Dirt Poor Politics 

All Indians and no Chiefs

As we've done every year for the last 15 or so, the Copes spent a recent evening manning the Ada County Democrats' booth at the fair. As civic involvement goes, it's innocuous fun--handing out literature on local candidates, helping the unregistered get registered and distributing campaign gee-gaws like bumper stickers and buttons. There's the occasional smugness-engorged Republican passing by, of course, who always seems surprised that Democrats have the audacity to show our pretty faces in what they must consider their own private Idaho. This year, my favorite was the guy who came up all red-faced and intense like a gopher in rut and said, "Did you know there's a picture of John Kerry in a Vietnam museum? Huh? Huh? That's a fact!" Then, before we got a chance to carefully explain "So the hell WHAT!?" he stomped off as though he'd just smart-bombed a mosque.

All in all, though, things went calmly, considering the elevated level at which political emotions are running. And promisingly, too, considering the number of eager, energetic people who came to the booth to register, to investigate our party's candidates, and in particular, to volunteer to help get Democrats elected. As of last week, the Ada County Democrats alone (not counting people who have volunteered with the state party organization or for individual campaigns from Henbest's to Kerry's), had over 700 people willing to work phone banks, be precinct captains, canvas their neighborhoods for their legislative candidates, help with mailings, put up signs--the usual stuff.

So, you smug Republicans, never doubt there are loads o' Dems among your friends and neighbors. Since we live in a state where voters don't have to register their political affiliations, it's impossible to even guess how the electorate is divided between "R"s, "D"s or "I"s. But remember, two years ago both Kempthorne and that persistent rash Risch lost in their home county. Obviously, they would have taken Ada had those "R"s and "I"s who know them best voted for them, but still, over 50,000 local folks didn't vote for them--numbers that suggest there is a much healthier community of "D"s here'bouts than we are sometimes led to believe.

So that's the good news.

The bad is that many of those 700-plus Democratic volunteers may never hear a word from the organization they volunteered for. Their talents will go unemployed, their energies will dry out on the side lines and their eagerness will wilt, simply because those they hoped would lead them just didn't have the time to get around to leading them.

It's not a case of rudeness or exclusion. (If it's rudeness or exclusion you're looking for, go to the Republicans.) It's a case of money. Plain and simple, the ACD organization doesn't have the kind of bread it takes to organize 700-plus volunteers into an efficient, election-winning machine.

Again, if it's money to win elections you're looking for, go to the Republicans. After all, they have fat wallets like the Idaho Farm Bureau, IACI, the Cattlemens' Association ... everybody and anybody with a vested interest in keeping Idahoans on a short leash ... footing their bills. But the Democrats, as always, have you and I. They receive no help from the national party or the state party organization (which, if anything, is poorer than the county organization). Aside from a few fund-raisers they throw now and then, the Ada County Democrats depends solely upon us. Ada County Democrats. And to keep an office open (a telephone ringing, a computer humming, a printer printing), to assist in the campaigns of legislative candidates and to try to coordinate those 700-plus volunteers, the ACD typically operates on a yearly budget of less money than it costs to buy a mid-range SUV.

As I write, they have one half-time paid staffer and a handful of dedicated folks who donate whatever time they have left. The last three county chairpeople were forced to chose between making a living and doing the unpaid, un-fun, unappreciated drudgery it takes to push Idaho towards a balanced, two-party political reality.

So to all those people who call themselves Democrats but hunker like sow bugs under a rock waiting for things to change, if what I'm telling you is making you feel a tad guilty--like you should get your lazy, cheap butt out from under that rock--good!

I've seen it happen time and again. Rank-and-file Democrats assume that someone else is doing the heavy lifting for them, and it's true ... to a degree. There's always a small corps of good hearts willing to take on a load that should be spread much further.

But then, because those uninvolved Democrats so glibly assume others are on the job, the few who actually are on the job get over-taxed, burnt out, snowed under, smothered and eventually have to step aside.

So listen you lazy, cheap Dems ... I want you to think about something. And I'll tell you up front that it involves both math and money, so don't get all nervous on me when we get there, okay? Let's start with the proposition that there are 20,000 loyal Democrats in the county. That figure isn't a bit far-fetched, considering the election results from recent years. In fact, I purposely picked a number much lower than I believe to be accurate for no other reason than to make the math simple to follow.

Now, let's say that only half of those 20,000 loyal Dems donated $3 a month--one Bingo scratch ticket--to the county party. Figure it up. 10,000 x $3 x12. Or, let's say all 20,000 give one lousy buck a month: 20,000 x one lousy buck x 12. Either way, we come out with enough steady, reliable dough to have a real administrative office of four to six paid staffers. That's enough full-timers to send those 700-plus volunteers where they can do the most good.

So give it some thought. Some morning after you pack your kids off to a crumbling-down school house where you just had to pay $50 a head extra so they could be in the band or work on the school paper because the controlling party would rather criticize public education than fund it properly ... before you head out to that job that pays chicken scratch because the same knotheads crammed Right-to-Work up Idaho's assets ... consider for a moment the old truism that all politics are local. And dream about how nice it would be to have a strong, financially-viable, education-promoting, working-man-friendly interest group working for your interests. For a change.

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