Ask Pete MacDowell about things that happened in the past, and he’ll always come back around to a passionate, optimistic idea for what needs to happen right now. While Democrats everywhere are licking their wounds over the election, MacDowell’s attitude is positive: In 30 years of political organizing, he’s seen more new blood enter the fight than ever before. “I think this whole election has been a political transformation for thousands of people around North Carolina,” he says. “I don’t think they’re going away.”
MacDowell is also adamant about what must change in order to win in ’08. “To me, this election is one more example of how right-wing populism beats mushy liberalism every time,” he says. And though Bush’s portrayal of Democrats as arrogant elitists may be baloney, MacDowell contends that it worked since Democrats still haven’t embraced progressive populism. “They weren’t able to talk about real problems of real folks in real ways, in a way that didn’t sound remote and wonky,” he says.
Fixing the problem begins in living rooms like this one, in MacDowell’s rural Orange County home, where fellow members of his Democratic precinct are coming over to watch a DVD produced by George Lakoff about how to reframe political issues into a progressive context.
For someone who’s “semi-retired,” MacDowell keeps busy. Last summer, he joined fellow organizer Mischi Binkley and more than 200 other people from across the state in Greensboro for the founding convention of the Progressive Caucus of the N.C. Democratic Party, aka the Greendogs (www.greendogs.org). MacDowell heads a separate political action committee, which will recruit, train and support candidates for municipal and county races.
“We’re not going to endorse people just because they’re going to win or because they’re better than the Republicans,” MacDowell says. “We’re looking for real progressives that are willing to run on and talk about those issues. That’s a long-term project in North Carolina. But we’re serious as a heart attack about it.”
The Greendogs want to give a voice to North Carolina progressives who are frustrated with the Republican-lite politics of Gov. Mike Easley and Senate candidate Erskine Bowles. “I know a whole lot of issue activists who have never related particularly well to the Democratic party,” MacDowell says. The unity the party experienced during this election could wither on the vine if the Democrats decide to go “moderate,” leaving civil rights issues out of their agenda, he says. But, he adds, “a third party movement is not going to work in North Carolina.” That’s why it’s urgent that progressives stay involved, he says, especially at the local and state level. “This ain’t a sprint. It’s a marathon.”
MacDowell’s work organizing progressives goes back to his home state of Ohio, where he began as a student organizer at Case Western Reserve. He went on to teach sociology and do labor organizing in Illinois before returning to Ohio where he worked for Ohio Citizen Action for 11 years. His work with the Partnership for Democracy foundation brought him to North Carolina, where he gave startup grants and technical assistance to grassroots community leaders. When the foundation ran out of money, he stayed. “By that time I was totally convinced that campaign finance reform was absolutely critical,” he says. The many interrelated issues he had worked on–health care reform, environmental exploitation, racism, to name a few–all led back to the stink of money in politics.
“I credit Pete MacDowell totally with my initial involvement in the whole issue of campaign finance reform,” says Rev. Carrie Bolton of the Alston Chapel United Holy Church in Pittsboro. Bolton is now at the forefront of that effort. She is a co-founder and acting executive director of the Fanny Lou Hamer Project, a national organization that advocates for campaign finance reform as a civil rights issue, and sits on the board of the Washington, D.C.-based Public Campaign. In 1993, Bolton was one of the community leaders MacDowell worked with in his role with the foundation. Together with a handful of other committed activists, they formed the Chatham County Political Reform Group, which still meets at Bolton’s church 12 years later. “Pete exposed me to the first multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-gender, multi-age group of organizers that I have worked with,” she says. “He has a real sense of how you create diversity in organizational structures so that the organization will reflect the community.”
Also in the early 1990s, MacDowell joined longtime activist Bob Hall at the Institute for Southern Studies to work on a campaign finance reform project. “We hired Pete as the organizer to build a coalition, to turn the information into action and help people figure out how to change the system,” Hall says. The project grew in funding and in scope and soon spun off into Democracy South, with MacDowell as director and Bolton as the first board chair.
“We can call him the father of the campaign for voter-owned election and public financing,” Hall says of MacDowell. “He’s an innovative organizer, a boundless spirit, full of energy to keep moving ahead. He’s just very confident that change can take place, and I think it’s infectious for people who are around him to get a sense that they can make a difference.”
Today, Democracy South is thriving. MacDowell retired from his post there two years ago. Democracy North Carolina carries on the statewide work, with Hall as a co-director.
This year marked the first nonpartisan state judicial races. MacDowell sees that step as a big success for the campaign finance reform movement. “We were able to take this from a fringe issue to a mainstream issue,” he says, reflecting on the change he’s seen. “People get it now, in a real way. It’s not an abstract issue unconnected with their skepticism about politics.”
The next step for him is to lead the progressive PAC, which is looking for potential Democratic candidates it can train and support in school board and county races. “People need the experience, people need to learn how to run, and they need to be in races that cost $3,000 instead of $300,000,” he laughs.
MacDowell’s longevity in political activism is unusual, as is his ability to bridge different groups and interests. Hall credits this to MacDowell’s attention to human connections. “A lot of organizing gets people fighting just around one issue,” Hall says, “and then they go back home and lose connection to the larger drama of their community’s life. Pete embodies the kind of organizing that is sensitive to the personal as well as the political. It instills a bonding of people into the community to give them the strength and respect for one another that will empower them. It’s something that I think Pete feels strongly about.”
Bolton agrees. “Pete has not hesitated to speak out against white privilege and exploitation by people who have wealth,” she says. “I believe Pete has sacrificed a lot and has taken a lot of heat very often and has not been afraid to stand up and take risks to keep the basic notion of human rights and social justice in view.”
For someone with that kind of perspective, four more years of Bush means four more years to rally the progressive forces. “I think it’s timely that you would give [him] the award after what some people think is a devastating defeat,” Hall says. “I’m sure he’s ready to weather on, to keep moving onward. He’s used to setbacks, and I think he models the spirit of being in it for the long haul. He’s not going to let this election push him off the path. Other people shouldn’t either. “