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Mar 2005 / church and state :: email this story to a friend

Look Out, Old School: Here Comes the New School
By Larry Handlin

Is it a Jeff Smith for Congress volunteer event? A Democracy for America Meet-up? A meeting of U City Forward? Young urban revivalist Turks looking to take over the Board of Alderman?

One couldn't tell the difference between any of these events and the event when Howard Dean came to St. Louis for a regional meeting of state representatives to the Democratic National Committee. Dean was on a mission to address as many state voting members of the DNC as possible to win the DNC Chair position. He eventually won, but that outcome was far from assured.

The story isn't just about how Dean won, but how it has changed Democratic politics in St. Louis. Traditionally, liberals were an afterthought in St. Louis politics — safe votes for committeepeople who had nowhere else to go if they didn't like the socially conservative, machine-based Democrats the typical machine produced.

The Dean movement changed that, and many have commented on how Jeff Smith demonstrated the model.

Howard Dean But more than that model, the Dean and Smith campaigns locally created a natural group of highly motivated activists and provided a natural method of organizing. The local effort may even be traced back to Metropolis' founding. That created a cross-city network of urbanists, but these campaigns went a step further, creating a network of liberal activists who knew each other, talked regularly and formed natural networks concerning local issues.

Dean's plan after losing the presidential nomination was to create a grassroots organization that would infuse the Democratic Party with hard-working activists. Party regulars took notice, and new City Democratic head Brian Wahby tried to emulate some of the success for the fall election by creating an on-line presence and reaching out to liberal activists for foot soldiers. The state Democratic Party, long resistant to any outsider push, held fundraisers with Democracy for America and invited activists to take a greater role.

But the effort is broader still. At Dean's event were two Aldermanic candidates who were taking on Democratic machine regulars in the 17th and 25th Wards. Rodney Burchfield and Steve Patterson are taking on Joe Roddy and Dorothy Kirner, respectively, and running on a strong message of change and activist recruitment.

While the event was focused on Dean's effort to capture the top national spot, the after-mingling focused around candidates recruiting volunteers for their grass roots efforts, and discussions on what campaigns were worth working for.

Going to any of the meetings in the first paragraph will produce a sense of déjà vu to those involved in local politics. While good government goo goos have long been marginalized — with no real organization to support them compared to those in unions, patronage employees, and ward organizations — the decline of those institutions and an organized network for coordination by the liberals means a long-term change in how elections in the area are going to take place. No one should expect sweeping victories anytime soon, but the old-line pols who ignore this network do so at their own peril.

Larry Handlin prognosticates at, which you ignore at your own peril.

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