Published on Thursday, March 9, 2006 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Putting the Party Back into Politics
by Joe Garofoli
It's unheard of to see hipsters waiting in line outside the Mission
District's Make-Out Room club at the ordinarily sleepy hour of 7 p.m. on a
Monday. Especially ones ready to pay at least $10 to get into a literary
But there they were, queuing up for what has become one of San Francisco's hottest recurring literary gigs, the monthly Progressive Reading Series -- progressive in the political sense, that is. They're coming even if they have little idea that their door fee is part of a new wave of liberal fundraising, one that sugarcoats the urgency for political involvement with a healthy layer of partying.
Events such as the Progressive Reading Series are an indication of the interest that liberal organizers are showing in the traditionally unsexy topic of midterm congressional elections. The beneficiaries are largely politicians far outside the Bay Area's politically blue bubble.
Realizing there's no need to spend energy on safe congressional seats on left-leaning coasts, liberal activists are soliciting cash for Democratic candidates battling for an estimated 30 competitive House seats in the middle of the country. The take from the most recent reading night, for example, went to a liberal hopeful in New Mexico.
Closer to home, organizers are recruiting liberals to take a rare political pilgrimage east of the Caldecott Tunnel. The Bay Area's only competitive congressional race is expected to be in a district that sprawls from Contra Costa County to the Central Valley, where three Democrats are vying to take on Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy.
Liberal interest in this November's elections is being driven largely by the "netroots" -- people who became politically active during the Internet-driven 2004 presidential campaign of Howard Dean and, locally, as part of Green Party candidate Matt Gonzalez's 2003 mayoral run in San Francisco.
"It's a nationwide phenomenon," said Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of Berkeley, whose DailyKos.com is the nation's largest political blog, with 600,000 daily visitors. "And it's especially true around here, where the Pombo race is the most competitive race within a million miles of Berkeley.
"More people are realizing that they can't just get involved every four years," said Zuniga, who bought five new servers in anticipation of interest in election night 2006.
Democrat John Kerry's loss in the 2004 presidential race "was the best thing to happen to the progressive movement," Zuniga said, "because it taught people that this wouldn't be won or lost in a year. It's a multiyear-long process, and it is going to take their involvement every year."
Getting involved in midterm elections has been the top priority of the 3.3 million members of the liberal online hub MoveOn.org since August, according to the group's weekly surveys. The group plans to organize members living in "safe" Democratic congressional districts to make phone calls on behalf of candidates in close races in other parts of the country.
On Wednesday, MoveOn.org announced that it would try to raise $2 million from its members to "saturate" five yet-to-be-determined, GOP-held congressional districts with TV commercials.
"In 2002, the election was much more localized than in 2006," said MoveOn.org spokeswoman Jennifer Lindenauer. Now, she said, "we're hearing so much about the possibility of a 'change election,' which motivates people. People are looking at what they can do to change the Congress."
California Republican officials haven't yet noticed a similar bubbling of midterm interest among conservative activists, but as state party spokesman Patrick Dorinson said, "It's still really early. We probably won't see a higher level of enthusiasm until after the primary."
In Pombo's race, "the Democrats need to bring people in from the outside because they've got no clue what's going on in that district," said Wayne Johnson, a Pombo campaign spokesman. "We'll be fine with the volunteers from the district who we already have there."
Interest in liberal political campaigns is being stoked through a network of activist groups that have sprung up since the 2002 elections. From the weekly chapter meetings of drinkingliberally.org -- where lefties gather in bars to tip ales and talk political smack -- to regular clubbing events such as "Hustle for Change" thrown recently by the League of Pissed-Off Voters, organizers are trying to brew a politics-and-fun mix.
But underneath the fun is movement-building. San Francisco-based Music for America organizes politically through club shows supported by its 60,000 members and 350 partner bands. Over the next few weeks, it will roll out a way for on-stage musicians to help young people register to vote via text messaging on cell phones.
And coming soon to the Bay Area: a political party called Kegs for Change. Popularized in Minnesota by a Music for America member, it goes like this: Instead of paying $4 for a cup at a keg party, partygoers pay only $3 -- if they place a call to a congressional representative about an issue.
Disclaimer: The cup-holding lobbyists must call before drinking, as organizers note that drunk-dialing Congress isn't an effective lobbying tool.
"We always try to make the events fun, but many of our members are more interested in issues than candidates," said Molly Moon Neitzel, Music for America's executive director. The group will honor top-selling punk band Green Day for its political work in San Francisco tonight.
Even Washington Beltway politicians such as Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., are being influenced by such "fun raisers."
On Saturday, Boxer's political action committee will hold a fundraiser in Medjool Restaurant, a Mission District club and bar, with a twist for a politician accustomed to $1,000-a-plate fundraisers at the Fairmont Hotel: The cheapest ticket will be $25, and a DJ will spin tunes until 2 a.m., long past bedtime for most of the usual crowd at fundraisers.
There will be "action booths" set up in one part of the club where people can volunteer to walk precincts in Tracy for a Democrat challenging Pombo or make calls for Francine Busby, a Democrat running to replace disgraced former GOP Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham in San Diego.
"We just don't do fundraisers like that," said Doug Boxer, the senator's son, who runs the political action committee. "You just don't make a lot of money, and there's a lot of time and effort to coordinate it. But here, we're measuring the success of it in a different way: How many people signed up to walk precincts, or make calls?
"There's a lot of people wanting to know how they can get involved," he said. "We're trying to put the fun back in fundraiser."
With a giant mirrored ball throwing light on the audience, the fun quotient was high in the Make-Out Room one recent night for the Progressive Reading Series, which is held the second Monday of every month. San Francisco author and political junkie Stephen Elliott, who organizes the event, said the 200 attendees had contributed $2,700 for New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid, a Democrat who is challenging GOP incumbent Rep. Heather Wilson for her congressional seat.
While that is small change in a campaign where each candidate is expected to spend several million dollars, organizers are more interested in igniting interest in the big picture of midterm elections.
The entertainment that evening was for people like Nina Krieger, a creative-writing student at the University of San Francisco who came to hear the writer Tobias Wolff speak. Then she found out that she had to pay $10 at the door.
"That's OK, though," Krieger shouted above the music filling the club before the writers went on. "It's in a bar, there's beer -- it's more like a party atmosphere. And hey, it's for a good cause."
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