Among the 10,000-strong “ragtag army” of volunteers for Jim Webb in 2006, it’s hard to pick the best of the best. Having said that, Mary Detweiler certainly has to rank very close to the top. In fact, it is highly likely that without Mary Detweiler’s heroic efforts, Jim Webb’s name never even would have made it on the Virginia primary ballot in the spring of 2006. If that’s all Mary Detweiler had done for Jim Webb’s campaign, it would have been extraordinary, but her contributions go far, FAR beyond that. Truly, Mary Detweiler was an indispensable part of Jim Webb’s 2006 netroots victory. The following interview between Mary Detweiler and me was completed on April 12, 2007.
Feld: How did you first get involved in the Draft Webb effort?
Detweiler: My first contact with the Webb campaign was an email in late December 2005 from Lee Diamond, whom I’ve known from local political activism and who was circulating a link to a website called “MassRoots.” The idea was to get people to sign up and pledge money if Webb were to run and to encouraging him to become a candidate. Lee’s email also had a link to Jim Webb’s personal website, with excerpts from speeches and writings. What I read there I liked, especially the military background and position on Iraq voiced in September 2002, so signed the “MassRoots” website and circulated it to others. Lee called me and kept me in the loop on developments from that point on, and I joined a small group called “draftJamesWebb.” I found myself doing fundraising – something I’ve never done before. I started checking online websites with public information about donors in Northern Virginia and called quite a number to let them know about Webb’s possible candidacy and ask them to pledge money. I left many voice messages that were never returned but did speak with a few individuals who were at least curious and wanted the information about the Webb’s website and “MassRoots.” My first foray into fundraising was hardly a success, but I could see the potential in this candidate so kept going.
Feld: What do you think were the main accomplishments of the grassroots/netroots in a) drafting Webb; and b) helping him win the primary against Harris Miller?
Detweiler: The “netroots” activity was critical for developing awareness of who Jim Webb is. The grassroots group “draftJames Webb” developed a professional-looking website, succeeding the earlier “MassRoots” version. Circulation of this online helped quite a bit to get the word out on this excellent candidate, whom most people knew little about. I recall making telephone calls to people who had signed up and pledged on this website to encourage them to send in what they had pledged (once Webb had decided to run). I was not involved with blogging, although I read some blogs, but I do think that the intense and constant activity there generated a lot of interest in the activist community that uses blogs.
Visibility and outreach to dedicated Democratic Party leaders and activists was important, too. The Webb literature and photo display in the reception area and a dedicated dinner table that several of us took at the Democratic Party of Virginia’s winter Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Richmond provided visibility for the fledgling campaign – even without Webb’s presence – and showed grassroots support. The Yahoo newsgroup that we set up in March, mainly to generate support for one another in the 8th Congressional District in our effort to gather petition signatures to get Webb on the ballot, provided a sense of community among local Webb supporters. Eventually, after the primary, this morphed into a larger group with postings about volunteer opportunities but also general information about the Webb campaign. This newsgroup included the core group of local Webb grassroots supporters, and this sense of a group was energizing all through the primary and beyond. It enabled us to gather volunteers for activities and keep everyone informed. One of those activities that came about very quickly (and pursued despite the campaign’s having nixed the idea) was dispatching Webb supporters to all the local city election voting precinct sites in early May – mostly in Alexandria and Falls Church – where likely June primary voters would be found as well as the local precinct captains and key activists in communities. We solicited written feedback on this experience and shared everyone’s comments, thereby building our volunteers in this effort into thinking of themselves as a team. We kept building on these nearly spontaneous activities, thinking of more, such as staffing the Arlington School Board Caucus with Webb supporters to hand out literature all day and sign up volunteers. I invited each newly signed-up volunteer to our Yahoo newsgroup. Another grassroots volunteer, Betty Parrott and her husband Ralph, helped by setting up an Excel spreadsheet for all volunteers, and we instigated a system of calling all the Northern Virginia volunteers who signed up on the official Webb website (by then, developed by the professional campaign staff). We interviewed everyone over the phone, invited them to the Yahoo newsgroup, found out what skills they wanted to offer the campaign, and asked them to do specific jobs, such as phone banking, computer research work, helping in the office, or working on an issues team with a high-level grassroots volunteer interested in doing this. This latter never got off the ground, but we learned quite a bit about the high level of expertise many of our volunteers offered.
