By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
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By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
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ProgressNow, an outfit that specializes in promoting a politically progressive agenda and challenging "conservative propaganda," was founded on the principle that local activists can be more effective if they choose their own battles as opposed to doing the bidding of puppet masters in big cities hundreds of miles away. The group's approach has worked so well that ProgressNow is sharing it beyond Colorado's borders; eight states were represented at a mid-July training session in Denver. The creation of de facto franchises might seem to contradict ProgressNow's original philosophy, but Michael Huttner, the enterprise's executive director, insists otherwise.
"I want to be really sensitive to local needs," Huttner says. "These organizations are really homegrown at the state level. We're just helping them so they don't have to reinvent the wheel."
"It's an exciting model, because it's so totally decentralized," adds Rick Jacobs, the founder of California's Courage Campaign, a ProgressNow affiliate. "This is the kind of hybrid that's often sought after but almost never attained."
According to Huttner, an attorney who set aside his law practice in favor of ProgressNow, the project was inspired by the 2002 election, when "progressives, broadly defined, got their butts kicked so badly." The next year, three alliances huddled with an eye toward improving the situation. The first, which included Denver Post-reporter-turned-media-consultant Mark Eddy and Jared Polis, an Internet millionaire who's running for Congress in Colorado's district, decided "we needed a press operation that didn't just exist in election years," Huttner says. "It needed to be an ongoing operation that had the flexibility to go after issues 24/7, year-round." The second, distinguished by the likes of 2002 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Rollie Heath, former Lieutenant Governor Gail Schoettler and philanthropist Linda Shoemaker, wanted to find a way to take research coming out of liberal think tanks such as the Bell Policy Center and the Bighorn Center "and simplify it so the press, and ultimately the public, could better digest it," Huttner allows. Finally, he goes on, J.B. Holston, the man behind an Internet news aggregator known as NewsGator, and Brad Feld of Mobius Venture Capital, which helped finance Holston's baby, "said we need to use online technologies to get where we wanted to go. And they also talked about this thing called blogging, which they thought was going to be really big down the road..."
These conversations led to the Rocky Mountain Progressive Network, a 501(c)(3) that got underway in September 2003. Huttner, with technical assistance from Holston, initially ran the start-up from the back of his law office, building on his own e-mail list to get the word out. This roster had grown to around 2,900 addresses by the 2004 election, when Democrats wrested control of the Colorado Senate and House of Representatives from Republican hands. Supersized contributions from Polis, the Bighorn Center's Rutt Bridges and other well-heeled progressives were the largest factors in this unlikely result. Even so, Bridges and ideological kin such as attorney Ted Trimpa, tech-savvy restaurateur Kimbal Musk and ex-Colorado State University president Al Yates felt the network deserved credit, too, and argued for expanding it. Mere weeks later, in January 2005, the RMPN was relaunched as ProgressNow (Yates came up with the name), and although Huttner declines to specify how much cash went into staffing up and radically enhancing infrastructure, he estimates the organization's annual budget at $500,000, with about two-thirds of that amount coming from what he refers to as "big donors."
ProgressNow's key hire was deputy director Bobby Clark, who worked on the 2004 presidential campaign of onetime Vermont governor (and current Democratic National Committee chairman) Howard Dean. Today, Dean's quest for the White House is mainly remembered for the "Dean Scream," a hilariously dorky bellow he unleashed at an Iowa event in January 2004 — but he might not have ever become a viable candidate were it not for his groundbreaking Internet fundraising operation, which Clark conceived. "Part of my purpose in joining ProgressNow was to lead the web strategy," Clark says. "During the Dean campaign, a group of friends and programmers had talked about where they wanted to head. So I hooked up with them and we built the new ProgressNowAction site."
A ProgressNow sister effort that debuted in September 2005, ProgressNowAction.org was designed as an experiment in what Huttner dubs "bottom-up organizing," as opposed to the top-down tactics favored by most national political associations. As both a 501(c)(3) and a 501(c)(4), a designation that allows users more latitude, ProgressNowAction.org is a progressive variation on the MySpace theme. "Each person can create individual or organizational accounts," he explains. "That way, they can have at their fingertips the most cutting-edge online tools, so they can organize about whatever issue they care about. Instead of giving them a fish, it's teaching them how to fish."
This template has allowed ProgressNowAction.org and ProgressNow to grow at a dizzying pace. Over 300 Colorado groups, ranging from the Broom Brigade to Veterans For Progress, have signed up on ProgressNowAction.org, and the e-mail list has swollen to a staggering 365,000. Those numbers have bloomed in part because ProgressNow has taken on causes that aren't as partisan as most of its action alerts (like, for instance, a July 30 call for Republican senatorial candidate Bob Schaffer to return certain campaign contributions). Take its opposition to Xcel Energy's 2006 request for a $178 million rate hike: About 5,000 ProgressNow members signed a petition decrying this appeal, with the vast majority of respondents saying they'd like to be represented by an attorney in the event a class-action suit was filed. Xcel initially refused to budge on its demand, but in the end, the firm settled for an increase of $107 million per annum, approximately $71 million less than the original figure. This outcome endeared ProgressNow to true believers even as it connected the organization with folks who might be less politically active but hated the idea of a giant corporation putting the screws to them.
Around the same time as the Xcel fight, ProgressNow was reaching out to Ohio. Using money from Democracy Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based organization, and some high-rolling progressives, the group funded ProgressOhio and tapped Brian Rothenberg, a longtime politico who once served as Cleveland mayor Michael White's press secretary, to run it. The site launched in September 2006 and established itself quickly. Rothenberg boasts that its list of unique e-mail addresses is just shy of 200,000 and the number of friends on its MySpace page (approximately 7,400) is close to surpassing the pal total racked up by the entire Democratic Party. Along the way, ProgressOhio has come up with its own twists on the ProgressNow blueprint — among them Page Flakes, an aggregator of Ohio news that attracts visitors across the political spectrum.
Bob Burke of One Wisconsin Now, who attended the July training session, plans to borrow liberally from innovations like this one. "As we put our own program together, it's great to look at best practices and ideas from other states," he says. "We want to learn from other states as we build our own network."
Still, Huttner emphasizes that no one's been given marching orders. "The technology platform is the same for all the states. Rather than each state spending tens of thousands of dollars to create their own, they plug into ours for a nominal monthly fee," he says. "But even though the technology and the tools are the same, and we advise them on that, what they talk about and the issues they organize on are entirely up to them."
Such freedom is attracting plenty of partners. ProgressOhio, Courage Campaign and One Wisconsin Now are already online and organizations in Michigan, Minnesota and Washington state should be moving forward by the fall — and they'll likely be joined by ones in Florida and New Mexico late this year or early next. Huttner's not sure how things will develop from there, but he sees no reason to think ProgressNow will stop progressing. Indeed, the website will receive a major upgrade within weeks. As he puts it, "Our goal is to complement what's already going on by using technology to reach the average citizen all over the fifty states."
In other words, national is the new local.