The People Behind the Parties: Judy Bevans, chair of the Vermont Democratic Party

Judy Bevans, chair of the Vermont Democratic Party

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles about the movers and shakers of Vermont’s major political parties.

In March 2009, when Judy Bevans was asked to become chair of the Vermont Democratic Party and take on the grueling job of revitalizing the organization from the ground up and replenishing the party coffers, there was really no way she could say no.

“You’re talking to an organizer,” she says with a laugh.

It turns out the first person she “organized” was her mother, 50 years ago at the time of the Kennedy-Nixon election. Judy was 20 and had grown up in Baltimore. Until then her mother, Anne Blank, had never talked about politics – she merely voted “for whoever Daddy votes for.”

That year, Bevans’ father announced he would be casting his ballot for Richard Nixon — even though he was a lifelong Democrat and fan of Tommy D’Alessandro, the Democratic mayor of Baltimore who was working to integrate the city’s schools.

To this day, Bevans doesn’t know why he had a change of heart. “It may have been that Nixon had been around and they liked Eisenhower— though they’d voted for Adlai Stevenson. They weren’t news followers and I don’t think they went back into Nixon’s career to see what a bastard he was.”

Her own political awakening coincided with becoming engaged to Bill Bevans.

“I was talking with Bill and—I was too young to vote—he said ‘Who would you vote for?’ and I said, ‘Well, I guess I’d vote for Kennedy’ and Bill said ‘Why?’ and, when I couldn’t answer, Bill said ‘How can you vote for someone when you don’t know what they stand for?’”

So she set about “doing some digging” on Nixon, and she discovered he had an ugly record on civil rights and on the House Un-American Activities Committee. In addition, he used a smear campaign to beat Helen Gahagan Douglas for the U.S. Senate in 1950. (The tactics that led Gahagan Douglas to give him the nickname “Tricky Dick.”)

How did she convert her mother, who did indeed vote for Kennedy? “I don’t really know. It could have been civil rights.” Bevans’ Baltimore high school was integrated and the first shopping center in town was built in an African-American neighborhood. Her best guess is that then, as now, “When I set my mind to it, I can be pretty persuasive.”

The other thread that runs through Bevans’ life is political activism. Not long after the Kennedy-Nixon election, Judy and her husband, Bill Bevans, moved to Dover, Delaware, where he began his 26-year career at General Foods. She enrolled in courses at the predominantly black Delaware State College (much later getting her degree in health, wellness and physical training at Southern Connecticut State University). When she saw an article about a new dentist in the community, she “went to talk with him and we hit it off.”

With another friend, they decided to put together a community organization which would bring blacks and whites together socially – at a time when the city was becoming racially integrated.

“We had host families, mostly African-American professionals, and we would invite white couples to come over and just have coffee,” Bevans said. “The subliminal idea was to show white people that black people were just people with families, worries, living rooms, bills—the same or similar lives. We would invite people who were on the fence about integration.”

When it came to civil rights marches, her activism was tinged with caution. “When I marched, I stayed on the fringe, so that if things take a turn where people say things you’re not in agreement with you can leave,” Bevans said. “So it was always very individual, with me, very strongly felt, but I wanted to be able to leave if someone said something I disagreed with.”

Since then, this daughter of the Sixties has been on so many marches—civil rights, anti-war, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights and, more recently, an “Impeach Bush” rally in Washington, D.C.—that, as she says, “I know enough now to put my signs on my clothing so I don’t have to carry them.”

From envelop stuffer to chair of the party

It took a while for Bevans to embrace politics in Vermont.

“I came to politics from being an activist, marching, going door-to-door, that kind of thing.” She and her husband ran a conference and fitness center from their home in Albany for 20 years until a few years ago. She didn’t get involved in activism again until she wanted to find a way to protest the Bush-Cheney push for a “preventive war” in Iraq.

Howard Dean

“I asked myself, ‘Who’s getting heard?’ And the answer was, ‘Howard Dean.’ So I went out to raise money for him.” She also canvassed for Dean — once in a New Hampshire snowstorm.

When Dean’s campaign ended, she found herself asking “If not protest marches, what?” She asked the journalist Jon Margolis for advice and credits him with giving her the famous “Don’t mourn — organize” quote from Joe Hill’s epitaph. Hill was a member of Wobbly (International Workers of the World) who was executed on a questionable murder charge.

