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Unshaven, unbowed and in our face

MoveOn.org's youthful leaders are keeping followers and politicians stirred up.

By ADAM C. SMITH
Published February 18, 2005


WASHINGTON - Tom Matzzie describes himself as a pacifist techno geek. Maybe so, but MoveOn.org's man in Washington sounds like one cocky computer nerd.

Between bites of sushi, Matzzie noted how senior Democratic senators eagerly rearrange their schedules to meet with MoveOn. And how MoveOn would be comfortable helping defeat Democratic Rep. Allen Boyd if the Panhandle congressman continues embracing private accounts for Social Security.

What's more, "We're going to have to have some discussions with Bill Nelson," because Florida's senior senator appears reluctant to block President Bush's controversial judicial nominations. And the centrist Democratic Leadership Council that helped guide Bill Clinton into the White House? So 1990s.

"The candidates want nothing to do with the DLC, it's so out of vogue," the 29-year-old scoffed. "If the DLC disappeared from the Democratic Party tomorrow, no one would notice. If MoveOn weren't part of the party, people would notice and care."

Most of the leaders in this new powerhouse in the Democratic party establishment are younger than 40, which MoveOn suggests makes them better equipped to re-invent politics. They're known to millions of donors by their first names - Tom, Eli, Adam - and tend to go for facial hair.

"A bunch of us have beards," Matzzie chuckled, "because we're all self-conscious about the whole age thing."

Having helped revolutionize online organizing and fundraising, MoveOn isn't about to let the Democratic Party forget it. The organization and its legions of Internet-savvy activists are determined to have their say, as have labor unions, trial lawyers and other longtime Democratic fundraisers.

"In the last year, grass-roots contributors like us gave more than $300-million to the Kerry campaign and the DNC, and proved that the Party doesn't need corporate cash to be competitive," MoveOn's 24-year-old executive director said in a recent e-mail urging members to back an outsider for chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

"Now it's our Party: we bought it, we own it, and we're going to take it back."

A lot of Democrats are terrified at the prospect.

* * *

Michael Moore shaved and donned a suit to visit with Jay Leno after the Novembe r election. America Coming Together packed up its Palm Pilots and sent its armies of Democratic door-knockers back to conventional jobs. Bruce Springsteen and the rest of the rockers against Bush stepped off the political stage.

But MoveOn, after catching its breath, is roaring back into action.

It launched TV ads blasting Bush's Social Security proposal. It mobilized members to help elect Howard Dean DNC chairman. It's hiring 50 organizers to launch a full-time field organizing program in 1,000 communities.

"MoveOn has always been about building up momentum on issue after issue. Now, after admittedly losing a major battle, we're stronger than ever before," said Eli Pariser, executive director of the 3.1-million member group.

The presidential election loss that so devastated countless Democratic activists, Pariser said, only motivated more people to get active. An additional 250,000 people have since joined MoveOn, tens of thousands of them apparently in response to the president's call to revamp Social Security.

In 2004, MoveOn fielded canvassers across Florida and flooded the airwaves with anti-Bush TV ads. But after spending $60-million on the last election cycle, its influence could increase dramatically in 2006, an off-year election where energizing the party's base is all the more important.

"MoveOn will be able to ask our members to contribute to the Florida governor's race faster than any organization in the United States," Matzzie said. "Literally millions of dollars can come into the Florida governor's race overnight."

MoveOn is at the forefront of a seismic shift in politics, or at least Democratic politics. Only a few years ago, the party depended mostly on unlimited "soft money" donations from corporations and interest groups; many activists saw it disconnected from its grass roots base.

Hokey as it sounds, forces like MoveOn and Howard Deaniacs are replacing corporate and soft money-dominated politics with real-people politics.

That might sound like great news for Democrats, but many party insiders are groaning over MoveOn's rising profile. After an election when most of middle America backed Bush, the thinking goes, do Democrats really want to emphasize the livid, lefty, antiwar wing of the party?

Peter Beinart, editor of the Democratic-leaning New Republic magazine declared MoveOn and Moore the two greatest obstacles preventing Democrats from winning majorities. He said they make the party seem weak on national security.

Critics see a massive left-wing Ponzi scheme: MoveOn's e-mail list keeps growing, its fundraising and spending keep soaring, and little ultimately gets accomplished.

"MoveOn's building up their own brand and they're building own fundraising base - possibly at the expense of the Democratic Party," said Marcus Jadotte, a senior Kerry-Edwards campaign adviser.

"Their involvement with the 2004 election was more focused on building affinity with activist Democrats than defeating George Bush. They didn't speak to the middle. They didn't focus on enhancing the base, they focused on riling up the base."

The wild-eyed liberal tag really bugs MoveOn's leaders. If they only spoke for people on the fringe, they couldn't raise so much money and wean the Democrats off corporate contributions.

"MoveOn has taken only positions that have very broad appeal, and that's because our goal is unifying a loyal opposition to the Bush administration, which we find very extremist," said Wes Boyd, 44, one of MoveOn's founders. "Opposition to the Iraq war is a very mainstream position."

MoveOn was created in the late 1990s by Boyd and Joan Blades, 48, a couple from Berkeley, Calif., formerly best known for the flying toaster screen savers and online game "You Don't Know Jack," created by their company, Berkeley Systems.

MoveOn began as a petition to leaders in Washington - as in, censure Clinton and move on to more pressing issues - but its e-mail list exploded over opposition to the war in Iraq.

Now it's a Democratic institution whose leaders and members are unchastened by their loss in November. It wasn't MoveOn's "liberal" TV ads decrying the growing federal deficit and faulty justifications for war that cost Democrats the election, they say. Those ads were market-tested for effectiveness at persuading voters, not simply preaching to the choir.

To MoveOn, the lesson of November is not that in-your-face opposition to Bush is damaging to Democrats. Far from it. What hurts Democrats most, they say, is lack of coherence and reluctance to strong for their beliefs.

"A lot of party moderates are stuck in an old way of thinking about politics, which doesn't jibe with the power hungry, no-holds-barred style Bush has brought to Washington," said Pariser, who before joining MoveOn had created an online petition urging restraint after the Sept.11 attacks.

Even some of the most passionate disciples of online organizing sometimes wonder about MoveOn's strategy. Take their ads targeting Boyd, probably the most vulnerable Democrat in Florida's congressional delegation.

"They're going after a Democrat?" asked Joe Trippi, Dean's former presidential campaign manager and a pioneer at harnessing the Internet for campaigns.

"I'm not so sure their members would all agree with that. ... The organized party has to be closer to the grass roots, and the grass roots over time is going to come to understand that their party has to have a big tent. It's going to be a maturing process, and obviously MoveOn is going to be a leader in that."

Pariser contends that MoveOn's semi-outsider status makes it uniquely suited to help elected leaders in the party.

"We're acting as kind of an external whip, making sure there are rewards for people who are helping move the message and penalties when people go off message," he said.

"We're a team player."

As congressional Democrats become increasingly aggressive challenging Republicans and MoveOn continues revving up its base, though, it's not clear yet who's leading the team.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at adam@sptimes.com or 727893-8241.

[Last modified February 18, 2005, 00:16:03]


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