In a class of their own

How one Camp Wellstone seminar produced a slate of successful politicians

At a backyard barbecue on a quiet street tucked in the Linden Hills neighborhood, a group of old classmates warmly greeted one other.

As they laughed and chatted with the ease of lifelong friends, it hardly seemed possible that just a year and a half ago they had walked into a room without really knowing each other at all. Or that they had graduated three days later from Camp Wellstone, an intensive training ground for progressive political action, as an ambitious group whose members truly believed in each other but were virtual unknowns on the political scene.

In just a matter of months, their Camp Wellstone class has transformed itself into an impressive slate of local politicians and candidates for office. By providing practical skills in progressive political action, Camp Wellstone aims to teach people from all walks of life to step out and be active in public life. It does so by emphasizing the successful tactics of the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone - things such as having conviction in your message to voters and focusing on &#8220kitchen table” issues like jobs and the price of milk.

In this class, those lessons seemed to equal success for many particiapants. Minneapolis City Councilmembers Ralph Remington (10th Ward), Elizabeth Glidden (8th Ward) and Diane Hofstede (3rd Ward) were all members of the class.

So were Mark Ritchie, a Southwest resident and the DFL-backed candidate for secretary of state, and Andy Luger, the DFL's pick for Hennepin County attorney. And Kevin McDonald, who ran a close race last fall against Councilmember Sandy Colvin Roy (12th Ward), and Joel Bergstrom, a local political activist who announced he would run for the District 3 seat on the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners but withdrew when incumbent Gail Dorfman decided to seek reelection.

And those are just some of the local figures. Classmates from other areas of the state include recognizable names like Tim Walz, the DFL-endorsed candidate for the First Congressional District. And the list goes on.

Wellstone Action Executive Director Jeff Blodgett said he knew by the end of the organization's three-day training session in January 2005 that many of the participants would be serious contenders for political office. A number of them were seriously thinking about running for various political offices, and Blodgett said many had the qualities that political candidates can't be taught: they were grounded in their community, had a good sense of who they were and what they believed, and showed that they could stay focused on what it takes to win a campaign.

&#8220It was just an extraordinary group of people to start with,” Blodgett said. &#8220They had all this really great raw material, out of which comes a really great candidate. And then the training helped them hone their skills.”

Camp Wellstone is the flagship training program run by Wellstone Action, which was created shortly after Sen. Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash in October 2002. The purpose of the organization is to keep Wellstone's legacy alive by teaching others his unique style of progressive politics, Blodgett said. That goal is achieved through workshops like Camp Wellstone.

More than 9,300 people have graduated from the camps - which have been held all over the country - since they began in 2003, according to Wellstone Action's website. Participants can choose from three tracks. One of the tracks focuses on teaching candidates how to run and win a progressive campaign. Another provides tools for working on a campaign. And another explores being a citizen activist and organizing grassroots advocacy.

Each track has its own curriculum and is taught by a group of instructors, including some of the nation's leading experts in grassroots politics and organizing. Bergstrom, who has served as a sort of &#8220class president” and has been instrumental in getting his Camp Wellstone class together for several reunions, said their group had about 30 participants in the track focusing on how to be an effective candidate.

In that track, students learn about everything from delivering a message to voters with conviction to having a campaign plan and budget. They also film a mock campaign commercial, deliver a stump speech to the group, work through a simulated campaign crisis situation and practice their door-knocking skills. And while they do it all in just three days, the Camp Wellstone alumni that gathered at Bergstrom's house toward the end of June agreed that it gave them a wealth of effective tools and prepared them for the campaign trail.

&#8220There was a lot of energy in our class,” Glidden said.

She said the camp taught her the importance of knowing her numbers and being extremely organized. She said it also emphasized how important personal contact is, whether by door knocking or making phone calls.

&#8220They really worked with us on our stump speeches and really taught us that you have to believe in what you say,” Glidden said. &#8220If you don't believe in yourself, you're not going to be successful.”

