William Rivers Pitt | Interview with an Ordinary Hero

Ordinary Heroes and the Rising Power of the Roots
By William Rivers Pitt
Truthout | Interview

Thursday 27 January 2005

Kevin Spidel was National Field Director for the Kucinich for President campaign, served as a field organizer for Amnesty International, and currently serves as Deputy National Director for Progressive Democrats of America, which he co-founded in the summer of 2004.

WRP: Tell me about how Progressive Democrats of America got started.

KS: You have to take a step back to the group Progressive Vote, and before that to the time I was serving as Field Director for the Kucinich campaign. That campaign involved bringing progressive policies and a progressive agenda into the Democratic party. That’s why I was with Kucinich, to be a part of his movement. The role of a candidate is to garner delegates. In key states, we could also use the resources of a presidential campaign to have influence organizing the movement at the state level. When the movement aspect within the campaign became outweighed by the campaign’s need to gather delegates, I left the campaign to tend to those states that needed the attention which the campaign no longer had the resources to focus on.

The states were all asking what do we do next after the primaries were over. I was literally driving back from Kucinich campaign headquarters in Cleveland trying to decide what to do next. I stopped in all the states where we had built that infrastructure to see what they had done. Talking with these groups and trying to decide what to do next, it became apparent we had a niche. These folks had gotten involved with party as precinct men and women, getting involved inside the Democratic party for the first time. They were able to learn the ropes, so to speak. They were doing this under the impetus of the Dean platform, the Kucinich platform, the progressive democratic platform to advance these issues.

So the first thing I did was to appoint key spokespeople for each state that had already had their primary and were wondering what came next, and we had a conference call. We found very similar stories of people being ousted from the state parties, in places like Utah, Texas, Oklahoma for some examples, ousted from the dialogue. We also heard a lot of success stories. By banding together on that conference call and networking with stories and strategies, they were able to leverage their own particular voting bloc to throw weight within each state party. State groups became caucuses, became recognized voting groups within this agenda. The network of mentoring progressive caucuses into existences, helping each other out, became the organization called Progressive Vote.

Progressive Vote was an organization that I and my wife, Michele White, created basically on the phone and in the living room of our house. We combined the skill sets of folks from the Kucinich campaign – web and technical experts, accounting etc. – to build the organization and infrastructure of Progressive Vote. We created an organization where the grassroots were our advisory council. They drove our initiatives. It was truly reflective and reactive to the grassroots. We took our lead from them, provided for their needs, and facilitated their movement to establish these caucuses, to see that those caucuses were recognized within the Democratic party.

The key point of these caucuses was that campaigns come and go, the activists who work in campaigns come and go, and we didn’t want to lose the activism that was learned from and by these folks, but instead wanted to promote them within party bureaucracy, to ask them to mentor another group of progressive democratic activists who will get involved in the next campaigns. It was an incubator.

WRP: When did the transition between Progressive Vote and Progressive Democrats of America happen?

KS: Early on, when I pitched the idea of Progressive Vote to Tim Carpenter, who was Deputy Campaign Manager for Kucinich, we intended this whole idea to be one organization we would work on together. Because I left campaign sooner than Carpenter, and needed an organizational structure to carry this idea forward, Progressive Vote came into being. Carpenter and his allies on Capitol Hill, the relationships he has fostered for 30 years – Rainbow PUSH, the Congressional Black Caucus, leaders like Rep. Conyers and Barbara Lee, people like Tom Hayden – those are contacts Carpenter came to the table with. We needed to be progressive ‘Democrats’ to provide cover to strong progressive Democratic allies. At same time, we wanted Progressive Vote’s inside-outside strategy to be representative of the entire progressive community.

The structure of Progressive Vote – caucus-oriented and driven by the grassroots – needed to remain intact. We basically brought Progressive Vote into Progressive Democrats of America, and Progressive Democrats of America became a new name. Political allies in Congress, people like Reverend Jackson and Tom Hayden is what PDA brought to the table. PDA is actually Progressive Vote with a new name and more political allies. That merger and the launch of PDA took place in Roxbury, Massachusetts, at the Progressive Democratic convention, which took place during the Democratic National Convention last summer.

WRP: I remember that convention. We’ll get to that in a few minutes. Tell me about what you do with PDA.

