In the Wake of Defeat, Progressives Organize in the Quad Cities Print
Commentary/Politics - National Politics
Tuesday, 29 March 2005 18:00
These days, “organization” is a word on the lips of Quad Cities political activists opposed to America’s increasingly conservative direction. And some of the organizing is happening outside the two major parties. Opposition to President Bush, the religious Right, war, and “corporate power” are reasons Quad Cities activists mention for forming Progressive Action for the Common Good, a local umbrella organization made up of people from unions, churches, not-for-profits, and other groups.

Cathy Bolkcom, a community organizer for 30 years who has been organizing the Progressive Action effort, believes President Bush’s re-election and the changes he has proposed in Social Security have “heightened people’s awareness of the need to get better organized.”

Organization is also on the minds of Scott County Democrats. County Democratic Chair Susan Pamperin said there is a “recognition that we can’t stop organizing.” The last election, she added, “made a lot of us very aware” of the Democrats’ need to “focus the message.”

“We cannot be lazy” and wait four years to get organized, declared Bruce Braley, who is expected to run for Iowa’s First District House seat in 2006. He told the Democratic caucus, “We want to get you excited now.”

Both the activists and the Democrats claim as one of their inspirations the same man, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. Some of the Quad Cities progressive activists say they supported Dean’s 2004 campaign for the presidency and approved of his stands on issues. These activists have continued Dean meet-ups that began during the presidential race and renamed them Democracy for the Quad Cities. Democracy is now one of Progressive Action’s associated organizations.

Although ending in defeat in early primaries, Dean’s campaign introduced new techniques of fundraising and grassroots political organization now being discussed by both the progressives and the Democrats in the Quad Cities.

Last month, the Democratic National Committee elected Dean its chair, and the former governor has announced a program for rebuilding the national Democratic Party after its defeats in recent elections.

The Meaning of “Progressive”

Dean’s move to the DNC is a symptom of a larger dilemma for activists inspired by him. Doug Dixon, a Ph.D. in social-science education who has been leading discussions for Democracy for the Quad Cities, said that group must decide whether it wishes to be “an appendage of the Democratic Party” or a pressure group, active on single issues.

If the group pursues the former political strategy, “you have this problem of fractionalization” of progressive organizations, Dixon told a recent meeting of the group. The danger is that as a constituency within the Democratic Party, the group might simply complicate the party’s “internecine battles,” he told the River Cities’ Reader.

On the other hand, as a pressure group outside the party, Dixon said, the group would not have access to positions in government if the party won office. Nor would it have access to the resources of a political party.

The national media called Dean ideologically liberal. Nevertheless, the people attending Democracy for the Quad Cities meet-ups “would probably call themselves progressives,” according to Alta Price, one the group’s organizers. That’s the description Bolkcom’s Progressive Action also uses.

A statement available on the Progressive Action Web site says progressives “value peace, social and economic justice, diversity, civil rights, civil liberties, human rights, a preserved environment, and a reinvigorated democracy.” They wish “to empower people to take action for positive change, and we advocate for fundamental change when necessary.”

Price commented that corporations now “have too much power. We need to balance that.” Further, the religious Right, which she calls “the Taliban wing of the Republican Party,” now dominates the GOP so that moderate Republicans cannot be elected.

The Web page also lists some local issues of interest to the progressives: Davenport downtown and riverfront development, the I-74 bridge, and the appeal of the Pleasant Valley School District’s decision to remove The Misfits from the school library because it has a gay character.

The progressives noticed increased interest in their organizations after the election. For example, Caroline Vernon said she thought her work as an activist was done after the November election. Instead, turnout at Democracy for the Quad Cities doubled after Bush’s re-election.

“There was a lot of energy around the election,” said Bolkcom, Afterwards, “I felt like people’s energy went up.” Local progressives wanted to know what they could do despite the election loss.

Thus, in the words of the their Web site, the progressives founded Progressive Action for the Common Good as a “loosely organized coalition of people working on the local level around a variety of issues in hopes of countering the ill effects of the policies and priorities of our current administration.”

The group began meeting in January, and now meets twice a week, Tuesday at noon and Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Unitarian Church. Bolkcom said more than 100 different people have attended, and each of the two weekly meetings generally draws about 25 people. An additional 40 people do not attend the meetings, but are kept informed by e-mail and the Web site.

“This thing’s really grown beyond my wildest dreams,” Bolkcom commented.

Although people attending the meetings said they participate as individuals rather than representatives of any organization, the Progressive Action Web site posts a partial listing of groups “associated” with the organization. Besides Democracy for the Quad Cities, the list includes the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, Ecovilla, the Quad City Anti-hate Coalition, Quad City People for Peace, and

About two-thirds of individuals participating in the meetings are from the Iowa side of the Mississippi, while the remaining third comes from Illinois, Bolkom said.

