Two Wellstone Action alum head to Tasmanian Parliament

Election night March 20 was a tough night for the Tasmanian Labor Party.  

Eleven years in power and a cascade of missteps brought a 13% swing against the Party and the loss of four seats and their majority in Parliament.

But swimming against that tide, two Wellstone Action alums - David O'Byrne and Brian Wightman - ran unconventional campaigns and won convincing victories despite Labor Party losses elsewhere.

Both O'Byrne and Wightman attended a two-day Wellstone Action training in September 2009 at the LHMU office in Hobart, Tasmania.  LHMU is an Australian union representing Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous workers.  The training was organized by Damian Ogden, the LHMU Political Director and now Director of Campaign Action! along with Erik Peterson.

The training reignited O'Byrne and Wightman's passion for running and provided a framework for building a grassroots campaign and developing an authentic message.

Brian Wightman, a teacher and high school principal, came up after the training and said what he took away was new hope that speaking authentically is not only the right thing to do, but an effective way to run as a candidate.

Wightman said that he would apply the lessons in his own campaign because "this is about making people's lives better.  That's what politics is about."

That's what politics should be about, but like many U.S. campaigns, most campaigns in Tasmania (and Australia) are top-down, tightly controlled, and less than inspiring enterprises.  

"Strip-mining is the typical style of Australian campaigns and my most common experience in Tasmanian politics," said O'Byrne.  "A central committee of 3-4 people would control everything and rely on a very transactional relationship with a handful of volunteers who they would flog to the point of death."   

David O'Byrne, former Tasmanian Branch Secretary of the LHMU, decided to run for Parliament in late 2008 driven by both anger and frustration and a deep sense of hope that he could build a different type of campaign around a values based politics.  

He was "frustrated and angry with the political debate," yet from his work as a union organizer and leader he also knew that "good people could change things." 

What he found in the Wellstone Action training was an intellectual framework and language that confirmed his belief that successful, people-centered campaigns are built on developing relationships and growing new leaders who can exercise their power collectively.

"The Wellstone Action training gave me the tools to organizationally build a values- and volunteer-based grassroots campaign, and as a candidate be able to speak out of those values," O'Byrne said.  

And an unusual (for Tasmania) and robust grassroots campaign they built.  Tens of thousands of doors were knocked and leaflets dropped.  There were thousands of conversations with voters.  Where three or four volunteers would be normal for a typical campaign, dozens of volunteers would come out for O'Byrne's weekend door knocks and enjoy a barby of sizzlers afterwards.

The grassroots work paid off in the end.  O'Byrne won the fourth seat of five in his district in the face of a perfect storm that would have likely knocked out most first-time candidates - a 15% swing against Labor, competing against the leaders of the two opposition parties, and vying for a seat against Labor's deputy premier (who took the third seat) and two incumbents from his own party.

"Without Wellstone Action and the power of the Wellstone triangle it just wouldn't have worked," O'Byrne admitted.

Proud as he is of his victory, O'Byrne is most proud of the new people he brought into politics.  Dave, an old friend of his who is a professional engineer, had never done anything politically before.  "He hadn't even joined his union, and would tell me ‘I'll get involved when they're talking my language, but right now they're not and they don't want to engage with me.'"

O'Byrne briefed Dave about the campaign and invited him to the leaders meeting to scope it out for himself.   Dave was impressed and asked to go out door knocking.  O'Byrne hesitated and warned him that could be tough, but Dave said he believed in the campaign and what it stood for and he "would do what needed to be done" to tell others.

"That man door knocked constantly, and he wanted to go into some of the toughest areas - and he had never done anything like this before."

There were many more stories of developing new leaders, like the senior public servant from the opposing party who had coffee with O'Byrne one day and signed on to the campaign.  "She was the sister of a former Liberal member (the conservative opposition party) and she was out door knocking for us every weekend because she believed in what we were doing." 

"That's what this is about," O'Byrne added.  Wightman would agree.  

Now they both head to the Parliament to try to build a minority government between the Labor Party and the Green Party, which will test both the need to build relationships and how to govern from a perspective that continues to develop new leaders and stays authentic and connected to the community.