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Moving Forward

Forward Montana volunteers Nic Davis (left) and Wade Holland dressed as fake doctors for health care reform collected about 5,000 comments on health care. The idea was so successful it has been copied by other political organizations in other states. Courtesy of Forward Montana.

By Cody Bloomsburg

If you want to get people to talk about their voter registration status, dress up as a pink bunny. Want people to share their opinions on health care? Hit the streets as a fake doctor advocating reform. The staff of Forward Montana cooked up these tactics to get people more involved in politics — and they say the costumes work.

Forward Montana, a progressive group, seeks to cultivate a new generation of leadership by giving young people an avenue to get involved that isn’t centered on one party or issue. Its organizers also believe that bringing about serious change and having fun aren’t mutually exclusive.

Frustrated young Montanans who wanted a better way to get into politics established the organization in 2004, said John Bacino, its “Chief of stuff.”

While the use of costumes has drawn accusations of mocking the system, Bacino and CEO Matt Singer say dressing up is the best way they’ve found to break down the some of the barriers that have been keeping citizens out of decision-making. The phony physicians for reform motivated about 5,000 people to give feedback on the issue, and the group registered 4,000 voters in 2008.

An all-volunteer effort goes “pro”

Forward Montana was an all-volunteer effort until 2006, when the group was awarded a Skyline Public Works Grant that gave it enough seed money to go “pro.” Three years later, the organization had three paid staff positions. It raised about $200,000 in donations in 2008.

With that money, Bacino said the group was able to collect comments on health care reform, register voters and knock on 2,000 doors for candidates the group chose to support. It also made a failed attempt to start up another branch in Bozeman, which siphoned about $30,000 off the top of the coffers. Both Singer and Bacino admit the money might as well have been burned, but even factoring that in, the group was still able to achieve more than similar organizations with less coin.

Singer estimated that Forward Montana has about 200 members of varying levels of participation and could probably turn out 50 to 60 people to a rally with a day’s notice. He said the group’s numbers didn’t wane following the 2008 election, in contrast to other groups, such as Organizing for America, the continuance of President Barack Obama’s campaign as part of the Democratic National Committee.

White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina, during an October visit to the University of Montana, acknowledged that the Obama movement saw a drop in members following the president’s election. “People were tired,” he said.

Health care and climate change

In 2009, Organizing for America started focusing on asking people to call their delegation about health care reform or climate change. The group has a couple hundred staffers spread throughout every state.

Messina said that data such as the volume of mail, e-mails and phone calls to legislators showed that the program was effective. The declining numbers were partially the fault of the White House for not publicizing OFA better, he said.

Other factors he felt played a role were the length of the original campaign, causing people to take a break after it came to fruition, and the dour economy not affording people the time to get involved again.

Listen to an interview with Jim Messina, White House Deputy Chief of Staff

“This is a tough economy and more people work two and three jobs than the year before, and people are busy, and people want to say, ‘look, education or climate change or health care is my most important issue and I want to focus on that’ and that’s OK,” Messina said. “But I hope what people are going to do is if immigration is their biggest issue is they’ll say, ‘but I want the president to do well on health care so I’ll help on that, too.’”

Though the returning volunteers are more focused on the one issue they deem most important, Messina said that to keep them involved on some level was a victory in itself.

Victory means keeping people engaged

“I don’t really care what it takes as long as people stay engaged,” Messina said. “I think you’ll see people check in and out, but I think that you’ll see people stay engaged in ways you haven’t before.”

The crew at Forward Montana said they avoided the dip because their members had a higher level of ownership in the group’s tactics, as well as a variety of issues so more people become involved.

One year after the 2008 election, the group was in the process of compiling a hit list of issues to work on over the next few years. Members submitted proposals, which then were to be narrowed down to two or three issues by a vote.

What the group is calling their “Secret Plan” was aimed at increasing the ownership members felt toward the organization, and also making sure that it was working on things deemed important by the people willing to work on them.

Tracking the Youth Vote

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