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Notes from the Virginia Summit

By Mike Signer | July 21, 2011 | 2 Comments

Now that I’ve caught my breath from last week’s remarkable Virginia Summit, I wanted to put down some thoughts and recollections for those who weren’t able to attend.

It was a privilege to be a part of the team who developed the Summit for the last several months.  But once I got to the Summit, I shifted from an organizer to a participant — and though I know I’m biased, I have to say this was easily one of the most exciting and rewarding events for me in the 15 plus years I’ve been involved with the DPVA.  500 folks registered, which was a stunning number, proving right from the start what we were hoping:  that there is an avid audience for the menu of policy-rich, politically savvy education and training we were offering.

What was so encouraging throughout the day was this:  while there were dozens of familiar faces there — the  “usual suspects” who help keep the DPVA going — there were also hundreds of fresh faces, including candidates, activists, and new volunteers.  What I heard from many people during the day was this refrain: “It’s so nice to be given information, rather than just asked for political help!”  In other words, everyone appreciated the fact that the DPVA was investing in them, rather than just asking from them.  And of course these goals are complementary, as many folks seemed more inclined to volunteer for campaign and to join their local committees after the day’s events.

Given that there were dozens of panels and events, featuring a great variety of Democratic leaders and issues, I can only testify to my own slice of the Summit.  There were countless other experiences (here is the full schedule).

I first watched as Jennie Blackton, who consults on communications with the Association of State Democratic Chairs, gave a workshop to a packed room (including several candidates) on how to make a stump speech that conveys your authenticity, passion, and campaign message.  The audience watched, laughed, and even teared up a little as various candidates took turns trying to explain why they were running for office.  One gentleman running for local office progressed by leaps and bounds as he initially stumbled in his explanation of why his experience as the father of a developmentally challenged student was fueling his run for office.  After a lot of practice and instruction on how to get it down to 30 seconds, he blurted out, “I’m running so I can fight for your family like I had to fight for mine!”  We all applauded; it was a line that would not only work well at the doors, but on the legendary bumper sticker.

On Saturday morning, I watched as my old friend Mudcat Saunders gave a tutorial over continental breakfast (with excellent bagels and fresh fruit) of the need for Democrats to connect better with rural and working-class voters.  If you don’t know him, Mudcat is a Roan0ke leader who helped Mark Warner win his campaign for Governor in 2001 as his rural strategist.  Sprinkled liberally (or should I say “populistically”?) with Mudcat’s trademark blend of rough-hewn wisdom and pointed jokes, his remarks on what we should say about China, how we should connect with rural voters, why economic issues are good for us were both hilarious and illuminating.

I then visited a panel called “Iraq, Afghanistan, and U.S. Global Engagement” featuring, among others, my friends Carol Pretlow, a professor at Norfolk State who teaches strategic and global studies; Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund; and Lorelei Kelly, director of the New Strategic Security Initiative.  The panel also included the well-known Matthew Hoh, a former State Department official who resigned in protest of U.S. strategic policy in Afghanistan; and Michael Shank, senior policy advisor for U.S. Congressman Mike Honda.  One thing that sticks in my mind were Brian’s comments; he’s an expert on both the Middle East and on puncturing familiar shibboleths about Democrats and national security (and the author of an excellent book called the Prosperity Agenda), and spoke about the need to avoid the caricature of being soft on security by being smart on security instead.

I also stopped by a panel called “Education and Investing in America’s Future Leaders,” moderated by Senator Mamie Locke, a career educator and dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Education at Hampton University, and included Andy Rotherham, a former member of the Virginia Board of Education, a Clinton administration education official, and a thought leader on education policy; Meg Gruber, a career earth and science biology teacher and Vice President of the Virginia Education Association; Cynthia Bowen, a policy expert and former colleague at the Center for American Progress; and Shital Shah, Manager of Policy & Partnerships at the Coalition for Community Schools.  The range of issues included school funding disparities, early education, and the lack of a major presence of Teach for America in Virginia.  The room was packed and there were too many questions from registrants to answer; everyone wanted more time!

