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Grassroots Politics Sprout in Vienna

Locals organize MoveOn kickoff meeting at Patrick Henry.

An instance of grassroots political action sprung up in Vienna last Tuesday, Dec. 5, when about 35 people gathered at Patrick Henry Library to kick off MoveOn's Mandate for Change campaign.

The campaign, according to MoveOn literature, is designed to "remind Congress to lead on the issues people voted for," and the gathering at Patrick Henry was one of more than 350 such meetings held across the country last week. MoveOn.org Political Action is a federal political action committee (PAC) that forwards a progressive agenda, is funded by individual donors and claims 3.3 million members.

The meeting was hosted by Vienna resident Karen Mortensen, who began by asking participants to introduce themselves and sum up their feelings about politics in a single word. The result might be seen as indicative of the political mood following the midterm elections, with the most common response by far being "hopeful." Most responses were positive.

The majority of attendees were Vienna residents, although several had journeyed in from Oakton, Fairfax, McLean and other parts nearby. The main work of the meeting was to plan a "photo petition" campaign, in which participants will gather both the signatures and photos of local constituents who support MoveOn's agenda.

"I think it's no secret that the last election was all about change," said Patty Parker of Fairfax, who helped facilitate the meeting. "We want our elected officials to remember that we are a grassroots organization that elected them ... and that we are watching." Surveys of MoveOn members had revealed that the issues that most concerned them were clean energy, universal health care, an end to U.S. involvement in Iraq and the restoration of democracy, Parker said. These are the four issues the photo petition campaign is to push.

She and Mortensen demonstrated the way photos were to be taken. The petitioner holds a sign with one of the four issues printed on it succinctly — for example, "Out of Iraq" — and the name of his or her representative in the House printed across the top. Mortensen noted that petitioners can also handwrite signs indicating their own concerns and that the photo petition campaign, which is being carried out nationally, is directed specifically at the House of Representatives.

"IT'S A NEW TACTIC, and we hope it will grab their attention and it will let them know we're talking about real people in real communities," said Parker.

When asked if Parker's picture, reminding U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-11) about clean energy, would be intended to be supportive or confrontational, Mortensen said it was neither. "It's just showing that he has a constituent who has a concern about this issue," she said.

The pictures and petitions are to be brought to the group's next meeting on Jan. 9 and will be personally delivered to congressmen in late January. Mortensen asked that each participant try to bring photos and signatures from at least 10 petitioners.

The more long-term goal of the meeting was to form a local council for MoveOn's Operation Democracy, which is to be a nationwide network that will coordinate events and campaigns. "Mandate for Change is just the beginning," said Todd Berner of Falls Church. "We'll need to hold their feet to the fire during 2007 and beyond," he said, noting that even well-intentioned elected officials "can be easily distracted by the trappings of power." He said it is MoveOn's hope that pushing a progressive agenda would allow the movement to reach out to constituents outside the Democratic Party.

Mortensen added that membership in a local council does not necessarily require a high level of involvement. "It's not like it's something more special than what you're at tonight," she said.

PARTICIPANTS were broken into clusters of five or six according to their own representatives, with Davis' share of the attendance constituting several groups. Each began working out ways to collect photos and selected a representative to deliver the petitions to their congressmen.

In keeping with the grassroots model, no one at the meeting was an official MoveOn leader. After the session ended, Mortensen revealed that this was the first such gathering she had ever hosted. She said she had received an e-mail from MoveOn stating the need for local meeting leaders and decided to respond. "This is how this grassroots stuff happens," she said.

She sat in on a few conference calls and was sent a meeting agenda with detailed instructions. Libraries were recommended as suitable gathering sights. "Basically, they give you a blueprint for a ready-made meeting," she said. "That's how they're able to roll out these national campaigns."