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July 10, 2006

The man behind the Cantwell/Wilson partnership

Posted by David Postman at 2:17 PM

It was no coincidence that Maria Cantwell added two liberal activists to her campaign this weekend. There's a connection between the decision by former primary opponent Mark Wilson to join the campaign as a paid staffer and the addition of Dal LaMagna as co-chairman of the campaign. The two moves were announced within a few hours of each other Saturday.

It was LaMagna who got the ball rolling. In a matter of a few days LaMagna, a liberal Democratic businessman, went from frustration at being unable to connect with Cantwell -- including contemplating his own challenge to her in the primary -- to brokering a deal to end both Wilson's campaign and his own putative effort.

LaMagna, who owns Tweezerman, a personal care business and founded, said he had been organizing progressives who felt disenfranchised by Cantwell's campaign because of her stance on the Iraq war, and the Patriot Act, among other things.

"I put all those people together and they just expressed an enormous amount of frustration that they're not being listened to, or if they were, nothing was happening."

LaMagna, who also blogs occasionally at The Huffington Post, said he wanted Cantwell to hold a forum, perhaps with Congressmen Jay Inslee and Jim McDermott, to talk about the war, national security and other foreign policy issues.

"I didn't get a response from the campaign and week after week went by and I started to get frustrated. They didn't get back to me, so then I started talking about running."

He said he would have run as a Democrat and not aimed his effort so much at Cantwell but at the Bush adminsitration and Republican candidate Mike McGavick. He talked to Wilson about it, and to the other Democrat in the race, Hong Tran.

Tran said LaMagna and Wilson called her the same day last week to talk about a possible LaMagna run and broached whether she would drop out. She said she wouldn't.

Tran said LaMagna told her she was a great candidate "but the reality is you don't have the millions of dollars I have." She said he was "sort of strategizing about that." Wilson repeated that message, she said, saying that neither he nor Tran had the money that LaMagna could put into the campaign.

LaMagna said the Cantwell campaign got wind of his potential candidacy and suddenly he had a meeting with the candidate. And, he said, "She converted me."

In all the talk about whether Cantwell changed her position on the war, as Wilson says, or not, as she says, LaMagna has the most insightful take. It's not that Cantwell has changed, but that in a one-on-one conversation she was able to convince him that she cares deeply about getting the U.S. out of Iraq and is not the uncaring neo-con some anti-war activists make her out to be.

"I basically left my meeting with Maria feeling that in my mind she is nowhere near Joe Lieberman, for instance, on the war. She felt compassionate for the Iraqi people that were subjugated by a psychopathic murderer. ... She's not interested in an occupation or permanent military bases and she's willing to happily start engaging all progressives.

"At that point I said for this to happen someone in the campaign has to work on this continually and she said, 'Why don't you do that.' And I said 'OK, if you're going to be responsive to me I'll be happy to do it.' "

LaMagna then talked to three top Cantwell aides and asked if they'd be willing to bring Wilson into the campaign and they agreed. LaMagna said he hopes that Tran will join, too. That's unlikely. Tran told me this morning she would not join the Cantwell campaign or drop out, no matter what Cantwell now says about the war or other issues. She said Wilson and LaMagna were bought off.

"It is interesting because they both said last week they didn't think Cantwell could win because she doesn't have the support of the progressive voters and the anti-war voters. That's the most shocking thing to me that now that suddenly they're in the campaign that is going to change something. It's not about them, it's about her, and nothing is going to change about how she continues to support this war."

She said Wilson "just liked the limelight as a candidate and if he joined her campaign he still gets that attention." LaMagna, she said, has been on the "fringe of politics and he wanted more of a role and this gives it to him."

Cantwell aide Michael Meehan, one of the three LaMagna approached about bringing Wilson on board, would add little to the story. "Successful campaigns are about addition and with the addition of Mark and Dal we will be successful," he said.

The recent days events show that the Cantwell campaign had not been doing a good job of listening to the base if someone with the stature of LaMagna had to threaten to run against her to get a meeting. But it also shows that Cantwell can be convincing one-on-one even when her campaign image and the organization of the campaign shows her to be unapproachable or intransigent. Was this a one-shot deal to quiet anti-war activists or a signal of a new attitude from the campaign?

UPDATE: I just had a chance to talk to Michael Meehan. He said that LaMagna is a maximum donor to Cantwell's campaign and that the businessman was working with progressives in the party. "I thought he was an advocate trying to help us out," Meehan said.

It was a real attention-getter when word came that LaMagna was thinking about running against Cantwell. "He went from a top financial supporter to somebody who was considering a primary challenge. I wondered how you get from one to the other," Meehan said.

Cantwell, LaMagna and Meehan met July 3. The next day was LaMagna's birthday and he invited Meehan to attend a party, and said Wilson would be there, too. It was there that they discussed Wilson joining the campaign. Meehan said Wilson, who campaigned for more than a year, and LaMagna "represent an important part of the base" and:

"You either take your political activism outside the tent and run in a primary or you come inside the tent and work on the campaign that best represents what you believe. And we are glad that they came in to do that."

Meehan said that some of the frustration expressed by LaMagna, and others, comes from the fact that Cantwell has been in session in D.C. and unable to do a lot of the face-to-face meetings that are important and could have headed off some discontent.

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