US Political Climate Ripe for Grassroots Groups

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by
Reuters

US Political Climate Ripe for Grassroots Groups

by
Carey Gillam

PRAIRIE VILLAGE, Kansas -- Jennifer Roe considers herself a typical American mom -- juggling a part-time writing job with the needs of two young daughters, volunteer work at a children's museum and her church.

Indeed, the "Proud to be a Liberal" button on the visor of her minivan is one of the few outward signs that 42-year-old Roe also squeezes in several hours a week organizing True Blue Women, a political group of like-minded moms.0809 03

"A lot of it for me was feeling the country was going down the wrong path," said Roe. "I felt everybody, including myself, had gotten a little complacent. Just going to vote is not enough."

Formed after President George W. Bush won a second term in 2004, True Blue Women is part of what political analysts say is a groundswell among Americans of every political stripe who are calling for change in government.

"There has been a proliferation of activist groups ... especially after the 2004 elections. I would speculate that these groups will get more active as the 2008 elections come up," said Anthony Michel, a communications professor at Avila University in Kansas City, Missouri.

The movement is fueled both by suspicion of mainstream media and burgeoning access to information via the Internet, Michel said.

Email, blogs, virtual meeting spaces and rapid-fire links for like-minded people make it easier and faster for individuals to come together in letter-writing campaigns, petition drives, fund-raisers, meetings and marches.

An example of its power, the recent Capitol Hill debate over a federally funded health insurance program for children triggered an outpouring from the political hinterlands, and Congress voted August 1 to expand the program despite a veto threat from the White House.

Many of the new groups represent a backlash against social conservatism, but they run the gamut from the far right to the liberal left, with several positioned as moderates in the middle.

"ACTIVISM 101"

A July Washington Post-ABC News poll demonstrated just how much Americans' interest in Washington is ratcheting up ahead of next year's election.

Seventy percent of respondents said they were closely following the presidential race, compared to 54 percent in a poll taken about a year before the 2004 election and 45 percent before the 2000 election.

Opposition to the war in Iraq and a debate over Bush administration policies has helped spur activists but priorities vary from group to group.

The North Carolina-based Grassroots Impeachment Movement (GRIM) is calling for the ouster of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney over wiretapping concerns, while Grassroots America is planning a September 15 "March on Washington" to protest the war in Iraq. The group's Web site encourages supporters to engage in what it calls "Activism 101."

"Average people who never would have found themselves in the streets protesting, like myself, now we're out there," said Grassroots America organizer Tina Richards, the Missouri mother of a U.S. Marine.

The Grassroots Conservative Majority, a political group started in Tennessee last November, focuses on "returning the Republican party to its core principles of social and fiscal conservatism" by supporting specific candidates in key races. The Web site gets about 700 visitors a day, according to organizer Ed Sistrunk.

And a South Dakota group two years ago formed the Mainstream Coalition as a moderate "voice in the middle" for people fed up with extremist views on a range of issues.

Political analysts say there is some evidence that the confluence of American voices is catching the attention of politicians, but it remains to be seen how much influence the movement may have.

"These people are organizing and watching elected officials and what they are doing on particular issues and that always interests politicians. They pay attention," said Alexander Lamis, a political scientist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

"TEN ANGRY WOMEN"

True Blue Women, which hands out bumper stickers reading "Think, Act, Hope, Vote" and issues "blue alerts" to call its members to action, has primarily focused on issues around education, health care and the environment. But a summer survey found most of its followers were focused on the Iraq war, so anti-war activism is now among the group's top priorities.

Its co-chair, Lisa Veglahn, the mother of a 7-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter, said the group that started as "10 angry women drinking wine in the living room," has evolved into an energized coalition capable of delivering strong messages to state and U.S. office-holders. It now has a following of more than 500 women from Kansas to Missouri.

"We're helping people connect the dots about why it matters who the president is and how it affects you and your kids," said Veglahn. "We want to make a difference."

© Reuters 2007

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