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August 13, 2007

YearlyKos Coverage - Democrats Work

What if every time people wanted help with a service project, whether it be painting a school or cleaning up a neighborhood park or setting up a food bank, they just naturally turned to the Democrats?  That was the dream of two young college students a decade ago.  Today, one of them, Thomas Bates, has created a new organization, Democrats Work, that aims to do just that.

I met Thomas in the exhibition room at YearlyKos, learned he was physically located in Seattle, and then ran into him in the crowded terminal on our way home.  We sat together on the plane and I did this interview so I could learn more about how he came to have this dream and how it has played out.

I came away a believer.

Democracy Works has, in less than a year, helped mobilize over 750 volunteers who have participated in 35 events in 7 states.  So far, none of those have been in Washington.  Thomas moved to Seattle this spring with his girlfriend to be closer to her family.

But there is no reason that the NW cannot be the prototype of this dream – a place where people immediately think of the Democrats when they have community projects that need done, a place where people get drawn into politics through their passion for serving and drawn into service through their passion for electing Democrats.

Interview with Thomas Bates of Democrats Work

Q:  So, let’s start at the beginning.  How did this idea come about?

TB:  When I was in college in North Carolina, I was volunteering for a Democratic Congressional candidate who was also my professor at Duke University.  He had been in Congress for four terms, had lost in the Republican sweep of 1994, and was running again in 1996.

The knock on Democrats at the time was that they were out of touch with real people.  My roommate and I decided the best way to blunt that criticism was for Democrats to be more visibly service oriented.

We did very little with it for 11 years.  I went on to work for that Congressman, David Price, who represents the 4th CD of North Carolina, the Ralaigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area.   My roommate, Jason Carter, grandson of President Jimmy Carter, went into the Peace Corps.

Later, while I was in Law School in NYC, I thought I’d see if I could actually mobilize Democrats.  I worked with the Young Democrats and saw that people liked to do the service work.  It was enough to validate the idea of what we’d thought about.

I went to work in a law office in San Francisco.  While I was there, I put together the structure for what is now Democrats Work.  I quit my job as a lawyer a year ago and put this organization together, looking at where we could do events, finding Democrats who were willing to be partners in this experiment.   

Q: And how has it worked?

TB:  We did a couple events in San Francisco, to kick the tires of the idea and look at how it might work.  At the end of the year, we started doing events in the states we initially targeted – Colorado, Arkansas, Georgia and Nevada, all selected because we had people on the ground who could help.

We’ve had projects where we did park and neighborhood clean-up, served lunch to the homeless, supported teachers in various ways, provided stocked backpacks for young children with parents in Iraq/Afghanistan, worked with Habitat for Humanity and others.

The model is simple.  We are not to create a new organization but to partner with existing organizations.  On the service side, we try to funnel volunteers into preexisting volunteer opportunities.  We hope that they can help build a reputation of Democrats who service organizations that need volunteers.  We want people to realize they can turn to Democrats when they have a need. 

Q: How does that integration of politics and service actually work on the ground?

TB:  We are actively studying this to see if it works on a political level.  We currently have two monthly service events in competitive legislative districts, one in CO, one in NV.  With each event, we will notify unaffiliated voters in those areas and say, “Last month the Democrats cleaned up the park down the street.  Please join us this month as we paint the elementary school.” 

We work with a nationally known GOTV researcher who is interested in studying whether or not this has an impact on voter turnout, the number of volunteers, and voter performance.  We want to track these volunteers to see if we can turn them into political activists.

We hope to demonstrate that this has political impact and can work as a focus for people to enter into Democratic politics.  The idea is to build the reputation of the Democrats so that when there is a need, people will say “Call the Democrats; they always have people who can help.” 

Q:  Young people these days seem to have an inclination to serve, more so perhaps that to get involved with politics.  Is that what you are trying to tap into?

TB:  Yes.  We think we can bring more people into the picture with service than with politics.  Let’s go to their turf.  Currently 51% of young people, aged18-24, are engaged in service while only 19% participate in political activities.

But what I really see is that we need to expand what it means to be a political operative, to expand the menu of options we give to get people involved.  Rather than just asking for money or phone callers, we are trying to add service to that