December 15th, 2005

Pound-Cake and Zephyr Teachout

by Philip Baruth

So I’m sitting in a living room in the New North End of Burlington last night, with nine other die-hard Democrats, talking about how to elect our guy, Russ Ellis, to the City Council. We figure we need about 850 votes to take this thing.

(For those of you in Los Angeles or Tampa, stay with me on this because — as Woody Allen used to say — it’s brilliant.)

Now, one of the nine turns out to be Zephyr Teachout, who along with Joe Trippi ran Howard Dean’s net-roots campaign in the run-up to 2004. And if you’ll remember, the net-roots fundraising was the only aspect of the Dean campaign that was universally hailed, and later widely imitated.

Teachout moved to the North End of Burlington from Montpelier just recently, and she’s now plugging into city politics. But she’s polite: she says hello to everyone, and she listens a lot.

So we’re about halfway through our two-hour meeting, and we begin to talk about communications beyond lawn-signs, beyond door-knocking, beyond even parking a Chevy out in front of Hannaford’s with your name painted on the side.

Someone tentatively suggests an email list might be useful. Someone else says they don’t know how to put an email list together.

Everyone takes a bite of pound cake, and we chew and muse silently.

And at that point, very politely, almost diffidently, Teachout speaks up. Before she’s done, she’s offered a crisp little five-minute synopsis of the Internet communications strategy that made an obscure Vermont governor the financial powerhouse of the 2004 primaries.

When she’s finished, Russ looks at her for a second. Russ is retired, white-haired, favors Jimmy-Carter-style sweaters, a thoughtful guy, ex-minister. He doesn’t know this woman or her work from Adam, clearly, but he likes what he heard.

“Would you be willing,” he starts, then asks, “I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?”

“Zephyr,” says Zephyr. “Zephyr Teachout.”

Russ absorbs that, nodding. “Well, that sounds like it might work. Do you think you could do something like that for us? Take that on?”

Teachout says she’d be happy to help.

And just like that, in the same way that people had signed up to knock on doors and collect torn lawn signs, our guy Russ Ellis — City Council candidate for Ward 4, with a campaign budget of around $275 dollars not including the free ad every candidate gets in the North Avenue News — acquired one of the country’s hottest net-roots specialists without really lifting a finger or paying one thin dime.

And then everybody had another slice of pound-cake and a warm-up on their coffee, as though to seal the deal.