Activist Advice: Ask Vinny

By David Swanson

Michael Pertschuk’s new book “The DeMarco Factor” is a guide to political activism in the form of a chronicle of the work of one man, Vincent DeMarco. A lot of people may never have heard of him, especially if you’re not from Maryland, but DeMarco led campaigns over the past 20 years that successfully passed legislation in Maryland strengthening gun control despite the opposition of the NRA, raising taxes on cigarettes despite the opposition of big tobacco, and providing more people with healthcare despite the vicious opposition to that agenda we should all be familiar with. The strategies employed are worth examining.

Much of what DeMarco has done would not have been needed if not for the corruption of money, bad media, and unrepresentative systems of government dominated by parties rather than voters. However, that corruption is everywhere, and it may be so powerful at the national level that the lessons Pertschuk is teaching don’t apply or are insufficient. Still, I have no doubt these strategies are superior to the lack of strategy often employed. I can’t condense the book, and I recommend reading it in full, but here are a few of the lessons I drew out of the accounts it contains of the tobacco tax and other campaigns, followed by some of the lessons Pertschuk himself summarizes at the end of the book.

Pertschuk very much likes and admires DeMarco, and the only lesson I could draw from the first 25 pages or so was that activists should be superhumanly energetic and likable, and perhaps that they should work with “faith” groups (Pertschuk calls them that even when discussing the 1980s, an era when I’m pretty sure we used words like “religious” and “church”).

The next lesson is: raise and spend tons of money, far more than anyone can possibly imagine getting a hold of. This requires being very good at pitching your campaign to funders. You may be able to do something that benefits poor people, but the decision will be made elsewhere.

The next lesson is to use polling. Poll on the public interest in a possible reform, and if enough interest is not there, then don’t do it. These are not campaigns of long-term education, but of legislative reform. If the polling finds sufficient interest in a reform you want to achieve, use the polling and periodically repeated polling to shape the campaign, to choose allies for a coalition, and to generate media.

In fact, more than anything else, working the corporate media for free coverage, and buying ads, is what will drive a campaign forward. As Pertschuk notes, toward the end of the book, this strategy may fail or be obliged to shift toward independent and self-produced media as the traditional media dies out.

Sign up unusual allies and form a temporary coalition that will cease to exist upon victory. Pick a good name and way to talk about what you’re doing. Have good lawyers, follow all the rules, and use tax-exempt funding for public education for a year or more. Ask groups to join a coalition by signing a resolution.

Plan a trial run at passing a bill, expecting to fail, but identifying who is on your side. Then focus on elections. If you can’t get a trial vote, ask candidates to take a pledge to support your legislation. Work to elect and defeat candidates.

Set your demands high and leave room to compromise when it comes time to round up the votes for passage.

And here are some of the lessons Pertschuk draws:

“What we want must have the potential to serve as an effective election campaign issue.

“Our proposed legislation must reflect what we want, appeal to the allies we will need, and retain those already with us.

“The current political structure and environment must offer realistic hope of success.

“The objective must be large and appealing enough to mobilize the energies of the engaged, but not so radical as to drive away the moderates.

“Voters need to hear the following one or two years before the next state elections:
“The initiative is important to you and to people you care about
“The solution offered makes good sense and will help solve problems you are concerned about.
“A serious citizen coalition of organizations you belong to or admire is forming to fight against special interests opposed to this solution.
“Community groups are flocking to the initiative — don’t let your group be left behind.

“Next, the summer before the election, they need to hear:
“A campaign now under way to get legislators to pledge their support to this initiative serves your interests and concerns.
“THEN: These candidates have signed the pledge, and these others won’t sign it.
“THEN: Here’s why you need to vote for those who signed the pledge and not for the others.

“The focus then shifts to legislative power holders. The governor needs to hear:
“The voters who voted for and support you want this objective. They want it strongly, now, and undiluted. This is why you got elected. Even many voters who never supported you want it.

“The legislators need to hear:
“Those who opposed this initiative lost their seats; pay attention, so you don’t lose yours.
“Anyone who sides with the special interest lobbyists is voting against the will of the voters.
“To those legislators who signed the pledge: Keep your word. The voters are watching.

“There are painful political consequences for those who would thwart the will of the people.”

May it be so.

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