These patterns are similar to those Democracy for the Quad Cities has observed. Price said about three-fourths of her group’s participants come from the Iowa side of the river, while one-fourth comes from the Illinois side.

People in Illinois “didn’t want to cross the river,” she said. For that reason, Democracy now has two meet-ups a month, one in Iowa and one in Illinois

Bolkcom said Progressive Action seeks to give progressive people access to each other. Thus, when new issues arise, a ready-made network of progressives will exist.

Furthermore, the progressives will be able to pool information as well as manpower. Rick Schloemer, executive director of the Scott County Housing Council and one of the participants in the Progressive Action meetings, said that by sharing information about issues with one another, the members won’t have to stay on top of every issue themselves.

Whether the group concentrates on local, state, or national issues will depend upon what the people participating in the group are interested in. Whatever the issue, Bolkcom added, the group will attempt to motivate people to take action rather than simply discuss the issue.

Actions participants in the group have undertaken, either as part of Progressive Action or one of its associated organizations, include registering voters; appearing at a town meeting held by U.S. Representative Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, to speak on Social Security, housing, health care, and Medicaid; circulating petitions on riverfront development; hosting a discussion group on Social Security; and, in 2004, supporting the successful election bid of Molly Regan for soil and water conservation commissioner.

On April 16, Progressive Action plans to host a “summit” for progressives at Augustana College. The summit will feature “work groups” on many of the issues the group is interested in, a keynote speech by Tom Higgins, and music by Meridian Green.

Higgins is a former Iowa state legislator, aide to President Jimmy Carter, and health-care and Social Service administrator. Green is a folk singer and songwriter whose “Americana folk fusion” incorporates elements of contemporary country, hoedowns, Motown, Brazilian jazz, and Celtic jigs.

Bolkcom said Progressive Action wishes to reach out to people beyond the activist community. Many of the people attending the group’s events are people who have never been activists before.

A Permanent Campaign

For their part, the Scott County Democrats are doing a “more energetic,” better job of organizing than they have in the past, according to Pamperin, the Scott County chair. It’s all part of carrying out the national committee’s plan for rebuilding the party.

Elements of the plan include techniques originally used to make the Dean presidential effort a national campaign. Pamperin commented, “Dean proved power at the grassroots level is pretty powerful, pretty incredible.”

According to information on the Democratic National Committee Web site, Dean’s plan calls for “a permanent campaign” competing in all 50 states; strengthening of state parties and grassroots organization; greater emphasis on the party’s basic values; use of cutting-edge technologies to organize and communicate; and recruitment of “tomorrow’s leaders,” people to lead the party and run for office in the future. Dean will bring an outreach to minorities and youth as well, adds Cindy Winckler, the Democrats’ vice chair and a state legislator.

The Democrats discussed elements of Dean’s plan at the off-year caucus. The caucus featured work groups discussing fundraising; communications and technology; party-building and outreach; issues; and message.

The claim that Dean is too liberal does not worry Pamperin. “‘Liberal’ is not a dirty word,” she said.

Dean finished third in the Iowa caucuses last year, following Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and North Carolina Senator John Edwards.

Informed of the Democrats’ efforts to mobilize its supporters, Lorrie Wood, president of the nonpartisan Quad City Right to Life, noted that the Democrats lost “quite a few areas” and are attempting to motivate people. Luana Stoltenberg, a local organizer for the Christian Coalition of Iowa since 1988, added that party organizers always say they want people fired up. “People are generally complacent” unless an issue affects them directly, she said.

Wood and Stoltenberg both said that they have observed no more organizing than usual at this stage of the electoral cycle. Sue Fraser, Scott County Republican chair, added, “We’re kind of in a quiet time now.”

With Dean moving to the Democratic National Committee, Democracy for the Quad Cities will have to decide how close a relationship to the Democratic Party it wants, according to Dixon, the social-science education Ph.D. The problem is that the Democratic Party, unlike the “more homogenous” Republican Party, has many subgroups pushing their own agendas.

Even so, many of the progressive activists have sympathies with the Democrats. Vernon said the Democratic party “definitely resonates” with her. Schloemer described himself as a “dyed-in-the-wool Democrat.” Pamperin believes the progressive movement and the Democratic Party can work in ways that complement each other.

Nevertheless, Vernon said, “This is not a Democratic effort.” There is a “huge demographic” of people that doesn’t consider itself part of any party. Furthermore, many Republicans “care about the same issues I do” but “prioritize them slightly differently,” she said.

Schlomer and Price also believe the groups do not need to identify themselves with a party. Unlike Republican Senator Charles Grassley or Congressman Nussle, Price said, Representative Jim Leach, R-Iowa, “would occasionally vote the way I want him to.” She said her “heart is not in party politics. My heart is with Democracy for the Quad Cities.”

For more information on Progressive Action for the Common Good, visit (
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