Remington said the most important thing he took away from Camp Wellstone is that whatever a candidate wants to get across during a campaign needs to be boiled down to a few simple points. During his campaign, Remington emphasized that the 10th Ward needs smart development, more transportation options and a focus on safe neighborhoods. His rallying cry was that he would bring the voices of his constituents &#8220into the room” - or onto the City Council. The campaign message worked, and voters put Remington into office.

And, of course, the camp teaches the basic principles that helped Wellstone to be so successful. Ritchie said Camp Wellstone instructors emphasized focusing on &#8220kitchen table” issues like jobs and the price of milk.

&#8220They teach that you need to focus on the basic bread-and-butter issues,” Ritchie said.

But Walz, a high school teacher from Mankato who didn't have a lot of political experience before deciding to run for Congress in a district that includes Republican strongholds like Rochester, said he thought the camp focused more on the principles of good government than on progressive politics.

&#8220Most people think of this as a leftist organization,” he said. &#8220I cannot stress how untrue that is.”

He said the camp focuses on the principles of authority, honesty and integrity.

&#8220I think candidates from all political spectrums would benefit from that,” Walz said.

Camp Wellstone is open to anyone who is interested, Blodgett said. The cost is $75 per participant. For students, low-income or unemployed participants, the cost is dropped to $35. It costs Camp Wellstone $200 per participant to put on the three-day workshop, Blodgett said, but the cost to participants is kept low to make sure everyone who wishes can attend. Organizers make up the difference through fundraising.

The camp is nonpartisan but is geared toward progressive candidates, Blodgett said. A large number of the participants are Democrats, but the organization does have attendees from the Green and Independent parties. And there is the occasional Republican and conservative participant as well, Blodgett said, most of whom are looking for advice on the nuts-and-bolts part of running a campaign.

&#8220There are some parts of the training that are really not ideological,” Blodgett said. &#8220They're really just more about smart strategy and tactics for anyone who's running for office.”

One of the basic lessons of the camp that Ritchie found helpful was how to remain enthusiastic throughout the duration of a long campaign.

&#8220The hardest thing about a campaign is sustaining the energy,” Ritchie said.

Classmates have also continued to help with that, he added. Almost more important than what this group learned in the classroom is the fact that they left with a firm bond and a network of friends. Ritchie said every once in a while he gets an e-mail from a classmate asking how he's doing or offering their congratulations, which gives him an extra boost of energy.

&#8220We've been really supporting each other,” Ritchie said.

Betsy Scheurer, a classmate who was elected to the Hopkins School Board, said the group has been supporting each other financially as well as emotionally. And the networking has been invaluable, she said. Classmates might offer advice, she said, or introduce a fellow classmate to someone who can help on their campaign.

While several of the alumni said they are surprised the group is still meeting more than a year after they graduated, several said they knew by the time they left the class that they would stay connected.

&#8220I remember when Ralph [Remington] gave his first stump speech, I said, ‘I want to be friends with that guy,'” Luger said.

Even camp organizers, who have seen hundreds of participants deliver speeches and hone their campaign skills, were dazzled by this class when it came time for them to perform in front of the group.

&#8220The speeches that were given were some of the best we had ever heard,” Blodgett said. &#8220These are folks that had a half hour - and of course they had been thinking about this candidacy - but they had a half hour to write a stump speech and deliver it in front of the room. And some of the people just blew us away.”

Bergstrom imagines the group will continue to get together - largely because their enthusiasm has made it relatively easy for him to organize the few get-togethers they've had so far.

&#8220We just sort of had a different bond than most,” Bergstrom said. &#8220There's a lot of room for this group to support each other, and I want to facilitate that.”

The group's success and continued determination, Blodgett said, is the reason Wellstone supporters created these training camps.

&#8220This group,” he said, &#8220is exactly what we created Wellstone Action to do.”

Kari VanDerVeen can be reached at [email protected] and 436-4373.