As more volunteers contacted us, we grassroots office coordinators saw a need to develop more office helpers to keep the volunteer section of the office staffed and ready to greet walk-in volunteers. We started training office assistants, helped the volunteer phone-answering coordinator enlist staff for what turned out to be an entirely volunteer-run phone/reception area. The volunteer area of the campaign kept growing, and we identified volunteers able to take on coordination of tabling and staffing at big local events during late spring and early summer — a sort of “field operations.” We had little direction from the professional campaign staff so knew that it was up to us to get the Webb name out there in front of the public at these event where likely primary voters would gather.
Winning against Harris Miller had a lot to do with the fact that Webb had such a visible grassroots presence at many events. Webb’s positions on the Iraq war and economic fairness brought in more people. Although the negative aspects of Miller’s corporate-favorable positions on visas and high-tech workers were posted on blogs, Webb’s position on Iraq and his military background were talked about more by the interested voters than the more technical visa issue. In other words, the positives about Webb drew people in who saw in him a more likely opponent to George Allen, who was widely disliked by these voters. There just wasn’t enough positive about Miller to make him attractive to them. I had heard Miller speak back in February, before Webb had declared his candidacy, and I was quite dismayed with what I heard. His stump speech didn’t fire me up and I disliked that he came across as shrill and insincere. I feel sure that this came across to many other voters who were, like I was, ready to fight for whichever Democratic candidate had the nomination but knowing that if it were Miller, I’d just have to go through the motions. Webb, on the other hand, did inspire. His equivalent speech to the same group of people as Miller’s drew a larger crowd and received an enthusiastic response, in contrast to the polite applause Miller had received. In short, the stark difference between the candidates drew grassroots support toward Webb. What we grassroots organizers did made the difference in keeping people involved.
Feld: Can you describe your efforts to get Jim Webb on the ballot? Do you believe that without the grassroots effort, Jim Webb would have been on the ballot? If not, why not?
Detweiler: Betty Parrott and I decided to divide into Congressional Districts, so as to form local teams. I used the Yahoo newsgroup for communications very successfully in the 8th CD; Betty found that it didn’t work for her group in the 11th CD, but I never understood why. Given that there was no apparent direction from the professional campaign staff on the petition-drive efforts, we realized early on that we were “it.” Through the 8th CD newsgroup (“Webb4Senate”) we identified places to find likely petition signers, posted calls for people to join one another to make the work friendlier, kept us all updated about progress on numbers of signatures, and avoided duplication of effort. We kept ourselves informed of how important the overage we were getting in Northern Virginia would be to the efforts in CDs elsewhere in the state. In mid-March, when the campaign hired a professional petition-signature leader on a temporary basis, we began to see the whole picture, throughout the state, as he communicated with those of us leading CD efforts. And some of the 8th CD volunteers went to other CDs to help out, where getting the required number of signatures was frighteningly uncertain. There were about three weeks in late March/early April, when we did not know if we would get Webb on the ballot — it was that uncertain in some of the rural and Republican-dominated CDs. When people today comment about what a great Vice Presidential candidate this new Senator from Virginia would make, I tell how at this time last year we were “sweating bullets” about just getting him onto the ballot to run in the primary. We worked hard to get the minimum required 10,000 signatures statewide plus our goal of 50% overage. In the end, we had about 15,000 signatures safe and sound, but if felt like a miracle after our nervousness of the preceding weeks. No matter how much overage we did in Northern Virginia, missing the minimum 400-signature requirement anywhere else in the state would have eliminated the candidate. As the professional petition-signature leader said in an email to all of us local petition-drive leaders when we achieved the required numbers: “I am speechless.” And he truly was in awe of how much we did in the final weeks of this petition drive to make it happen against all odds. It was the grassroots work that did this. Had the campaign had to rely on paid petition-signature gatherers, as Miller’s did, the job wouldn’t have been done because Webb did not have Miller’s “deep pockets.”
