For me it started in Hartsdale, NY when I walked in on a "meetup" at a Barnes and Noble in the fall of 2003. Back then Meetup was this revolutionary idea for helping people find like minded individuals online for the purpose of meeting up in person, usually once a month. Thanks to Meetup there were all sorts of groups gathering at venues across the country; you had stamp collectors, car enthusiasts, stitchers and witches -- yes, witches all using the service before political campaigns would eventually come to dominate the Meetup website.
As this Wired article from that era pointed out:
Meetup is a Web tool for forming social groups. In early 2003, Dean himself was lured to an early New York City meetup where he found more than 300 enthusiastic supporters waiting to greet him. Meetup quickly became the engine of Dean's Internet campaign. Back then, the leading group on the site was a club for witches. Zephyr Teachout, Dean's director of Internet outreach, describes sitting across from campaign manager Joe Trippi in the early weeks and hitting Refresh again and again on her Web browser. "I was obsessed with beating Witches," she says. "Witches had 15,000 members, and we had 3,000. I wanted first place."
After the 2004 election cycle was over, Meetup would switch from a free to a paid model. Going forward Meetup groups would have to pay a monthly fee if they wanted to continue using the site. This change in policy drove most organizations to create internal web tools that did the same thing as Meetup.com, thus shifting supporters towards their own web properties. The next step in the evolution of online event organizing would happen with the advent of social networking websites and campaigns eventually creating their own social networks themselves, as did the Obama campaign in 2008.
So here I was this 24 year old kid looking at magazines, while all of these serious looking people gathered for their meetup at the bookstore's cafe with their lattes in hand. They spent a few minutes going from person to person so that they could identify themselves and say why they thought this Howard Dean person would make a great president. Personally, I didn't even know who Howard Dean was, I wasn't even paying attention to the presidential campaign. Yet there was something about this passionate group of people expounding on the former governor of Vermont, that made me stay and listen. Little by little, I edged closer towards them and learned that for some of these people, the last candidate that made them feel this invigorated was Eugene McCarthy! After that meetup I went home to learn more about Howard Dean and decided that he was worth keeping tabs on.
Up until that point for me personally, I'd hit rock bottom. I was less than four months into recovery from the worst episode of anxiety I had ever faced. I have a generalized anxiety disorder and earlier in 2003, I experienced a panic attack so massive that I needed to go on disability for two weeks in order to stop my head from spinning. I was currently seeing a therapist and was making some good progress, but I could tell that I desperately needed more social activities in my life. I was this twenty-something who really didn't have any friends and was alone a lot of the time. I'd go to work and then just go home.
My therapist suggested getting involved in politics and now the Dean campaign presented me with an interesting opportunity. I mentioned that I was once very interested in politics back in high school but had sort of drifted away. From then on I made the decision to get involved again and I tried looking for the Dean for America campaign office in Westchester County, NY. I soon found out that since the democratic primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire were coming up, all the attention was focused on those states. There really wasn't much of an official campaign presence in the Big Apple other than for fundraising.
What's interesting about how the Dean campaign functioned however is that there was this tremendous groundswell of activism and organizing at the grassroots level all over the country. It wasn't so much that the campaign had an "official" presence in an area or not, but whether the local "for Dean" group was out there campaigning. The campaign was actually a decentralized network with these local grassroots groups doing some of the heavy lifting. One must give credit to campaign manager Joe Trippi being able to cede some control to these groups. After the campaign ended and Democracy for America was formed it was this networked model that would continue to be used. I often heard the DFA Burlington staff referring to themselves as network administrators.
So with the help of the Dean for America website and the "Dean link" tool, I was able to get reconnected with the same folks I had encountered at that meetup. These were also the people behind the grassroots group Westchester for Dean. After trading a few messages back and forth with some of the activists there, and seeing their posting on the "get local" tool, I went out and did my first "visibility" event with them. A visibility event is basically standing around holding up placards in an ad-hoc mini-rally. After that first outing I was hooked. I went in to volunteering my time after work as a man possessed. I sent letters to primary voters through the Dean for America website, did phone banking and attended every meetup that was happening. A memorable moment occurred on Valentine's Day of 2004 when I was down in Times Square doing an "I love you Howard" action with NYC for Dean. We stood right in the middle with red heart-shaped balloons as all the tourists snapped photos. It sure beat what I did last year around the same time!
If anything Howard Dean for me represented excitement and energy. No other candidate on the Democratic side with the exception of John Edwards had that going for them. He was tough, angry and telling it like it is. Mr. Dean did represent the "democratic wing of the Democratic Party" a wing that had all but been extinct thanks to the Democratic Leadership Council's (DLC) centrism being at the vanguard of the national Democratic Party. As Deaniacs we were basically being told that what democratic voters needed that election cycle wasn't Dean's momentum but something more like "Joementum." Yes, Republican-lite, that's what was going to beat George W. Bush!
Howard Dean went from being a dark horse presidential candidate to being the front runner for the nomination. Al From and the DLC couldn't have that happen and they played their part to make sure nominee Dean never became a reality. Ultimately it was the press making a big deal about a campaign "scream" that did him in. But truth be told having hundreds of outsiders flood Iowa and then New Hampshire also effected the outcome. It's possible that voters didn't see these people as locals and could've been turned off by it all. This was something I think the Obama '08 campaign learned from as they implemented a long-term community organizing model.
Through my "reactivation" by the Dean campaign I ended up learning about a number of other progressive organizations like Wespac, Citizen Action NY, USAction, ACORN, SEIU, ReDefeat Bush, LCV and the Working Families Party. That year after the Dean campaign was no more, I continued to volunteer and went to other states to register voters and knock on doors. I even got to run a phone bank identifying voters in swing states for Citizen Action NY in the city of White Plains.
Eventually I would leave my bank teller job to pursue politics and advocacy full time. That same year I worked as paid staff on two state senate campaigns. A former Dean staffer in Iowa, now managing one of those state senate races gave me my first break. I also got involved in local government in my town of Greenburgh and got to learn a lot from the town supervisor and some of the council members. For a time I was also active with the town democratic committee.
Thanks to being accepted to the first ever training of the New Organizing Institute in 2006; I also made connections that brought me to DC to work for an environmental organization where I remain today. Looking back ten years ago I realize I've come a long way. It all started because Howard Dean decided to run for president and show us all that we have the power, and while he may have lost his presidential bid, we learned that change doesn't happen overnight.
I guess it doesn't really hurt that we helped him get elected as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee though.