Sunday, June 05, 2005

Neighborhood Networks: My Take

Saturday, both Ben and I attended the organizing conference of the Neighborhood Networks. This is my take, I hope soon followed by a post from Ben on what he thought.

Because I have a standing commitment early in the mornings with the Schuylkill river, I arrived at the NN conference about an hour late. But, as I came slinking into the lecture hall with a big cup of coffee around 10:30, I was immediately struck by the pure numbers that showed up. I think the organizers had about 75 pre-registrations. By the time the morning was over, about 200 people showed up, representing 33 of the City’s 66 wards- a pretty impressive number. It is a number that speaks to the amount of people who want change in City Hall. 200 committed activists is a big, big number.

As would be expected, there were some large concentrations in where participants live. The biggest groupings were from Mt. Airy and Center City, with smaller clusters from West Philly and near South Philly. Unfortunately, as was also expected, the group was largely white; my estimate is about 85%. In a city as diverse as Philly, that is a blunt reality that must be dealt with.

Marc Stier, the only early speaker that I heard, was pretty on the ball, talking about the possibilities of the NN, and the effect that it can have on the Democratic Party. An example, although he didn’t give it, was the Seth Williams race. Could 200 volunteers, who had canvassed their neighborhoods, each have brought out 60 voters? If so, you are talking the difference between a win and a loss.

After the early speakers, participants broke out into neighborhood specific groups. That alone proved valuable to me, as I met those who lived in my immediate neighborhood who felt the same drive for change. And, even though I have lived in this particular neighborhood for the past 15 months, it certainly helped to expand my horizons beyond my rower buddies. In fact, already today I have seen one of the people from the group. He asked me what I thought, and my answer was “potential.”

Potential. That is what really strikes me about Neighborhood Networks. There is a groundswell amongst progressives that they want to develop a cohesive structure that can put progressive candidates into office. But, as the cliché goes, getting liberals to decide on how to do that (or what the structure of the group will look like, how membership will work, what an endorsement process will be) is like herding cats. So, in a way, the power potential of the group will only be realized if its steering committee and elected ward representatives can through sheer force of will come up with a structure that enough people buy into.

The keynote speaker was Tom Hughes, from Democracy from America, and he was followed by Joe Hoeffel, Chuck Pennacchio, and Angel Ortiz. All were fine, but only Ortiz really seemed to “get it,” probably because as the only native Philadelphian of that group, and as the one who has seen the machine up close, he understands the environment with which we deal with.

There is no question that if successful, NN will provide a challenge to established power structure. As I have discussed earlier, there is a real opportunity for progressives in 2007. The City machine is asleep at the wheel, and presiding over an ineffective method of reaching voters. If candidates can tap into the deep sense that people from all over Philadelphia feel for a real change, for a City Hall that is accountable, free of corruption, and answers to voters, not to party bosses, they will win. If not, more of the same.

At this point, the organizers of NN now have the hard work ahead of them: harnessing the need for change, and the desire for progressives to stand up for what they believe in, all into a cohesive organization. Will it succeed? No clue. But, again, the word that comes to mind: potential.


At 1:05 PM, Blogger ACM said...

The keynote speaker was Tom Hughes, from Democracy from America, and he was followed by Joe Hoeffel, Chuck Pennacchio, and Angel Ortiz. All were fine, but only Ortiz really seemed to “get it,” probably because as the only native Philadelphian of that group, and as the one who has seen the machine up close, he understands the environment with which we deal with.

Interesting; I actually thought Hoeffel seemed to get it, but maybe I was just impressed because he outperformed my expectations.

Am also sorry that you missed the morning talks, as they gave a range of real on-the-Philly-streets perspectives on what needs doing (or "needs done" if you're from around here), how critical organization is, and the like. Tom Cronin talked about labor organizing, the evolution of the local party machine(s), and the power of dedicated individuals -- am sorry I don't have my notes handy, as he hit a couple of great notes. Cheri Honkala talkes about how the poor need to be empowered, not pitied, and urged activists to help convince poor neighborhoods that the process of voting will actually have effects on their lives. and Tammy Gavitt gave a few anecdotes from her experience organizing folks around women's and community issues in the past. all quite helpful in linking the effort at hand to real issues and efforts underway...

glad you could make it, very excited with how it all went. lots of work to be done, but the folks who showed up were uniformly thoughtful and aware of the effort required, so that bodes well for getting from here to there...

