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A few weeks ago, Portlandís Mary Beth Williams got off the phone with retiring state Representative Bill Norbert and announced her candidacy for his Maine House District 116 seat to a roomful of fellow Democrats occupied with planning the February 8 caucus. At the caucus, she tried to balance her organizational duties with some campaigning and signature-gathering, but didnít get a lot done, she says. Then, on February 15, she posted an official announcement of her candidacy on her weblog, Wampum (wampum.wabanaki.net), an ongoing discussion of "progressive politics, Indian issues, and autism advocacy." The progressive blog community quickly picked up on the announcement; famed political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow linked to it, as did Democratic activist blog dailyKos and a number of other prominent online journals.
Just like that, Mary Beth Williams was a minor online cause celebre.
Williamsís campaign is an interesting case of a larger phenomenon just beginning to manifest itself in American politics: the influence of the Internet, and more specifically of blogs, online journals devoted to everything from high-tech geek rapture to personal thoughts to political activism of every stripe. Blogs, depending on who you talk to, are either proof that the Internet is basically narcissistic or a bold new method of democratizing American media and politics.
A number of the most popular blogs on the Web are political, and most of those are conservative, a fact that Williams attributes to simple demographics. "Fifty percent of Americans still do not have internet access," she says. "There are two times as many Republican blogs as there are Democratic blogs, and in part thatís because there are more Republicans online than Democrats because Republicans have more money. There are Indian reservations in the West that donít even have phone lines, let alone access to the Internet."
Part of her reason for starting Wampum was to get new voices into the discourse of the Web, and now that same impulse has provoked her to run for the state legislature. "Iím a traditional Democrat," she says. "I come from a union background. I believe in get-out-the-vote. Thatís what I did in 1996," when she worked on Bill Clintonís Connecticut campaign. Williams has worked on political campaigns every cycle since 1992, when she stuffed envelopes for John Kerryís first Senate campaign. Now, she says, itís time to run a campaign of her own.
But thereís already a Democratic candidate in House 116: former Portland city councilor Howie Chandler. What sets Williams apart from him?
"Mr. Harlow has some experience in the City Council," Williams says, "and heís worked in private education for 30 years. I was a public-school teacher; my children go to public schools. Iíve worked in the public sector as an archeologist. My knowledge of state government and local school government is firsthand. My life experience is different: having children with special needs, being a woman, and being an Indian ó all shape my viewpoint and how Iím going to approach the issues in the legislature which are important to me. These are personal. What I need to do to get these problems solved is go to Augusta."
In addition to a different experience (Maine has no voting Indian legislators, although Penobscot representative Donna Loring is running for the Senate, and it seems unlikely that any other member of the state legislature has two autistic children) and different issues (sheíll talk your ear off about mercury and lead poisoning as well as education) Williams has also got a network to tap into: that shifty and borderless virtual space known as the blogosphere.
Over the past couple of years, a growing number of liberal and progressive blogs have banded together to do a collective fact-check on media coverage of the Bush White House ó and, more recently, to take action in the national political arena. The lightning-fast reaction time of the Internet has the potential to make fundamental changes in the way political fund-raising is conducted. If this wasnít already clear from the initial success of Howard Deanís campaign, the recent special election in the 6th Congressional District of Kentucky makes the point in a way that has gotten the attention of campaign managers across the political spectrum.
In that race, Democrat Ben Chandler faced an eroding lead as his opponent Alice Kerr piled up a fund-raising advantage courtesy of the Republican National Committee and Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell. Chandlerís campaign manager, Mark Nickolas, decided to take a $2000 flyer on ads placed in prominent progressive blogs, and the result was nearly $100,000 in donations, enabling Chandler to unleash a saturation media campaign in the final days before the vote. He won comfortably, and the blogosphere celebrated its newfound influence. Self-congratulatory rhetoric bloomed on the blogsí comment rolls, and the give-to-Chandler link on the Eschaton Web site (atrios.blogspot.com) was replaced by giddy ad copy crowing, "Congratulations! The blogosphere has set the stage for the 2004 Elections and a message has been sent to Washington!"
Well, maybe and maybe not, but a message has definitely been sent to a number of Democratic congressional candidates, and some of them are taking action. On Monday, February 23, former Alaska governor and current Senate candidate Tony Knowles posted a long guest piece on the Eschaton blog, lauding the blogosphereís status as "a new watchdog in the fight for truth" and asking for donations from the readers of Eschaton. Clearly Ben Chandlerís success has turned some heads, and Knowles is in a situation similar to Chandler: Heís a moderate-to-conservative Democrat in a tight race against a Republican opponent with no real credentials. In Chandlerís case, Alice Kerr appeared to campaign only on her near-perfect agreement with everything the president does; Knowlesí rival is Lisa Murkowski, appointed amid accusations of nepotism to the Senate when her father Frank left to assume the governorship of Alaska.
Coincidence, or evidence of a particular campaign dynamic perfectly suited to blog activism? Itís hard to tell, especially since Knowles is just getting started and thereís no way to know whether his Eschaton appearance will rally the nationwide faithful.
Itís a delicious irony that the campaign that has brought Internet fund-raising to Maine ó and with it the accompanying issues of national vs. local control, so potent in a state where the most vulgar epithet in the language is "from away" ó will be conducted by Williams, an Abenaki Indian whose family, she likes to say, "has been in Maine for 12,000 years."
Itís also interesting that Mary Beth Williams herself is skeptical of the power of Internet/blog fund-raising. In an email follow-up to her Phoenix interview, she wrote that online solicitation is "uncharted territory, and I think only time will tell if itís a flash in the pan or a true revolution for campaign fund-raising. Iím fairly convinced that my modest success in the past week fund-raising in the blogosphere probably has a little to do with the novelty of a bloggerís campaign, but mostly arises from the relationship weíve developed with Wampumís readership over the past eighteen months."
Ben Chandlerís race was uniquely positioned, as a number of the people involved have pointed out. He was a Democrat running competitively in a Southern state whose most powerful politician, Senator Mitch McConnell, is widely despised by progressives, and he was running in a special election seen as a bellwether for national attitudes about George W. Bush and the Republican Party. A February 18 article in Wired News cautioned that despite Chandlerís surprising success with blog advertising, Mark Nickolas thinks that "candidates would likely be disappointed if they expect to duplicate Chandlerís fund-raising success [. . .] Chandler was the only Democrat facing a federal election in February, and had the field of potential donors to himself."
In the fall, with 435 House races (including Chandlerís first general election), three dozen Senate races, and, of course, the presidential election, competition for blogwatchersí money will be much more intense. Atrios, the pseudonymous purveyor of Eschaton, posted on February 19, two days after Chandlerís win: "I do think that there are a lot of campaigns out there who will be able to make blogs work for them, but itís going to take a bit more than simply placing ads. If everyone jumps on the ad-placing bandwagon, and then they sit back and wait for the money to roll in, then Iíll get a nice fat check from Blogads but it wonít necessarily do much for the campaigns."
Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of the blog dailyKos (www.dailykos.com) concurs, telling Wired News that heís worried "that candidates will see blog readers as ATM machines."
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Issue Date: February 27 - March 4, 2004
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