I first met Bill Elliott in early 2004. I, like many others, had just come off the incredibly deflating experience of holding on to the Howard Dean campaign until the bitter, noisy end.
There were some rollicking good times, even near the end, when Dean pretty much camped out in Wisconsin through the primary. There was little question, though, that we bitter-enders were beat, in more ways then one.
Casting about for something--anything--to do, a number of us in Milwaukee started thinking about what else we could do, what would be next. We were bruised but not completely out of pluck. The idea of taking out a Republican--any Republican--seemed irresistible, and the perfect target was just a few miles away in F. Jim Sensenbrenner.
Candidates, too, seemed to recognize that within the leftovers of the Dean campaign were enough embers to make serious fire if used wisely, and it wasn't hard to convince even candidates for Congress to come to us, and we hosted Congressional candidates, Tom Barrett just days before the election, judges, and more.
In retrospect, we perhaps did have a bit of an inflated sensed of self-importance. But there's no denying that one candidate, Bryan Kennedy, got a tremendous boost from the boots we were able to put on the ground for him.
Bill Elliott was Bryan's campaign manager, and, though Bill always seemed very much to the left of the moderate candidate, he knew he had hold of a Good Thing in Bryan Kennedy. He also knew how to press every button and work every angle to try to get the Democratic establishment to notice that, hey, Sensenbrenner faced a real, competent opponent. Bryan never considered himself token opposition, and Bill never considered the race as anything other than a decidedly serious contest.
In the end, it was mostly tilting at windmills. Bryan's and Bill's attempts to get noticed by anyone higher up the Democratic ladder fell flat. In a post-election speech, Bryan made it clear that Madison Dems' refusal to help--and DC Dems' writing off of the race--hurt. Their support probably wouldn't have turned around the thirty-point spread that November, but it did vindicate a lot of what we Howard Dean types knew about The Party:
Professional Democrats didn't want to take chances.
We all know how that story ends. Howard Dean, with his controversial 50-state strategy, is now chair of the Democratic National Committee. Maybe among the Rahm Emanuel CYA types there remains derision of the idea, but now most people accept as gospel the idea that no seat should remain unchallenged, no race is too unimportant not to take chances.
Bill Elliott never gave up on the idea. Kennedy's one-year campaign against Sensenbrenner turned into a three-year campaign. Kennedy's quixotic effort now looks appealing to the Professional Democrats. Almost all of the credit--besides that which is due to Bryan Kennedy, who has been the best candidate that district could have asked for--belongs to Bill Elliott.
When Rep. Curt Gielow announced his retirement from the Assembly, Democrats saw a pick-up opportunity. Gielow is an endangered species--a moderate in the Republican Assembly caucus. His district, while certainly Republican, does not exhibit the characteristics that typically doom gerrymandered suburban districts to wingnuttery.
Among other things, Gielow always got high marks for his focus on affordable health care--something that Bill Elliott has made a centerpiece of his campaign. Bill's also been able to use the vast network he built while working for Bryan Kennedy to help him, and has by far the best ground game in the district. His fundraising techniques have even garnered national attention.
No amount of luck and hard work will put the Assembly back in the hands of Democrats. That's just a fact we need to face. But seats here and there are winnable--including the 23rd.
The man to win it is Bill Elliott.