KS: I am one of the founders of this organization. I serve as Deputy Director, and to an extent as political director. My niche is the strategy component. I take the relationships Tim Carpenter builds on the Hill, along with the desires of our grassroots organizers and the caucuses that tell us what their priorities are, I take those and balance them out into an executable strategy. I dictate the direction of the activism – targeting congressional districts, ballot initiatives, aiming the fire of the grassroots at the targeted spot. I take the initiatives of the policy board and organize them into effective action.

WRP: It must have taken an enormous amount of energy to pull all these groups together under one name. What kind of personal sacrifices have you had to make to see this through?

KS: When I left the Kucinich campaign, I turned to my wife and told her about the Progressive Vote idea. We talked about the kind of money needed to get it started. She wondered, like I did, how we could make it happen. We decided we would mortgage our house, and we lived off that alone for six months. That kept us afloat to keep Progressive Vote going, to launch Progressive Democrats of America, and to develop trust and recognition within the grassroots. We had limited funds coming in, and were able to stay afloat personally and professionally by mortgaging our house.

WRP: What kind of traveling did you have to do?

KS: Starting in October of 2004, Tim Carpenter, me and Michele teamed up with Ani DiFranco’s ‘Vote Dammit’ tour. Michele and I orchestrated that effort, while traveling to all the state organizations to see what was happening and to offer support. In month of October, and up to November 2nd, me and my little hybrid car drove across the country – 23 states in that month, 10,000 miles at least. Michele was in a truck, and was handling the states I couldn’t get to in order to get out the vote. We wound up at the RNC protest, and then organized the Hayden rally in Minnesota where we targeted ‘soft-d’ green-leaning votes. Hayden spoke the anti-war message Kerry couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about. We essentially secured those green votes there.

WRP: How did PDA get involved with the election reform movement, and with looking into what happened with the Ohio presidential election?

Right before the election, my wife and I drove from Minnesota to Arizona. We hauled ass so we could get home and vote ourselves. That was a hell of a trip. When we got here and voted on November 2nd, our grassroots came to us and said something fishy happened in the election in Ohio. We were getting ready to organize how to have leverage in congress with the Democrats in the minority. Honestly, we were not focusing on Ohio. But in the true nature of PDA, Carpenter and I got lobbied hard by the grassroots to investigate what happened in Ohio. They were disappointed that Kerry had conceded so soon. They were questioning why we were still involved with the Democratic party when it seemed like key leaders like Kerry didn’t demonstrate any backbone, especially after promising that every vote would be counted.

At that point, Carpenter organized a meeting with Rep. Conyers in his office. Joel Segal from Conyers’ office actually called me personally. He remembered that Conyers had been at the Progressive Democratic convention in Roxbury, had heard of PDA, and wanted to know more about it. We told Segal about it, and he was really excited. “I’ve been trying to build this kind of movement for 30 years,” is what he said. The original meeting in Conyers’ office was called by Carpenter and Segal, and was just about getting to know PDA and how we fit. Tim and I were planning to go there to start a dialogue on the war issue, to stop the funding for the war, to see what the best angle was to have an impact on bring our troops home.

During the conversation, Segal called Acie Byrd, Frank Watkins, who was Rep. Jackson Jr.’s press secretary, Steve Cobble, members from Barbara Lee’s staff, and some staff from Kucinich’s office. It was a causal meeting. Segal ordered pizza in Conyers’ office. He asked, “What are the PDA grassroots saying now?” We were going to push the war issue, but our grassroots were pushing hard on the Ohio issue, so we needed to raise it there. Segal smirked and said, “Let’s go get you some hearings,” grabbed us by the arm and walked us down the hall with a slice of pizza in his hand to the House Judiciary Democratic staff, where we met Ted Kalo.

Ted was amazed that we had the Democratic wing of the Democratic party so well-organized. When Conyers stood up about the Florida vote in 2000, there was very little support from grassroots Democrats. Kalo said that with grassroots support now, Conyers would try to get hearings, and by the end of the day we had set up the hearing that took place on Dec 6. We told Conyers that we would mobilize the grassroots to support the hearings.

That evening, when we realized we needed to mobilize the base, needed to figure out how to mobilize them in a strategic way, Carpenter and I and a few key members of PDA were sitting around a restaurant that night literally counting pennies, and on the phone trying to do last minute fundraising to get software that would help us mobilize around this vote. We bought the software even though the money wasn’t there, we decided we would forego any paychecks and eat the payroll to get it done because we knew it needed to happen. The software, once we got it online, was used to target C-SPAN, to get them to cover the Conyers hearing. C-SPAN called us after a few days and asked that we take our action alert down, because they were getting hammered, and said they would cover the hearing.