Feld: Although overall the Webb campaign represented a great netroots success story, there were recurrent tensions that in some ways reached their peak after the primary with the resignations of several key grassroots people (Jim Franklin, the Parrotts). You, for instance, wrote a strong memo about problems in the campaign. Can you please comment on the tensions between the grassroots/netroots and the professional campaign as you see them. Do you think these were simply reflective of a natural tension between “bottom up” and “top down,” or were there any other specific issues with regard to the Webb campaign that you know of?
Detweiler: My version of the tensions between grassroots and professional campaign areas is limited to what I could observe. It was only after Jim Franklin and the Parrotts had quit that I learned some of what had been going on to cause this. But I think the problem started early on during the primary, when the campaign didn’t have time, resources, or apparent interest in working closely with the grassroots effort. As a result, we developed on our own, taking charge. When Jim Franklin took on organizing the volunteer area, he assumed that he had power to do what he felt was needed, and, apparently, he overstepped that boundary in a hiring decision for the Tidewater area’s Regional Coordinator. Ralph Parrott had great plans for veterans’ support and wanted to use a special rate offered for a website, but the campaign manager wouldn’t approve it. These two incidents were likely the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” and there was undoubtedly a history of tension leading up to these. However, these examples demonstrate the level of leadership and decision-making power that grassroots leaders felt they had, since they had stepped into a void that begged for someone to take action, volunteer or not. The departures of these volunteer leaders, unexplained as they were at the time, were extremely demoralizing to many of the other volunteer leaders who looked up to them. The next three weeks of the campaign were among the worst. We were rudderless. We had no ability to pull new volunteer contact information off the campaign website and got no help from the professional campaign staff on this, despite repeated pleas for help. Volunteers signed up and never heard from anyone. Any complaints that came in during that time were well justified.
It would be easy to attribute the tensions between grassroots areas and professional campaign staff as a difference between “bottom-up” and “top-down” approaches, but it was far worse than that. The lack of attention from the professional campaign staff to what the grassroots area was doing created confusion and resentment, and later led to taking initiative and then being “shot down.”
In late June I wrote a report on the demoralization of volunteers with the campaign, targeting the reasons and outlining remedies, and it reached the campaign manager. Little improvement came about, so we grassroots volunteers took a deep breath, realized that we were on our own, and continued our work.
Feld: What do you believe the most important grassroots contributions were to electing Jim Webb?
Detweiler: From my limited perspective as a volunteer who worked mostly in the campaign office (from late April on), I think that the organizational structure that grassroots volunteers created was key to Webb’s success. First, the visibility efforts were entirely thought of and organized by volunteers. These were events in May such as the local city elections and Arlington School Board Caucus described above, tabling at big community fairs and participation with signs (Arlington Neighborhood Parade, Viva Vienna, Herndon Festival, etc.), and participation and a huge sign-making effort in mid-April for the “Shad Planking” event. Several of us met in early July to start a tabling program for local farmers markets, and this grew to include many farmers markets elsewhere in the state.
Phone banking, as a volunteer operation, was ongoing throughout the primary and general election cycles, but it was never clear if the leader heading this up, Sarah John, was a paid staffer or a volunteer. She was not paid for much of her work and she headed up phone-banking operations from late April through November 7. We office volunteer workers continually worked our volunteer lists to encourage help on the phones.
Phone banking really began to attract volunteers by late summer, especially as the previous spring’s efforts to notify schools about students’ receiving community-service credit were “cashed in” by students who were available to come in during the day. Most of our adult volunteers came in during evenings and weekends, and we had good volunteer phone-bank supervisors who could focus on training and management, as long as others (Barbara Kreykenbohm and me, from late June on) provided office assistants to handle other office tasks, especially greeting and interviewing walk-in volunteers.
During this time, blogging and Internet fundraising were brought into the campaign as an integral part of strategy, but as a volunteer coordinator I was not working closely in this area and can only comment on what I was directly involved in.
