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Deval Patrick’s extreme grassroots approach

10/20/2006 10:15:45 AM

COMMON GOAL: Deval Patrick in front of his supporters at a rally on Boston Common last weekend.

Forget Deval Patrick’s 5000-person rally on Boston Common last weekend. A humbler event that took place a few days earlier — an October 11 community meeting in Quincy — offers keener insight into the Patrick-campaign ethos.

The set-up for the Quincy affair wasn’t ideal: who wants to leave home (or come straight from work) at 7 pm on a Wednesday night, in the dark, while it’s raining? Just before seven, though, Quincy High School was buzzing. Outside, 30 people held blue-and-white Patrick-campaign signs. In the lobby, tables stocked with campaign materials (sign-ups for phone banks, lawn signs, canvasses, and rides to the polls, as well as fundraising envelopes, absentee ballots, position papers, and bumper stickers) were manned by another two dozen volunteers. In the auditorium where Patrick was slated to speak, 40 people waited on stage in matching Team Patrick T-shirts while a video of Patrick played on an oversize TV. By the time the program started, a couple hundred more people had walked down the aisles (past still more volunteers wearing aprons stuffed with orange Patrick-pledge cards) and taken a seat.

Patrick was running late, so the other speakers were permitted to be even windier than they might otherwise have been. Finally, just as the crowd’s restlessness peaked — lieutenant-governor hopeful Tim Murray was discussing the pending incorporation of Devens, Massachusetts — Patrick made his entrance.

“He’s here!” a woman behind me whispered excitedly. “He’s here!”


Patrick then took the stage and delivered a typically outstanding speech. If you’ve watched Patrick in person and on TV, you know the latter medium isn’t his best showcase: he’s pleasant and sometimes eloquent, but not remarkable. In front of a crowd, though, Patrick is invariably impressive. He treats the audience like a familiar conversation partner, feeds off its energy, and massages its collective ego by reminding listeners — again and again — that everyone present is part of a shared endeavor.

“We’re among family,” Patrick told his audience in Quincy. Then, a few minutes later: “I want you to tell me what I need to know to be a better candidate and a better governor.”

The Quincy meeting pointed up a crucial aspect of Patrick’s campaign. More than any gubernatorial candidate in recent memory, this one has succeeded by methodically building a network of committed supporters in every portion of the state. But does Patrick’s method really offer a blueprint for future candidacies, as some political observers suggest? Or is it a once-in-a-generation anomaly?

Deval's default strategy
With the election less than three weeks away, Patrick’s campaign boasts some remarkable numbers: 8000 volunteers, 22,000 individual donors, 20 offices around the state, 100 canvasses on a good week, 25,000 phone calls each night from Patrick phone banks across Massachusetts. And, of course, there are the numbers from September’s Democratic primary. Conventional wisdom held that Patrick, as a liberal favorite with a passionate base, would benefit from a low turnout, with a heftier vote helping rivals Tom Reilly and Chris Gabrieli. But turnout was much higher than expected, and Patrick got 50 percent of the vote, compared with Gabrieli’s 27 and Reilly’s 23 — a far easier victory than pre-election polls had predicted. And he did it by winning 321 of the state’s 351 cities and towns.

Who’s responsible? Patrick, of course; John Walsh, his campaign manager, who got nearly as much applause at Patrick’s post-primary party as the candidate himself; Nancy O’Connor Stolberg, the campaign’s field director, who played the taskmaster before Patrick’s Boston Common speech last weekend (“We’re getting close, but what do we need to do, folks? Ten more phone calls!”); and Howard Dean, whose Internet-driven fundraising and organizing model in the 2004 presidential campaign is an obvious forerunner to Patrick’s approach (more on that later). But a less obvious name deserves mention here as well: Tom Reilly, who seemed to have the Democratic nomination locked up a year and a half ago.

Reilly’s strategy was simple. By nailing down support from key Democratic power brokers and building a huge campaign war chest, he convinced possible rivals that they’d be wasting their time. When Patrick decided to run, relying on the state’s Democratic establishment wasn’t even an option. He had to cultivate the grassroots, simply because they were his only hope for success. And he had to redouble his efforts when Gabrieli jumped into the race late and spent more than $10 million on saturation TV advertising.

That said, former governor Mike Dukakis insists that the lesson of Patrick’s success is simple: grassroots organizing works. Dukakis was, by most accounts, the last gubernatorial candidate to build anything resembling the statewide network Patrick assembled this year. In a poetic twist, he’s also one of Patrick’s Brookline block captains, charged with making sure Patrick supporters on his street are identified, called, wooed face-to-face, and delivered to the polls on November 7.

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