“So I did,” she says. That is, she took on the Orleans County Democratic party chairmanship when the job came up.

In 2003, she went a step further and ran unsuccessfully for a state senate slot on the ballot with Bobby Starr. Vince Illuzzi and Starr won the two Essex-Orleans County seats.
Not long afterward, she became vice chair of the Vermont Democratic Party.

Rebuilding from zero

Bevans is a small, vigorous woman in her late 60s who owes her trim form to years of working as a personal trainer. She now works with clients coping with debilitating illnesses.

Her unpretentiousness is notable. At the party offices in Montpelier, with its worn furniture, battered woodwork and scuffed walls, she shares an office with the young finance director Ben Eisenberg.

Addison County chair Paul Forlenza says she’s “a woman of energy and passion, who jumped in [to the job] with both feet.”

“The first time I saw her conduct a state committee meeting, I think she was unsteady on her feet,” Forlenza said. But the county chair, who is known for being especially well-organized, is unstinting in his praise now – he says she’s good at her job.

Ian Carleton, the party chair from 2006 through February 2009, was well-regarded, but his young, energized staff and the raft of volunteers vanished right after the 2008 election. (In 2007, Jill Krowinski, then executive director, had had three full-time staff—an unprecedented number in a non-election year.)

When Bevans arrived, not a soul – and little of the money from the halcyon days of Howard Dean’s “50-State Strategy”— remained. The Democratic National Committee had axed the program, and the money that went with it, on November 5, 2008, three days after Barack Obama’s election.

Photo of Robert Dempsey
Robert Dempsey

In March 2009, when Bevans became chair of the party, she was faced with finding a new ED, raising money and staffing up the office. By May she had hired Robert Dempsey as executive director, (See vtdigger.org’s “People Behind the Parties” profile by Kate Robinson.)—and she says it has been a good fit.

The two of them appear to agree on the essentials of the classic “organize, activate, get out the vote” effort, and he has almost 10 years of political field work behind him.

A limited role in the primary

Fundraising is obligatory, of course. But in Vermont, the candidates raise their own money before the primary, kicking in to the party account for the costs of the “coordinated campaign” rather than the other way around. The Democratic Party has a few big events a year— including a dinner in April that this year drew over 350 people and broke the fundraising record.

“Attention [is] being paid where attention needs to be paid, which is on fundraising,” she says happily. “We fundraise properly, we do the research, we say thank you. If we are getting communications out they go out on time.”

The way she says this, “thankful” might be the better word. And when she says, “These are the nuts and bolts. … I am happy that the office is staffed up,” you know she has worked hard to get to this point. The newest hire is a field director, Bryan Hageny, who was the Deputy Training Director with Howard Dean’s Democracy for America.

But, with five gubernatorial candidates asking for support, isn’t the pool of possible contributors likely to be exhausted by the time the winner faces the need to raise hundreds of thousands—some say a million dollars–for the general election?

“There are always people who get tapped out and some who come out,” Bevans says breezily.

The Vermont Democratic Party plays a limited role in the lead up to the primary. “The candidates have a staff and a message and we come up with the party message and focus on Dubie, what he’s doing or not doing.” (“Lt. Gov. Don’t-be”—”Don’t be seen in public. Don’t say anything.”—is the label Bevans would love to have stick for Brian Dubie.)

Party tech savvy lags behind

What else had been neglected when Bevans took over? Both Bevans and Dempsey give a nod, but only a nod, to the need for improving the party website. She says a hire is close.
But in over a year the site has remained exceedingly unfriendly and clunky, while the five gubernatorial candidates have invested in comparatively state-of-the-art sites.

The lack of rich content and interactivity or a sleek design that is user-friendly underlines that an Organize for America-style “tech” campaign—that assumes voter interest in keeping current with election-year developments through, for example, an up-to-date calendar of events—is a low priority. (There is some Twittering and a sporadic kind of blog, for which Bevans credits the young staff members, but which as often as not she does. Just about all a Democrat who signs up for e-mail receives is occasional announcements and fundraising appeals.)

IT professionals don’t come cheap, of course, and the funds that have been raised in the last year have gone to hire the current five in staff and, more recently, to open field offices.

