Patrick's (Grass)Roots Are Showing

Four years ago, Deval Patrick went in front of a gathering of editors and publishers and told them that they had all totally missed the story of his campaign, which was his incredible grassroots operation. True as it may have been, it's probably not too smart to start off your gubernatorial relationship with the media by telling them that you know how to do their jobs better than they do.

I suspect Patrick is wise enough to have learned this lesson, so he probably won't be airing a similar comment now -- so I'll step up and do it for him.

The Patrick re-elect ran, from very early on, an unconventional operation to contact, persuade, identify, and activate voters. I described it a little bit in this piece about five weeks ago. (In that article I described it as "a plan that some think is somewhere between moronic and insane," a phrase which will now come back to me almost as often as my January classic: "let's not pretend that Republican state senator Scott Brown has any chance of pulling off the monumental upset.")

I don't think the strategy played out precisely as it was drawn up a year ago, and I get the impression there was a fair amount of tinkering, shall we say, in the final stretch. But that doesn't diminish that it was in place to be tinkered with; the bottom line is that some 20,000 people spent part of their day yesterday canvassing for Deval Patrick all over the Commonwealth, and that effort -- and everything that led up to it -- made some unmeasurable, but certainly not insignificant, difference in the election.

And that effort was unconventional, in large part, because it required great leaps of faith and trust, in a profession whose elite class is almost invariably certain that anything they don't control directly won't be done right.

Zephyr Teachout once told me that one of the reasons so few campaigns successfully built upon the Howard Dean '04 model was that they tended to adopt everything about it except the decentralized model, which (heaven forbid!) encouraged ordinary supporters of the candidate to take initiative. Or, as believers like Teachout like to say, empowered them.

Empowered supporters, the argument goes, become more zealous supporters, and much better soldiers in your campaign than ordinary supporters given sets of instructions. 

Well, I have to say, the Patrick-Murray campaign must have empowered the hell out of people, because some of those supporters are freakin' zealous as all get-out. For instance, while I can't say for certain, I suspect that exit polls would have shown that roughly 20% of Patrick's voters in Worcester County could be traced back to one woman named Kate Donaghue. That may be an exaggeration, but this isn't: there's a group calling themselves the Governor's African Council who recruited more than 400 organizers -- not voters, organizers -- for the campaign.

These are not rabid ideologues looking to get together in their free time with other ideologues to talk trash about the opposing campaign. They are people who believe in Deval Patrick, and decided to devote a good portion of their time and energy -- in some cases, a ridiculous amount of time and energy -- to use the "empowerment" provided by the Patrick campaign to reach out to other people and nudge them along the path that ends up with them in a voting booth marking the Patrick line.

Of course, decentralized doesn't mean entirely uncontrolled; a hell of a lot of credit has to go to the (often ridiculously young) staff that runs the operation, led by Clare Kelly, who, by the time she's 35 will probably either be governor herself or, if she chooses to use her powers for evil, our cruel overlord. Plus a cast of characters headed by slightly demented newlywed Sydney Asbury.

Another point -- and I say this as a 43-year-old white man -- it has become increasingly apparent to me that the future belongs to young black and Hispanic women. Not as voters (although that too), but as the people who have all the brains and energy and initiative and enthusiasm. (Which reminds me: mark my words, someday Alpha Kappa Alpha members will run everything.)

Those minority women are, I think it's fair to say, disproportionately putting those talents to work for Democrats, which means that Republicans are doomed to have rings run around them. While the Patrick campaign was "run" by a bunch of obsolete old white guys (John Walsh, Doug Rubin, Larry Carpman), the roster of talent was people like Nurys Camargo, Bridgett Hylton, Laura Dhooge, Stephanie Anderson, Alejandra St. Guillen, Rose Arruda, Wilnelia Rivera, Nikko Mendoza -- not to mention guys like Tito Jackson and Ron Bell, who outhustle everybody, plus apparently the entire Emmanuel College Men's Basketball Team, which I'm pretty sure should have been busy practicing for the NYU Tip-Off Tournament. (If you want to know one chunk of the difference between Coakley losing by 4 in January and Patrick winning by 7 yesterday, check the turnout numbers in minority precincts -- which the Patrick field operation called "Rising Precincts" in 2006 and "High-Priority Precincts" this year -- and credit some of those folks I just named.)

There was also a leap of faith taken by other Democratic officeholders and candidates, who bought into the "coordinated campaign" and actually seem to have played nice with one another. That made another chunk of the difference; for instance in Boston where Tom Menino put his folks to work, most notably, from what I've heard, the unstoppable Michael Kinneavy and, of course, the vote-pulling behemoth that is SEIU 1199.

But there's a point I'm getting to with all this, beyond listing a bunch of people's names in a shameless ploy to get in good with them for better access in future campaigns. It's this: all this empowering stuff only works if it's built around a cause those people believe in. You don't end up with 20,000 people knocking on doors otherwise; you just don't. And, for as much as you, or I, or more than 50% of the Commonwealth might criticize the Governor, the fact is that he inspires people to believe in him and work for him.

It was one thing to do that the first time around, when he was a blank slate for people's aspirations. The fact that he could do it this time, as a known quantity with a real record, has to impress you.

So, before I join everybody else in writing about how the Charlie Baker campaign threw away this election -- and don't you worry, I've got lots to say about that -- I wanted to point out this side of the story.

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