At 2:50 PM, Blogger Rep. Mark B. Cohen said...

As one who is a veteran of progressive political organizing going back to the 1960's, I believe that it is advisable not to get bogged down in endorsements and to worry instead about how to mobilize people to do something.

There is no really good endorsement procedure. That deserves emphasis. There is no really good endorsement procedure.

Any endorsement will be made by people who show up, who in themselves are not representative of the total base of organizational supporters. Then there are the inevitable questions of how many votes are needed for an endorsement, whether some people should be disqualified for voting due to closeness to candidates, what duties members have to respect the endorsements, etc.

Endorsements are a formula for splitting an organization and limiting its impact.

Rather, the question should be how many individuals are willing to work for a candidate at the polls, how many are willing to canvass, how many are willing to contribute money, how many are willing to organize house parties, etc. This approach focuses a group on actually doing as much as possible, not on the empty factional politics of manipulation of voting qualifications, recruitment of biased or basically uninvolved people as meeting attenders, and pitting one subgroup against another.

Neighborhood Networks has no paid staff, no dues structure, no reserve fund, and debt from its initial costs. What it needs to do is grow members, unity, and a sense of common purpose. Endorsements tend to divide much more than they tend to unite, and they should be avoided in favor of actual voluntary efforts as much as possible.

At 1:09 PM, Blogger Dumplingeater said...

An interesting point. How could NN focus members on doing as much as possible, without an endorsement procedure? How does the organization facilitate activities in support of one candidate with respect to another?

Maybe that has to happen organically? The individual members/divisions/wards make that decision at the individual/division/ward level. But then how does NN spend/channel collective resources? How then, would NN be a collective entity in any way?

At 9:51 PM, Blogger Rep. Mark B. Cohen said...

The answer to Dumplingeater's question is that committee's could be formed for each candidate backed by members of the group, and then work for that candidate's election.

This is the tack used by members of Philly4Change, the Dean campaign offshoot which claimes over 1900 members. The vast majority of the group was not interested in working for either candidate, and Seth Williams was preferred, according to a poll on the group's Meetup site, by 69% to 31% among those who expressed an opinion.

The Seth Williams committee of Philly4Change got valuable campaign experience, Seth Williams got good workers and some money, and the Philly4Change group avoided the bitterness that has led to the self-destruction of so many groups over time.

Albert Einstein said that if you do the same thing over and over again, you will get the same results. We need better results than have been gotten in the past. We need groups and individual commitments that will last over the long haul.

There is no Neighborhood Networks trasure to handed to the winning candidates. Whatever resources are to be raised has to come from current and future members. Those interested in spending resources on a given candidate will have to raise those resources first. That task will be a lot easier if Neighborhood Networks evolves into an ever-growing group of good friends instead of an ever more contentious group of factional enemies.

(Other similar remarks on this issue can be found the comments section of the early June entry of the excellent Liberal Malcontents blog referring to me by name.)

At 12:42 AM, Blogger Dumplingeater said...

Thanks for your reply, Mark. If you haven't seen it, I replied somewhat in depth on the Liberal Malcontents blog. What I would hope is that, if anyone else is still following the thread of comments on this post, others might respond to your suggestion. Feedback on these issues by "non-stakeholders" is crucial to the continuing evolution of Neighborhood Networks.

At 4:42 PM, Blogger SJS said...

I'm not sure how old these posts are but I still wanted to reply.

Neighborhood Networks intends to pattern itself on the organizing model of the parties, i.e., having leaders from wards and divisions throughout the city. The parties use this structure for a reason -- it's an effective way to get out the vote for their candidates. That's why they're so powerful (particularly the Dems in this one party town.) We also want political power, or at least major political influence. The best way to do it is the way the pros do it. Have someone in every ward and division pushing your candidates.

I think NN members are sophisticated enough to know that sometimes they'll be in the minority. Unlike the parties dissidents will probably be able to work for the candidates they prefer, but not using the NN label. That will leave the organization the power to mobilize for its preferred candidate without its message being muzzled, confused or canceled by another group claiming NN is behind a different candidate. Even if no one uses the word "endorse", allowing different NN factions to work side by side for diffent candidates is a recipe for chaos and irrelevance. So I am totally against it, though I agree that candidates shouldn't be endorsed unless they get a supermajority of some kind, maybe 60 or 70% of the vote.


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