Right after this, I saw a panel called “Never Call a Marine a Soldier! Secrets, Best Practices, and Mistakes to Avoid when Organizing Veterans and Military Families,” run by my friend Terron Sims (President of the Veterans and Military Families Caucus of DPVA) and Dave Solimini, Communications Director of the Truman National Security Project (I serve on the board of the (c)(3)).  Before a tough, interested crowd, they took us through a variety of issues where the military and veterans community could be with progressives if we understood framing a bit better — from the need to understand the need for finishing a job well done to the U.S. military’s proven interest in helping the least fortunate.

Then came the keynote:  I then watched Dr. Drew Westen, author of the best-selling book The Political Brain, give a stirring, raucous, and powerful speech about the need for Democrats to message more effectively-to stay on the offense in matters regarding our principles, and to have confidence that our policies, whether on financial reform or health care, fiscal reform or job creation, present the best alternative for middle-class families.  Hundreds of the registrants attended the session, and the reactions were, by turns, rapt and rambunctious.  It was a great keynote for the weekend.

I then walked across the hall to moderate a panel on Energy and the Environment with my friend J.R. Tolbert, Assistant Director for Legislation and Development of the Virginia Sierra Club and Stan Lassiter from Continuum Energy Solutions (we included a Featured Virginia Story about Continuum’s founder Kent Baake here).  Their remarks focused on a wide range of issues — the promise of wind and solar in Virginia, the need for energy efficiency, the issue of a mandatory renewable standard, and the controversy over uranium mining in Pittsylvania County.  The audience was energized and enthused; several told me afterward that they were very excited to be given information they would not have received anywhere else.

The weekend concluded with a relaxed and cheerful Virginia Summit Celebration with Mayor Dwight Jones of Richmond at the gleaming new Boathouse at Rocketts Landing — a symbol, Mayor Jones proudly told us, of Richmond’s coming urban revival.  Conversation turned happily on the new lessons and friends the hundreds of registrants had gained during the prior two days.  It seemed clear that some momentum had already started.

And there was so much more on offer — a panel on economic development moderated by George Mason University’s expert Roger Stough; a health care panel featuring preeminent health care lawyer and DPVA stalwart Michael Cook; candidate briefings featuring tremendous leaders like current and former Delegates Jen McClellan, Margi Vanderhye, and Shannon Valentine; and much, much more.  See here for a list of complete resources.

The Summit came about because of the hard work of so many, including Chair Brian Moran, who had the boldness and focus to shepherd the Summit from idea to reality; First Vice Chair Gaylene Kanoyton, who, wanting Virginia Democrats to have an answer to the popular Republican “Advance,” saw that the Oregon Democratic Party’s annual Summit could provide inspiration for our own effort in Virginia, and got many DPVA leaders behind it; 10th Congressional District and Resolutions Committee stalwart Sandra Klassen, who singlehandedly landed many of the panelists and helped steer the Summit in a policy direction; First Vice Chair for Rules Fred Hudson, who helped strengthen the political education and party-building functions; and Vice Chair for Technology and Communications Craig Fifer, who helped refine the overall programming and design of the Summit.

Executive Director Dave Mills quarterbacked the entire effort, including through increased funding.  Political Director Don Mark and Deputy Political Director Tyee Davenport brought savvy, sophistication, and finesse to orchestrating the many panelists, events, and countless other details.

The slogan we agreed upon well ahead of time for the Summit was “Educate. Train. Win!”  The Summit definitely accomplished the first two.  And, based on the collective enthusiasm and energy I sensed throughout the two days, I’m confident it will do a lot for the third goal as well.

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2 Responses to Notes from the Virginia Summit

  1. Meg Gruber says:

    Funny how I was at the Ed Panel and there were four panelists. Why did you forget the only one who was actually a veteran teacher?!

  2. Mike Signer says:

    Meg: My apologies — this is the problem with trying to summarize so many great events! I will fix in the above article right now — thank you for your work on the education panel and for your public service.


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