Ground game

By ADAM REILLY  |  October 20, 2006

Who’s responsible? Patrick, of course; John Walsh, his campaign manager, who got nearly as much applause at Patrick’s post-primary party as the candidate himself; Nancy O’Connor Stolberg, the campaign’s field director, who played the taskmaster before Patrick’s Boston Common speech last weekend (“We’re getting close, but what do we need to do, folks? Ten more phone calls!”); and Howard Dean, whose Internet-driven fundraising and organizing model in the 2004 presidential campaign is an obvious forerunner to Patrick’s approach (more on that later). But a less obvious name deserves mention here as well: Tom Reilly, who seemed to have the Democratic nomination locked up a year and a half ago.

Reilly’s strategy was simple. By nailing down support from key Democratic power brokers and building a huge campaign war chest, he convinced possible rivals that they’d be wasting their time. When Patrick decided to run, relying on the state’s Democratic establishment wasn’t even an option. He had to cultivate the grassroots, simply because they were his only hope for success. And he had to redouble his efforts when Gabrieli jumped into the race late and spent more than $10 million on saturation TV advertising.

That said, former governor Mike Dukakis insists that the lesson of Patrick’s success is simple: grassroots organizing works. Dukakis was, by most accounts, the last gubernatorial candidate to build anything resembling the statewide network Patrick assembled this year. In a poetic twist, he’s also one of Patrick’s Brookline block captains, charged with making sure Patrick supporters on his street are identified, called, wooed face-to-face, and delivered to the polls on November 7.

“This is not rocket science,” Dukakis says. “When Deval came to me 18 months ago . . . I said, ‘To have a shot at this, you’ve got to do what I did, because I wouldn’t have been elected dogcatcher without the grassroots. You’ve got to start early. To have a shot at the convention, you’ve got to organize the caucuses. The caucuses are in February, and you’ve got to be organized no later than the summer before. And when you come out of the convention, you’ve got to keep building and building and building on it.’ ”

Dukakis proceeded to outline the Gospel of the Grassroots. “Every community has a co-coordinator. Every precinct has a captain. Every captain goes out and recruits half a dozen block captains. The goal is to literally make personal contact with every single voting household in the Commonwealth. And not only make contact with them, but have a conversation with them — have conversations with them — so that on Election Day, you know whether those folks are one, with you; two, leaning toward you; three, leaning away from you; or four, with the other candidate. And in Election Week, you go back to the ones and twos to make sure they’re solid and that they’re going to get to the polls.”

Because Patrick did this, Dukakis promises, he’s going to win in November. And when he wins, “We’re finally going to have a great example of why grassroots organizing is so important. As a party, we haven’t been doing it here or across the country. People ask me what’s going to happen in this fall’s congressional races. I say I think we’re going to win, but look: if Democrats had 400 precinct captains in every congressional district, this election would be over.
“Deval has some very special qualities. But could Scott Harshbarger and Shannon O’Brien” — the party’s unsuccessful 1998 and 2002 nominees — “have won with this kind of organizing? Absolutely.”

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