Tim was able to get Reverend Jackson on the phone with Conyers to bring the hearings out to Ohio. We also got involved with Cobb, the presidential candidate from the Green Party, and helped him get the platform he needed to testify on what was happening in Ohio. We brought the software out to Ohio, and in the month before the certification hearing on Congress, we sent over 100,000 emails to targeted senators like Boxer, and to the media so they would cover it and not marginalize it. The Ohio challenge brought us to a new level. We saw that we were able to respond to a crisis, we were able to respond to the grassroots, to respond to their initiatives. We organized strategic actions and response actions with the grassroots, and succeeded with this formula. We were responding to the grassroots and with strategists to execute this action, working with alliances inside and outside the party.

WRP: The Progressive Democratic convention in Roxbury was a seminal moment for PDA. Describe it for me.

KS: There were a lot of folks in the grassroots who weren’t enthusiastic about Kerry’s nomination, but worked hard for his campaign because they were enthusiastic about moving this farce of a president out of office. There were many things that candidates like Kucinich, Sharpton and Dean were advocating that were not represented by Kerry. It was extremely critical to keep our left-of-center base solidified to get Bush out of office, and it was extremely critical that we not become distracted by other agendas, other initiatives. The purpose of the convention, which happened during the main Democratic Convention and in the same city, was to demonstrate that the progressive voice was still alive in the Democratic party.

The DNC leadership, along with the DLC, would not allow this type of message to be recognized inside the convention: the anti-war, anti-corporate domination, anti-privatization wing of the Democratic party. There are many Democrats who believe in these issues, and we need the party to know these voices are here. We pushed aside all of the personalities of each candidate to unite on one message. We demonstrated that unity when we had Kucinich and Dean embrace each other on stage, and had them talk together about the future of the progressive movement within the Democratic party.

WRP: It seems like Bush was the unifying factor for everyone in the progressive grassroots during the campaign season. Defeating him was what brought everyone together. Now that the campaign is over, how do you plan to keep that coalition together?

KS: One of the things that came out of Bush’s election was that it united us even more, and allowed us to prioritize our energies in a more strategic way. Bush’s election created a unified progressive movement. We put aside our petty differences and focused on the common bonds that bring us together: Getting out of Iraq, universal health care, education reform, election reform, media reform, corporate reform. After November 2nd, every state Democratic party organization was wandering in the wilderness. They’d been hit by a Mack truck and wondering what to do next. State party organizations became hollow shells, allowing the progressive activists who had been there since day one to fill that shell.

Because of PDA they were prepared, despite the outcome of the election, to push their platform, activism and influence further into the mainstream world of politics. Because of PDA, the activists associated with this organization were prepared for either outcome in the election. Because of this, we were the only Democratic party-affiliated organization to come together around the inauguration, to bring together 600 progressive leaders and activists in a snowstorm, in a summit that represented 40 different states, to showcase our 37 state organizations, 26 partner organizations, our relationships with allies on the Hill, and to demonstrate that we are ready to advocate for a progressive legislative agenda which will help shape the Democratic agenda.

WRP: How important is fundraising to your organization?

KS: Fundraising is key. In order to counter the corporate interests that dominate the political spectrum in America, fundraising plays the central role. It is the dedicated activists who contribute $20 or $30 a month to the organization that keep us alive. It is those numbers and quantity of activists donating to this machine that will keep it strong enough to balance the corporate interests. Those who doubt that it can establish that balance are mistaken, because any social revolution in American history has demonstrated that people do have the power. By the sheer collection of voices we have already created an organization and a movement that caught the Democratic party off-guard and has them turning to look at us. Just wait until we out-organize them, which we will do when the funds are there.

Once we out-organize the Democratic party, we will surprise the conservative right by learning from their organizational successes and executing it more effectively. We will do that because we have truth and justice on our side. The most important thing we do is that inside-outside strategy: Pulling together members of the Green party, the Independent Progressive Politics Network, the hip-hop community, the civil rights community, our allies in congress, the anti-war community. We are bringing together all the social movements within the Democratic party under one effective tent, and we will do it better if people can contribute to our cause.

William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and international bestseller of two books – ‘War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn’t Want You to Know‘ and ‘The Greatest Sedition is Silence.’