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Citizen Soldiers

by Derek Newton

Occasionally there’s a parallel between national political events and what happens in Florida.

Last year John Kerry upset the political apple cart by pulling off an unexpected win in the Iowa Caucuses.

Here’s the kicker: Kerry should never have won.

According to almost every poll released before the Caucuses, the top three issues to Iowa Caucus goers were: 1) The war in Iraq 2) The Patriot Act 3) The No Child Left Behind Act. Senator Kerry supported all three.

Almost every other Democratic suitor, especially Howard Dean, had better positions on these key issues. Dean and Dick Gephardt both had more money than Kerry.

So how’d he do it?

Kerry won in Iowa because he did two important things. Kerry invested in young people. And he put them to work early.

Well below the political radar, Kerry established a political committee with the over the top name “Citizen Soldier Fund.” He used his Citizen Soldier money to scour college campuses for promising political talent, provided them with in-depth campaign training and sent his young shock troops to the primary states his presidential campaign would need to win - states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Kerry assigned his young, new staffers to work, for free, on key campaigns in 2002 in these key states so they could get real experience, make political connections and (because he was providing free staff to candidates) collect political favors.

The first Citizen Soldiers (as the graduates of Kerry’s exclusive training were known) arrived in Iowa in June of 2002 – 20 months before the Iowa Caucus. By the time the other Presidential candidates arrived to compete a year later, Kerry’s staff already knew the players, activists, donors and political leaders who would deliver his caucus upset.

It’s fair to say Dean, Gephardt and Clark didn’t know what hit them. Even before the now famous “Dean Scream,” Dean finished a disappointing third in Iowa.

The lesson for Florida is simple to follow: even in a hostile political environment, making investments in people and giving them the training and time to build infrastructure can mature into winning elections.

In a state as large as Florida, it’s hard to imagine that finding, training and placing staff in key areas will really impact statewide campaigns. There are just too many voters and too many issues.

But Kerry’s Citizen Soldier model would change the results in State House, Senate and Congressional races where Democrats face a decade-long losing streak. With a new Chairwoman at the Florida Democratic Party, I have high hopes that she will begin to make investments in young people and get them working early.

For the cost of two days of statewide television ads the Florida Democratic Party can place young, aggressive staffers in six battleground areas such as Hillsborough, Pinellas, Volusia, Charlotte, Lee and Sarasota Counties.

But Kerry’s strategy will not pay dividends immediately. It’s possible that building political infrastructure could take longer in Florida than it did in Iowa (which has stronger unions and elected statewide Democrats). But even if investing in field staff doesn’t pay off in 2006, we shouldn’t throw in the towel.

After all, just to do as well as Kerry did (getting staff on the ground in key battleground areas 20 months before Election Day) we’d have to have done it this March.


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