Monday, December 26, 2005

Internet Fosters Local Political Movements

Published on Monday, December 26, 2005
by Ron Fournier

Frustrated by government and empowered by technology, Americans are filling needs and fighting causes through grass-roots organizations they built themselves — some sophisticated, others quaintly ad hoc. This is the era of people-driven politics.

From a homemaker-turned-kingmaker in Pittsburgh to dog owners in New York to a "gym rat" here in southwest Florida, people are using the Internet to do what politicians can't — or won't — do.

This is their story, but it's also an American story because ordinary folks are doing the extraordinary to find people with similar interests, organize them and create causes and connections.

"People are just beginning to realize how much power they have," said Chris Kofinis, a Democratic consultant who specializes in grass-roots organizing via the Internet.

"At a time when we are craving community and meaning in our lives, people are using these technologies to find others with the same complaints and organize them," he said. "They don't have to just sit in a coffee shop and gripe about politics. They can change politics."

Mary Shull changed her life, if not politics.

A lonely and frustrated liberal, the stay-at-home mother of two joined the liberal online group in 2004. Working from home, the Pittsburgh woman helped round up votes for presidential candidate John Kerry and other Democrats. On Election Day, Kerry prevailed in Pennsylvania, but failed to unseat President Bush.

"I was upset with Kerry's loss, but what really devastated me was the loss of that sense of empowerment in my life, this sense of engagement, that I got with MoveOn," she said.

Shull, 31, was brimming with ideas for liberal causes, but MoveOn had virtually shut down after the election and the Democratic Party was catatonic. So she took matters in her own hands, e-mailing the 1,500 contacts she had made through MoveOn and asking if they wanted to keep busy.

Their first meeting drew 85 people. They got involved in local races, and Shull tended to her e-mail list — each name coded with the person's pet issue.

"This wasn't about a huge agenda. This was people gathering together and working with each other on things that interested them," she said. "It was just a way for people to connect with each other."

Politicians took notice. When former Rep. Joe Hoeffel decided he might want to run for lieutenant governor, he called Shull and asked for her support.

"Ten years ago, somebody like Mary would be as interested as she is in politics, but her circle of influence would not have extended beyond her home or block or even voting precinct," said Hoeffel, a Democrat who gave up his House seat in 2004 for an unsuccessful Senate bid.

"Now, she's got 1,500 other self-motivated and influential people at her fingertips, and carries as much clout as half the people I've been calling."

MoveOn, founded in 1997 to fend off President Clinton's impeachment, raised $60 million for liberal causes in 2004. The group put its organizing muscle behind Cindy Sheehan last summer and helped make the "Peace Mom" a symbol of the anti-war movement.

Political activist Tom Hayden believes that the anti-war movement in the 1960s, which he helped organize, could have gained steam sooner had the Internet existed.

"Movements happen so much faster today," he said.

And they come in all shapes and sizes.

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