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Starting over, again

Democrats, presented with opportunity, hunt for leaders

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The month of February proved to be a historic one for Idaho Democrats. Starting with a visit from presidential hopeful Barack Obama, which drew nearly 14,000 people, and followed shortly by Super Tuesday caucuses that broke attendance records in many counties, the party is enjoying more support and attention than it has since the days of Gov. Cecil Andrus.

Meanwhile, the party has fielded three candidates for the First Congressional District race against Republican Rep. Bill Sali, whose re-election campaign has run into money troubles.

All of this seems to point toward 2008 as the Democrats' best chance since the early 1990s to gain seats in the Idaho Legislature and return from a decade-long exile in the political wilderness.

Then last week, the party's executive director, John Foster, announced his resignation, effective mid-March. Citing family concerns—often a sign of forced retirement—his decision immediately struck many as evidence of a party shake-up.

Comments on the Idaho Statesman's Web site, 43rdStateBlues.com and NewWest.net all wondered if Foster hadn't run afoul of party heavyweights, resigned amid controversy over allowing candidates to speak live at the upcoming Frank Church Banquet or simply decided to leave after almost a year of fighting with an inherited budgetary mess.

Despite the scuttlebutt, Democratic leaders said Foster's departure had been in the works for a few months and dismissed the idea that he left due to infighting.

"John has put in an enormous amount of time and effort in that job," said Idaho Democratic Party Chair Keith Roark. "And obviously, he has ruffled some feathers, and there have been times when the pressure on John has been enormous; and when I spoke with him the first time he tried to hand in his resignation, I refused it, and I asked him to take more time to think about it ... [He did] but he didn't change his mind."

Roark went on to shrug off much of the online speculation.

"I just think people are reading too much into the John Foster resignation, and I understand that," he said. "The recitation of those particular reasons causes questions, but I take John at his word."

Foster isn't likely to go far. He confirmed this week that he's had several job offers, including one from Democrat Walt Minnick's campaign for Congress.

Regardless of his reasons, Foster's resignation is the third in as many months among prominent party leaders—longtime IDP Chairman Richard Stallings stepped down in December, replaced by Roark, and Ada County Chairman Brian Cronin left in January, with Deb Spindler stepping in.

With those key positions in transition during a time when solid organization is critical to channeling the party's current groundswell of support, leaders are taking a hard look at how to rebuild an infrastructure atrophied by nearly 15 years in the minority.

"The old style of Democratic politics in this state was the precinct-by-precinct, county-by-county, boots-on-the-ground strategy," Roark said. "We had great support from labor and party activists who were willing to knock on doors and make that personal connection. Then we became more candidate-driven, and those candidates set up their own organizations."

First Congressional District candidate Larry Grant echoed Roark, adding that the party has relied too long on "star power," specifically from strong personalities like the late Sen. Frank Church and Andrus.

"We had folks like that who were great and brought people in, but after they were gone, we didn't have an infrastructure to elect people without them," he said.

Party leaders are now looking to those caucus-goers to step in and fill the volunteer ranks from the bottom up.

"When you have 22,000 people show up in 44 places on one day, I don't think it's outrageous to assume that a lot of those people, if they're willing to show up on a cold February night, will be willing to knock on doors on a warm August evening," Foster said.

Roark was similarly heartened by the caucus—and not just because of numbers, but demographics.

"The people who showed up to the caucus were of a type we haven't seen in many, many years," he said. "They were younger, they were broader-based and they were more enthusiastic than any group of caucus-goers I've seen in a long time."

But IDP leaders and grassroots organizers alike recognize that maintaining enthusiasm is vital to solidifying support into long-term gains.

"There are things in the works to keep folks engaged," said Kassie Cerami, operations director at Idaho for Obama. "A lot of people realize now that they can make a difference so they want to be involved in running for office. They're willing to work on local campaigns ... They're starting to say, 'Now what? What can I do now?'"

Cerami added that her organization decided to re-open its office under local control even after the national team left the state. "[Closing] it would be doing a disservice to the campaign and to the Democrats who are finally on fire about something," she said.

As is the case nationally, Obama's local fan base includes younger people who typically don't participate in election-year activity. Foster said the best way to ensure those people stay active in the party was not only putting them to work, but making sure that work is meaningful.

"Young people are traditionally kind of dismissed," he said. "People use them for grunt labor, and in a campaign environment it's very much a meritocracy ... all that matters is your commitment and drive."

He also stressed the importance of cultivating a new crop of candidates. "One of the reasons the Republicans in Idaho have been so successful is that they've identified bright young people and had a pipeline for them from initial involvement up to candidacy," he said.

Jasper LiCalzi, College of Idaho political economy professor, agreed that harnessing the energy of young activists is vital to the party but pointed out it will require swift action.

"You can miss it here. If you blink, it could be gone," he said.

First Congressional candidate Walt Minnick, whose campaign is leading the Democrats in fundraising, said he recognizes the opportunity. "This environment that Obama is representing is a breath of fresh air ... engaging a generation of young people who've never been as interested in the party and the process," he said.

Minnick said the party has sacrificed infrastructure for individual campaigns, and that fixing the problem requires new blood.

"It's more like a terminal disease," LiCalzi said. His recommendation: Young people need to seize leadership in the party.

"What I think would work is what Frank Church did in the '50s: Frank Church was just a young lawyer and he and some guys came into the Ada County party and said it wasn't effective and they took over the party," LiCalzi said. "If you went to the caucus and you worked for Obama, 20 of you should walk into Ada County and take it over."