The organizational structure that made the most difference in calling upon and moving our volunteers to where we needed them fast was the Field Desk. This was the “brainchild” of Josh Chernila, who quit his regular job to take over succeeding Jim Franklin as volunteer coordinator for the campaign, as paid (albeit at a salary cut) professional staff. In designing a plan for volunteer outreach efforts, Josh saw the need for a unit that would handle volunteer inquiries, call volunteers from a database to match them to activities needing help, and respond via email to website volunteer sign-ups. These were jobs that a few office assistant volunteers clearly couldn’t handle any more. The volume of email inquiries on all manner of issues was growing out of control. Josh set up webmail accounts for each category of inquiry, which proved invaluable. Office assistants were given webmail accounts for several of these and responsibility to respond. This system, plus the responses by Field Desk volunteers meant that all emails had some answer from someone representing the campaign quickly.
When it came time to move large numbers of volunteers into the many jobs outlined in Josh’s plan, the Field Desk was the workhorse. Calling volunteers, not only emailing them, was key to motivating people. Email blasts gave information on what and where; the personal calls motivated. By late September, with the Field Desk staffed with several people for each shift, seven days a week, it felt as though the campaign finally had a well-oiled machine. We now could reach those volunteers who had contacted us and those who needed to be contacted to help.
Several other volunteer-initiated projects helped in our effort to find volunteers and get them active. Several office assistants and others called all volunteers from our primary-campaign spreadsheets who had not been active in awhile to find out why they weren’t volunteering and what we could do to draw them into jobs that we now had clearly defined.
Outreach and visibility efforts, staffed and led by volunteers, drew in volunteers for increased farmers market tabling, Metro visibility teams with scheduled handouts and coordination, outreach to minority communities, and canvassing. The latter depended largely on what local Democratic Committees had already planned for voter ID and literature drops. Our volunteer effort was to match volunteers with these scheduled events.
As a means of fundraising and using community and already-existing networks, a program of house parties called on volunteers to help by participating on a committee to encourage scheduling of these events throughout the state, with Webb’s scheduled phone call as a focal point. A pilot program was done in mid-August, followed by a larger effort in early September, with the final event in late October. The volunteer base across the state was asked to host parties, and volunteers, along with professional staff, made calls to volunteers who had signed up to fundraise or host house parties.
Feld: Steve Jarding has said that without the grassroots, Jim Webb would not have been elected. Do you agree?
Detweiler: Yes, absolutely. When George Allen made his “macaca” statement, followed by other gaffes, the volunteer structure and enthusiasm for Jim Webb was already in place, ready to be motivated into greater action. The Meet the Press debate showed Webb to be the stronger and more intelligent candidate, and fueled donations to the campaign. But had the “macaca” and other gaffes occurred before the grassroots had been well established and organized in the preceding months, we never would have had time to catch up and take advantage of the increasingly favorable environment.
Feld: Do you have any good stories about grassroots/netroots activism during the Webb campaign that you like to tell?
Detweiler: The generation of creative ideas amazed me. We volunteers decided to throw a party in early May – officially to celebrate the opening of the Webb Campaign office (which had occurred nearly two months prior) but in reality to celebrate the many volunteers we had and to thank them. And we threw a great party in our office, involving yet more volunteers to feel a part of the teamwork we were developing. we had sign-up sheets and had placed volunteer leaders to talk to new volunteers about where help was needed. On office bulletin boards, constructed and placed there by volunteers, we posted photos of the party, showing volunteers at work, having fun, and meeting Jim Webb. When the campaign opened the second-floor office for volunteer space, we threw another party, again entirely by the initiative of volunteers. Food and beverage at both events were done by volunteers.
In mid-summer one of our most creative volunteers, Todd Smyth, designed a way to make triptych poster board displays for tabling at events. Photos, captions, and even specific dimensions were written into a “package” that anyone could use to put these together anywhere in the state. And they were used quite a bit, communicated through our Yahoo newsgroup.
By late summer, another volunteer from Tidewater, Susan Mariner, came up with a way to provide visibility where tabling wasn’t possible: “Webb wagons.” She posted photos and instructions for constructing these on the Yahoo newsgroup, and a new, easy way to have mobile visibility for our candidate, at minimal expense, was born.