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Local online organizing at the Sunlight Foundation meeting

I’m spending a cold, rainy Martin Luther King’s day at Harvard Law School with a room full of geeks and political activists. It’s a day-long conference sponsored by the Sunlight Foundation, a remarkable new group focused on transparency in politics (primarily, at present, US politics.) Sunlight is less than a year old and has already launched a couple of successful projects from their labs, as well as funding several exciting projects like MapLight, which tries to correlate campaign giving and voting records in California politics. I’ve been using SunlightLabs “Is Congress a Family Business?” in talks as a great demonstration of how citizens can work effectively on a distributed journalism project. (The project researched all members of US congress to discover which members had family members working on their staff, which can be a way that congressional campaign contributions end up in member’s personal bank accounts.)

The first session was a quiz-show styled session, designed to test the knowledge of the room of the availability of US political information – it pretty effectively established who does and doesn’t work on US politics for a living. (Perhaps it would have gone more smoothly had we not run out of coffee.) The first “serious” session introduces several of the conference participants, who work on local political efforts around the US.

Chris Bigelow is the founder of CT Local Politics, a non-partisan blog focused on state, federal and local races in Connecticut. One of the foci of the site has been in-depth profiles of candidates, which Bigelow sees as missing in local media. One of these profiles helped make a democratic candidate running in a heavily republican district more viable, causing the party to get behind him, and bringing him within a few hundred votes of victory. Bigelow’s main challenge is creating a bipartisan space, where people can meet and talk in what’s an increasingly fragmented space. The site is very vulnerable to “enormous firefights” – while the authors have a common goal of civility, the commenters don’t always share this goal. Moderation helps with this, though only works if the rules of the community are carefully spelled out.

Mark Nicholas is a Californian transplanted to Lexington, Kentucky – he moved to Kentucky as a democratic party operative, working on the 2003 governor’s race and on subsequent congressional races. Faced with the corrupt political climate of Kentucky – Mark describes a “feckless democratic party, run on the good old boy system”, Mark decided to move towards being an engaged observer, founding Bluegrassreport, an opinionated activist blog on local and national politics. He’s discovered that it’s not always possible just to be an observer – the media doesn’t always pick up the stories he exposes, so he’s found himself filing an ethics complaint against the chief justice of the state. One way Mark knows he’s being effective is that the governor banned viewing political blogs on state government computers – it was clearly aimed at Mark. He responded with a federal first amendment lawsuit… Sunlight has been supporting Nicholas’s technical efforts, but much of the support he needs these days is in the form of pro-bono legal help.

Ruby Sinreich is the founder of Orange Politics, a hyperlocal political blog, focused on progressive politics in Orange County, North Carolina. Since Orange County is the home of Chapel Hill, there’s a lot of progressive politics to talk about – thousands of people will often show up for progressive rallies. There’s good coverage of local issues, with “two and a half” papers focusing on local politics. But Orange Politics is always on, a space where people can talk through issues until they’re satisfied, and where the issues are covered more quickly than in the newspapers. Because the issues are so local, there are real issues of local privacy and conflicts with your neighbors. Ruby authenticates the emails of commenters, but doesn’t require people to use their real names… but most other commenters “pester” anonymnous commenters until they reveal their identity. Ruby says that people often overestimate her influence, positioning her as a bogeyman. One of her criteria for success is that people who complained they were being “censored” on her site – because she didn’t accept every guest post from them – started an “opposition” site as a counterpoint to her project. The community also has a realworld component – a “birthday party” for the blog, which brings readers and commenters together to raise a glass to Orange Politics.

Philip Baruth is a novelist, professor and a commentator for Vermont Public Radio. He launched his blog – Vermont Daily Briefing – after running into some of the limitations of political commentary on public radio. He was writing fictional commentaries, talking about political fantasies, and worked on a piece about Karl Rove appearing at the Burlington Brewer’s festival, titled “I Will Beer No Evil”. In the piece, Baruth ends up assaulting Rove… The line VPR objected to was “He was bright and pink and winning as a spring pig” – VPR objected to Baruth calling Rove a pig, to which Baruth responded: “I’m not calling him a pig, I’m calling him a spring pig.” While he’s continued to write for VPR, he decided it was time to found his own platform. One of the distinctive features of VDB is long-form articles, quite different from many political blogs. He wrote extensively about the campaign between Peter Welch and Martha Rainville for Bernie Sander’s vacated house seat – he wrote 1000 to 1250 words a day on Rainville, building a long-form political biography to her which, to a large extent, became her official political narrative.

