Doubtless there are hundreds of folks in North Carolina and the Triangle who threw themselves heart and soul into the progressive political movements of the past two years. Some, perhaps, worked as hard as Blaise Strenn. No one worked harder, or got more done. Indeed, Strenn epitomizes the best of what happened–and is still happening–within the Democratic party. He’s a pretty ordinary guy who’s doing extraordinary things out of his belief that our politics and “sense of community” should be one and the same–and that the point of being a Democrat is to make it so.
Strenn, who is 50, is a native of rural Wisconsin, where his parents ran a farm. His father also worked as an optician, as Strenn himself did, getting a bachelor’s degree in nutritional science. He worked in a hospital, volunteered with the Heart Association, pitched in with the ’92 Clinton campaign in Wisconsin. Strenn lived a year in Budapest after meeting Kate, his wife, who was born in Hungary and–because of her then-temporary visa status–left the United States in the mid-’90s. They moved to Raleigh eight years ago so Strenn could take a job as brewmaster for a company based in Washington state. Making beer is still his passion, though the brewery has closed and he now works for the Ryder Truck Company.
Strenn and Kate are both soft-spoken, unpretentious in that distinctive Midwestern way. They live in a modest Raleigh ranch house filled with books and a stereo system that, when we visited, was tuned to NPR. The tiles and wallpaper they bought before the campaign madness are still awaiting disposition.
A little story. In Wisconsin, Strenn used to ride “centuries.” They are 100-mile bicycle races in which, up to the very end, everyone stays in a pack, working together so everyone can achieve their best individual result. Riders take turns at the front, breaking the wind for the rest. It conserves their energies up to the finishing sprint. “When you’re at the 80-mile mark, and moving at a 25 miles per hour pace as a group, it feels pretty great,” he says.
We weren’t talking about bike riding as a metaphor for politics, but we could have been. Growing up, Strenn recalls that everyone in his community knew one another, helped each other, pitched in at the church together, and were Republicans. But coming of age in the early ’70s with Richard Nixon in the White House, Strenn was never anything but a Democrat. To him, the D’s, not the R’s, were the party of community spirit.
While many of us dove head first into Meetups, precinct organization and collecting signatures to get Howard Dean on the ballot, the energy and commitment level came and went in bursts and waves. Not for Blaise. His steady, reliable, Herculean efforts never waned. If a group was meeting in Durham on a Sunday night, Blaise was there. If volunteers struggled to meet at Helios at 10 a.m. on a Saturday to pick up Dean literature for canvassing, Blaise and Kate were there by 9:30, armed with boxes and words of encouragement. As the clock was ticking to submit 10,000 signatures to get Dean on the North Carolina ballot, it was Blaise’s weekly counts and motivating (scolding) messages that made us return to parking lots and laundromats to complete the task. If not for Blaise, I’m not convinced we would have gotten the job done. In short, says public relations professional Stephanie Carter, who was once Gov. Dean’s press secretary in Vermont, “Blaise worked his ass off for Howard Dean.” But when the Dean campaign collapsed, Strenn didn’t. “He channeled his passion for change into helping reshape the Democratic party at the county and state level,” Carter says. “His respectful, thoughtful, logical approach has been so effective in giving others the green light to reflect the values and the issues that Howard Dean brought to the fore. And that encouraged so many people to come out of the woodwork to reclaim the political debate.”
Strenn vividly remembers seeing Dean on C-SPAN in March 2003, telling the party in California that he represented “the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.” “We said, ‘this is the guy’.” Before long, Strenn was leading Dean Meetups as the campaign’s state coordinator. When Dean decided not to accept public campaign financing with its spending limits, it meant his campaign volunteers needed to collect 10,000 signatures to get him on the ballot for a North Carolina primary that, because of an unrelated lawsuit over redistricting, never took place. As they were completing the job, Dean was losing his final primary in Wisconsin, ironically, and dropping out of the race.
Was Strenn getting paid at that point? “Oh, no, it was all volunteer,” he laughs. “I got a staff sweatshirt out of it though.”
Was he crushed? Not a bit. “All in all, it was a beautiful thing,” he says.
Without missing a beat, Strenn and about 15 other Deaniacs jumped on the task of reviving a Wake Democratic party that, to use his term, was in pitiful shape. More than half of Wake’s 182 precincts had no chairs and no organization whatsoever. So as head of the Dean campaign, and thereafter as third vice chair and communications director of the Wake party, he set out to remedy that problem. And, with the help of others, he did.
Strenn credits fellow volunteers like Jeff Marsocci, whose team assembled canvassing lists for every precinct, chair Lorrin Freeman and part-time executive director Linda Watson. They boosted Democratic turnout in Wake by more than 30 percent over 2000, more than matching a strong Republican campaign and narrowing Bush’s winning margin by about half. Meanwhile, most of the state and local Democratic candidates in contested elections won them.
All the while, the guy putting out detailed weekly calendars for the volunteers, running listservs and inventing Democrats4NC, a statewide e-mail listserv, was Blaise Strenn. In his own precinct, he knocked on 1,200 doors and brought out voters who, though registered as Democrats, hadn’t been to the polls in years. “He has given an incredible amount of time to the Democratic party, and won the respect of many people,” says Raleigh activist Carolyn Guckert.
Strenn has considered running for office but does not think he can do it anytime soon. His next goal, though, is winning a seat on the state Democratic party’s executive committee and helping to awaken it from its long slumber. Party elections are in February. And despite John Kerry’s defeat–or maybe because of it–the progressives who backed Dean, Dennis Kucinich, John Edwards or Kerry, even, “are really fired up” and determined to “move the party back to its base, and not to the center.”
That means standing up for education, health care and jobs, Strenn thinks. “A simple, non-nuanced message–that’s what, for Democrats, is so necessary.” He hated Erskine Bowles’ Senate campaign, with its pitch that Bowles’ ideas were not Democratic ideas or Republicans ideas. “I know what he was trying to say,” Strenn says. “But we want Democrats to be Democrats.”