weeks ago.  We are currently open in Ohio.  We have a huge growth rate.

We have accomplished much with a small budget and low staffing level.

Why have you been so effective with such a small staff/budget?

DN:  This market share has been so empty.  There are not many organizations that engage candidates at every level as we do.  We went to a city of about 150 votes, and helped elect the South Prairie mayor.  We saw that she has potential. - Peggy Levesque.  We’ll do those size races when we have good candidates.  Because we know that our candidates can move up from there.

We are single-focused.  And we don’t lobby.  That gives us a lot more ability to focus on what we do.  We do most of our work in the spring while others are lobbying. 

Talk about the blogging community.

DN: I’m very supportive of our local bloggers.  I think that resisting the temptation to comment on national issues is hard but essential.  The more locally focused state blogs are, the more impact they’ll have. 

There needs to be more support of bloggers.  What can bloggers do to help progressives but also what can the progressive community do to help the bloggers – in terms of resources, especially financially.

Thank you.

Posted by Lynn Allen on February 23, 2007 at 08:40 AM in Interviews, Strategery | Permalink

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