Stacy Holmstedt founded AZCongresswatch because “no one cares about anyone other than John McCain”. She’s interested in following the rest of Arizona’s ten-member congressional delegation. The site is an edited aggregator, which pulls stories from Google News searches and other local and national services to pull out news about the congressional delegation. She says that it’s not hard to beat mainstream media in Arizona to political stories because “every time it rains in my state, it’s page A1 news.” She picked up a story about an FBI investigation of Rick Renzi despite her worries that it was “a hit piece” – other Arizona bloggers critiqued her ethics, but she felt vindicated when the AP confirmed the investigation a few days later. Stacy follows the rank of her stories in Google searches on each Arizona politician and is often able to see “Googlebombs” taking place to try to unseat her stories and link positive stories to candidate’s names instead.

Bobby Clark works on several sites for ProgressNow, a progressive political action group in Colorado. He tells us about ProgressNowAction.org, designed as a meeting place for progressives to meet up and start activites online. This system involves a group blog where different people are able to publish, and where anyone can set up a “google group-like” system for organizing projects. One project focused on a race in the 4th district of Colorado, where incumbent representative Marilyn Musgrave earned the wrath of local activist Mike Collins, a disabled vet, when she ran an ad featuring a disabled veteran. Mike was incensed because Musgrave had a terrible record on veteran’s issues. With support of ProgressNow, he cut a video response to the ad, which aired on YouTube. ProgressNow sent an email with links to the video to people throughout the 4th district – voters were so excited about the ad, they raised $30,000 to put the ad on local cable television… which, in turn, got mainstream TV news coverage of the video response.

Mario Champion is a political organizer involved with Latinos for Texas and True Blue Action. His focus is getting people out into the streets and into neighborhoods for action, rather than just getting online activity. His groups largely draw on Austin, San Antonio and Corpus Christi, and he’s seen good success getting people from these different communities supporting each other’s political efforts. One focus has been the campaign of Juan Garcia (Barack Obama’s roommate at Harvard Law School) who went up against a 21-year republican incumbent and won. Mario’s got a heavily tactical focus, trying to identify voters who don’t vote a straight party slate and who might be willing to entertain voting for an independent thinker.

Jesse Gordon is one of the organizers of “Not One Damn Dime“, an economic boycott focused on protest against the Iraq war. The protest asked people to refrain from spending on the day of the 2005 presidential inauguration. Hundreds of millions of emails went out – a survey showed that people received 4.5 emails each asking them to join the boycott. The boycott got mainstream media attention in no small part because of the volume of email spam. Gordon tells us that he believes the boycott was successful because it was so easy to participate in – you just had to do nothing! Also, he believes it was successful because it was viral – people encouraged their friends to participate, which made it more likely that people would take the campaign seriously. The group is now focusing on smaller community rallies and boycotts.

Gur Tsabar is one of the founders of Room 8, a multiauthor, actively non-partisan blog on New York state politics. (The title is a reference to “Room 9”, New York City Hall’s press room.) Tsabar founded the site after running an unsuccesful candidacy for city Councilor, along with a cofounder from the New York political press. Rather than celebrating the successes of the project, he chooses to focus on the downside. “We’re operating in the head of the long-tail of politics”, he says, and we’re talking mostly to ourselves, the political insiders. “We’re no better than the clusterfuck we’re covering,” an entity that speaks only to itself. He points to the low participation rates in elections as a need to reinvent politics in a way that people care about the decisions being made. His skepticism comes from his experience knocking on the doors of ten thousand low-income New Yorkers during his campaign – “What we’re doing here doesn’t have a lot of relevance to Jane and Joe”. He urges us to look at our room – overwhelmingly white, male and highly educated – and suggests that this room reflects the demographics of people reading his blog.

There’s some spirited debate after Gur’s comments. Ruby Senreich argues that, while most people aren’t political junkies, her traffic numbers go up before elections, suggesting that people lean on these online resources before they vote. She also suggests that these online tools reach “the grasstops”, local influencers who are the “establishment for conventional wisdom”. Clearly, there’s a debate waiting to happen about whether these online tools are effective yet for mainstream voters, or whether it’s sufficient to reach a small group of potentially influential voters.

Dan Gillmor has an excellent summary of this session on his blog. And here are other posts on Technorati about the conference, tagged .

4 thoughts on “Local online organizing at the Sunlight Foundation meeting”

  1. Pingback: Center for Citizen Media: Blog » Blog Archive » Political Watchdogging

  2. Pingback: Berkman Sunlight: Political Information in an Internet Era at Jake Shapiro blogs sometimes.

  3. Hi Ethan,

    It was a pleasure meeting you at Harvard! Thanks so much for introducing me to your projects, I am VERY interested and will keep an eye on them. Thanks also for the shout-out to my project.

    Hope to see you again soon,

  4. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » Looking beyond the US for activist inspiration

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