With their well-worn blue jeans, slogan-emblazoned T-shirts and anti-Establishment zeal, the 1,200 liberal activists gathered at an airport motel here this past weekend inevitably evoked memories of the turbulent political past.
"What's here is what's left of the '60s," said Bruce Babbitt, one of six Democratic presidential candidates who addressed the annual conclave of a fast-growing national political organization called Citizen Action.
But this three-day meeting, which concluded Sunday, was no exercise in nostalgia. Most in attendance were in their 20s and 30s and proudly wore buttons proclaiming their commitment to nearly every major liberal cause of the moment, from opposing aid to the contras in Nicaragua to rejecting the nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court.
More fundamentally, Citizen Action leaders are convinced that with Ronald Reagan's presidency coming to an end under a cloud of scandal, the time has come for liberals to make their way out of the ideological wilderness. And they believe that their organization has already blazed the right path for the rest of the left to follow back to the forefront of American politics.
The key to Citizen Action's success and growth--starting with 250,000 members in 1980 it now can call on 1.5 million members in 24 state affiliates to back its causes and candidates--is no magic new formula, analysts say. Rather it is the rediscovery of the time-honored but often neglected tactic of maintaining touch with voters, through door-to-door canvassing, phone calls and mail.
"They have kept alive a theory of political organization which has been around for a long time, but which many liberal groups seemed to lose sight of after the '60s," said Martin Linsky, lecturer in public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Based on his own experience with Citizen Action's local affiliate, Massachusetts Fair Share, Linsky added: "And they're getting better at what they do."
"It's just old-fashioned grass-roots politics," said 36-year-old-Michael Hagar, director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, who, garbed in a "Cheers" T-shirt and cut-off jeans, hobnobbed with other conference participants. "This is the 200th anniversary of the Constitution and what we're doing goes back just that far."
But Citizen Action leaders are more concerned with their future than with their past. "During the '70s and '80s it is the right that has set America's agenda, it is the right that has made history," Heather Booth, 41, the organization's co-director, told the conference's opening session. But now, she told the high-spirited crowd, "We believe that together we can make history."
Organize 'Around People'
That is big talk. But many independent analysts believe Citizen Action's organization has the potential to back up that pledge. "By actively organizing around people, where their interests are, where their concerns are, they have succeeded in getting a lot of liberal legislation passed even at the height of the Reagan era," said Columbia University political scientist Ethel Klein.
Most of the successes have been in battles over state and local issues such as opposing utility rate hikes, bolstering job safety requirements and expanding health care benefits. In Congress the group claims credit for defeating Administration efforts to accelerate decontrol of natural gas prices and spearheading the drive to expand the Superfund for cleaning up environmental wastes.
Leaders say one of the keys to their victories has been their stress on the concrete rather than the abstract.
When it comes to environmental concerns, for example, Citizen Action puts more emphasis on cleaning up toxic waste than on admiring purple mountain majesties, according to Ira Arlook, the organization's 44-year-old co-director.
"These people have the values of the left," said Paul Tully, national political director of Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis' presidential campaign, who helped train Citizen Action staffers for political action. "But they have worked out practical applications for what they believe."
Backed Proposition 65
"People respond best when you talk to them about some issue they really care about," said conference attendee Cathy Calfo, the 30-year-old executive director of Campaign California, the Citizen Action affiliate in the state. She claims her group gathered 55,000 signatures in 10 days last year to help put Proposition 65--which set standards for clean drinking water--on the ballot in November. The voters approved the measure.
In North Carolina, the Citizen Action affiliate called Fair Share is emphasizing what its acting director, Elisa Wolper calls "the family agenda," issues such as day care, and improved school curriculum, a response to the social and economic changes that have increased the number of families with two working parents.
"What's important is not what we as an organization do," said Wolper, who is 30. "It's what people want. We're not talking rhetoric, we're talking needs."
Much the same down-to-earth approach helped energize the great liberal movement of the '60s for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. But in the '70s the left seemed to lose touch with its roots, and its leaders, critics say, became absorbed with their own ambition and distracted by so-called radical chic, the tendency to get caught up in faddish causes.
The political momentum passed to the right, notably to the taxpayers revolt and the Christian conservative movement, forces that helped lay the groundwork for the onset of the Reagan era.
Return to Politics
Meanwhile, some liberals and veterans of the student protests of the 1960s began returning to the political wars on a local level. They became involved mainly in neighborhood issues, such mundane but vital concerns as garbage pickups.
At first they concentrated on lobbying and forging alliances with public officials. But as the rise of the right in the early 1980s threatened some of their office-holding allies, they found it made sense to plunge directly into electoral politics.
At the state level, Citizen Action has helped defeat not only Republicans but also conservative Democrats. Among their heroes is 30-year-old Vincent Hughes, a black union leader from Philadelphia who was helped by Citizen Action to win a legislative seat from an 18-year-incumbent who had resisted proposals to expand health care.
"The difference between this organization and older liberal groups is that this movement was built from the bottom up," Hughes said.
Citizen Action affiliates get credit for helping liberals win at the federal level too. In 1984 they played a key role in helping elect Democrats Paul Simon in Illinois and Tom Harkin in Iowa to Senate seats held by Republicans. In 1986 the candidates for the Senate that Citizen Action backed included Brock Adams in Washington, who said "their grass-roots organizing was critical to my victory."
For all of its achievements so far, analysts say it remains to be seen whether the organization is prepared to take advantage of the challenges offered by the post-Reagan era.
For example, Citizen Action leaders boast that its 2,000 canvassers talk to more than 20,000 voters a night around the country. But some analysts doubt whether these brief front-porch chats by themselves are enough to sustain enduring commitment.
"These contacts are much less of an intellectual experience than is sometimes suggested," Harvard's Linsky said wryly. "There are limits to what can be accomplished by this technique."
Others question whether the organization is ready for the ambitious role its leaders hope to play in backing the Democratic presidential candidate in 1988.
"How the hell are you going to get all these groups around the country to get together and work effectively behind one presidential candidate?" asked Michael Ford, a veteran liberal organizer who was field director of the 1984 Walter F. Mondale presidential campaign.
Simon Wins Endorsement
While no one knows the answer to that question, Citizen Action's impressive stature in the political world was attested to by the fact that six 1988 Democratic contenders found time on their crowded political calendars to address the conference here. Of the six who attended--Babbitt, Dukakis, Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Colorado Rep. Patricia Schroeder and Simon--only Simon got an immediate boost, winning the endorsement of his home state branch of Citizen Action.
The other affiliates seem likely to stay neutral in the nomination contest, while they gird for the general election campaign. Meanwhile, the presidential candidates and the staffs are hoping that their appearances here will gain them individual allies among members of the affiliates.
"The big attraction of Citizen Action for all these candidates," said Dukakis adviser Tully, "is that when they are up there talking they know they are staring at a room full of 1,000 experienced political organizers."