2009.08.07: An Interview with Pat Waak
Peace Corps Online:
Special Report: Political Activist and Brazil RPCV Pat Waak:
2009.08.07: An Interview with Pat Waak
An Interview with Pat Waak
"The easiest way for you, as an individual, to get involved is to find out where your local party headquarters is and what precinct you live in and what activities are going on. That's the most basic thing people can do. It's not uncommon for me to get a phone call from someone who wants to run for the U.S. Senate. And I say, "OK. Let's talk about that." (Laughter.) It turns out they've never been involved in a political campaign. They don't know what precinct means. So it's a process of setting a tone of reality. If you're involved in your community, that's where we look for candidates. If you're a member of the City Council or you've been head of your PTA… But we're not looking for you to run for U.S. Senate. We are looking for you to start the long process to build up your own political credentials and your political knowledge so you can be involved. Our members are businesspeople. They are union people. They are nurses. They are doctors. They're the whole spectrum of the community, (and they) have gotten involved for one reason or the other. It's why we run. It's why we get involved in politics - because we have a passion for something. " Pat Waak, Chairman of the Democratic Party in Colorado, served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Brazil in the 1960's.
An Interview with Pat Waak
Dem, GOP, Libertarian chairs tell how parties work
"Election 2009," a unique project sponsored by Business Leaders for Responsible Government and headed up by John Brackney, president of the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce, recently kicked off its series with a panel discussion among the chairs of the state's Republican, Democratic and Libertarian parties.
Backney hopes this novel chamber program - which runs through November and culminates with a mock election - will provide chamber members with a "master's level" education on politics. Having the state chairs of Colorado's major political parties at the onset, Brackney said, showcases the importance of the political process in Colorado.
The panel was moderated by Jeff Wadsen, owner of PROformance Athletic Apparel and a main impetus behind the project. Wadsen, a former candidate for Douglas County Commissioner, emphasized that having the state chairs inaugurate the discussion was an excellent way for the business community to hear firsthand about the parties' views and learn why each believes it's the best option to address business concerns.
Questions were asked by participants in the program, which was held at chamber headquarters in Centennial.
Usually, somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 people go to the Democratic caucuses. The largest number we've ever counted was about 12,000. Last year, 128,000 people came - many for the very first time.
Pat Waak of the Colorado Democrats
This last campaign cycle got people out in a way that they've never gotten out before. So how do we keep that momentum and that excitement going and teach people about the process?
Right now, we have approximately 20 people working at state Democratic Headquarters, and 16 of those people are from Organizing For America, which is the network Barack Obama set up during the campaign last year.
It doesn't mean they're going to get involved in the next campaign, or the one after. They're there because there are particular things they care about.
But the easiest way for you, as an individual, to get involved is to find out where your local party headquarters is and what precinct you live in and what activities are going on. That's the most basic thing people can do.
It's not uncommon for me to get a phone call from someone who wants to run for the U.S. Senate.
And I say, "OK. Let's talk about that." (Laughter.)
It turns out they've never been involved in a political campaign. They don't know what precinct means. So it's a process of setting a tone of reality.
If you're involved in your community, that's where we look for candidates. If you're a member of the City Council or you've been head of your PTA…
But we're not looking for you to run for U.S. Senate. We are looking for you to start the long process to build up your own political credentials and your political knowledge so you can be involved.
Our members are businesspeople. They are union people. They are nurses. They are doctors. They're the whole spectrum of the community, (and they) have gotten involved for one reason or the other.
It's why we run. It's why we get involved in politics - because we have a passion for something.
When I first got involved in politics, the single passion was health care. I was a nurse. I was getting ready to go into the Peace Corps. It's still one of the most important passions for me.
But passion comes out of your own interest. It can be the economy. It can be how the local traffic lanes are set up. It can be the river that's running through your area. You get passionate, and you want to make a difference. And the way you make a difference is through becoming a public servant.
I just want to say a couple more things about candidacy, because I think it's really important. What I look for in a candidate, first and foremost, is authenticity. I don't want someone I can just feed a bunch of lines that they're going to go out and parrot. People see through that. They want to know this is a real person who has a real commitment to their community and is a real public servant.
Secondly, I want to know what their passion is. Do they really have one? Because that's the fuel that gets you up out of bed every morning.
Campaigning is hard. In the end, it's knocking on those doors. It's talking to people. It's people who get your home telephone number and call you on a Sunday afternoon. And maybe you don't want to run for office.
If you just want to affect the policies, there are many, many ways to do that. For example, there's the Democratic Business Coalition. It meets once a month. Business leaders from all kinds of areas listen to elected officials.
They will often invite a state senator or a state legislator to come in and talk about a piece of legislation. These are very vigorous discussions. It's a real opportunity to make your voice heard.
I have had the great fortune in this long life to work in a number of developing countries where democracy did not exist. We are extremely fortunate we live in a place where we can make our voices heard. You may get frustrated sometimes because there are not enough of you to make your voice heard on one particular thing. But one of my messages to everyone is, "Find a way to get involved."
The process is not closed. Our doors are open. And if you go into a political office and someone shoos you out - you call me. Because I will make sure we find a place for you to do volunteer work, to get information, to do whatever you want to do. That's what this party is based on. I think it's what all the parties are based on.
And, finally, I would say that although the process is intricate, we just spent the last several months doing six regional trainings all over the state. We invited anybody who wanted to come so they could understand how things work. We - and, I think, people in any of our parties - are more than willing to spend time explaining how to get involved and how to stay involved and, most of all, listening to you.
About 24 percent of the people in Colorado know who their state legislators are. I went to a focus group recently of people who were basically either Republican or unaffiliated. None of them knew who the state legislators were. Few of them knew anything about Governor Ritter. They did know about the two U.S. senators, but they weren't even sure about their congresspeople.
You're here because you're active in your association, you're trying to accomplish things in your community, you're trying to make your businesses work. So you become well informed. But we have a responsibility to make sure everyone is well informed, that they know how the system works.
I think we're in a situation we haven't seen in a long, long time. There are experiments. We're trying to figure our way out of this.
I had a really interesting conversation yesterday at lunch with a doctor who runs his own business. He's a geriatrician, and I think very, very highly of him. He walked me through my father's Alzheimer's, and we collaborated to kind of figure this out. We talked about the health care system, and about how we're already paying through the nose because (so many people rely on) emergency room care.
So I'm floored by all the legislation I see going through Congress, and I'm wondering, "Where are the sane hats?"
For somebody like me, who has spent a lot of time in developing countries, never throwing anything away because we wouldn't get another one, to come back to this country and to see the waste we have! We just pitch it out - doesn't matter. We've driven up the cost in part because of the waste, but the cost also has gone up because we don't have a system to take care of the people who go to emergency rooms now.
I don't think one sector or the other is being blamed at this point, although it sounds that way.
What I do know is that there are a lot of people hurting economically. They're hurting because of health care. They're worried, they're anxious and they're fearful. And we've got to figure out a system in which we don't blame small business.
This is a mess. I hate saying we inherited it, but, in part, we did. The fact of the matter is, if we hadn't spent all this money - and I'm a big supporter of the military. Everybody in my family has been in the military - but if we hadn't spent all the money in Iraq in the last several years, we wouldn't be in this shape, to some extent. We would have money to spend.
I don't think government has all the answers. But you know what? My road that goes to my house is full of potholes, and I'm not going to be able to pay for that. It's got to come from somewhere.
You know, there's an interesting phenomenon going on right now. I mentioned early on that Organizing for America is sitting in our office right now. It is actually the Obama network that is made up of people who are not in parties - Democrats who don't want to be involved in the party, some Republicans and unaffiliateds and people who aren't even registered to vote - who just are willing to go out and canvas and make phone calls around issues.
I have a brother who wants a third party. He doesn't want the Libertarian party, but he wants a third party that's way out there. And what I said to him is, "Until we have a system where it's a fair, even playing field, we're kind of stuck with the two-party system because that's where the money and the organization go into."
It would take you 40 years to build something totally different from the ground up. Not impossible, but that's kind of where we are. From my standpoint, there are issues where I disagree with some of my elected officials and some of the candidates, but I'm very pragmatic. I try to tell them how I feel. And I have private meetings or phone calls with them on a lot of these issues.
But the fact of the matter is that I believe that the Democratic Party stands for the basic values that I stand for. And, therefore, I'm proud to represent it. My job is to make sure that the right people are running for office - and that if they're not there for the right reasons, that we're not promoting them as our candidates.
Last weekend, the Change Commission met, which is the commission appointed by our new chair, Governor (Timothy) Kaine, (of Virginia) to look at the whole caucus primary process. And also to look at the issue of superdelegates, which became a very hot issue. I know Republicans don't have them. We do - and because of the close race (for the presidential nomination), there was a lot of debate over them.
I don't know what that's going to look like when they finish. And, quite frankly, our state Legislature has to decide whether they want to go along with whatever is dictated from the national parties, as well. To show you how far off the mark we were (in 2008), we anticipated that maybe we would get 30,000 people into caucus.
Then we saw what happened in Iowa, so we upped that to say, "Well, what if we got 40,000 people?" We had no idea that we were going to have such a turnout and, quite frankly, we were not prepared. It was like the rabbit that goes through the boa constrictor, because it went from there to the county parties to the congressional districts, to the state convention.
I think we would try to anticipate better. But it's not going to be like that in 2010. It just won't. 2012? We'll see what happens.
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