Bevans’ lack of interest in technological outreach is clear when she speaks about the kind of politics she has faith in. “It’s still very much a person-to-person deal. It still means a lot when a hand is shaken and a paper changes hands instead of coming through the atmosphere.”
She’s still firmly convinced, after years of going out with walk lists and manning the phones, that voter turnout determines the winners and that one-on-one appeals raise the necessary funds.

A “financial hiccup”

Bevans has also had to deal with a “financial hiccup” in Federal Election Commission reporting that was a legacy of 2008. She describes the problem as ‘things being in the wrong column because young people came in not properly trained and going away right after the election,” crediting Dempsey with being the “sleuth” who got things straightened out. With Finance Director Ben Eisenberg now on her team, she’s confident this sort of thing “can’t happen again.”

What sort of thing? The fall of 2008, which included the general election, led to amended filings in August of 2009. These had to do with allocations of money between the Federal and non-Federal expenditures shown, fulfilling requirements to name the specific candidate for whom, for example, a direct mailing was sent out and correcting “math errors.” There was also a case of placing a category of financial activity on the wrong line of the “Detailed Summary Page.” The regulatory language, if one cares to read it, rises to a level of opacity that could certainly defeat someone not thoroughly trained in deciphering it.

Dems focus on get-out-the-vote efforts

Bevans’ focus now is the Aug. 24 primary. Bryan Hageny, the field director, was brought in much earlier than usual, she says, and he’s already out getting people registered, providing early voting information, “getting them plugged into anything they need to make it easy for them to vote.” The push for registering Vermonters stems from the conventional wisdom on low voter turnouts for early, summertime primaries.

She says the large field has focused attention on the race as have the debates and forums, so that “by primary day, they’ll be known. It won’t be a case of ‘oh, I didn’t know who was running.’” Still, turning out the vote is going to be a big issue. And she’s not hopeful because she sees how often Americans talk about democracy and then don’t vote.

The Democratic candidates for governor attend a forum

Bevans, characteristically, has a theory about how to solve this conundrum, but only long term. She says the problem is that “we teach people about voting by saying, ‘Pick your party by asking what they stand for.’ That’s the totally wrong way…because it’s something outside yourself.” Her answer is to “Start with yourself. What do you value?”

She believes that if you know what’s important to you you’ll be motivated to vote – period, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican.

“I think if somebody says, ‘Nobody ever gave me a hand up. I want to do it all on my own. I have a business,’ they might be Republican,” Bevans said. “But I started out bringing animals home. I’m a Democrat.”

At present, the problem is getting out the vote with inadequate registration lists.

Two candidates, who wished to remain anonymous, have described the voter lists they’re getting as “just about useless.” While the campaigns want something done about this, since they’re paying the party for this service, the problem, in Bevans’ view, isn’t new – it’s simply a fact of political life.

As a canvasser and get-out-the-vote caller herself, she says, “I have had this happen every time I’ve worked with either a call sheet or any other kind of sheet. You get, ‘Please stop calling me. He hasn’t lived here in five years.’ Or ‘He’s dead.’ Clean data is critical, but… it’s just what we’re always up against.”

Achievements over ideas

It’s spring and Bevans has come down to the office in Montpelier from her home in Albany, which she does at least twice a week. The conversation turns to political affiliation. Given her activism on progressive, and even Progressive, causes—Bevans once canvassed for Bernie Sanders—isn’t there a Progressive in her struggling to get out?

Bevans allows that she struggled with that at one point. “I thought, ‘Am I a Progressive?’ The answer came out resoundingly, ‘No.’ I am not a Progressive. I am a left-wingish liberal Democrat in the older sense of the word. You know, organize, organize, organize. Get out the vote.”

Her choice is to be a declared, active and “liberal” Democratic Party member, not to keep her party affiliation under wraps, in a state where it is common to call yourself an “independent.” The reason? “I like accomplishments. The Progressives say they can be very pure and focus on issues and that’s very helpful for them. That’s not where I am. I am still the old-fashioned Democrat — build coalitions, organize people. That fits me.”

What about the importance of “ideas” in campaigns? Skip Vallee, the Republican who considered running last winter, declared that the need for “ideas” in politics was why he was thinking about challenging Brian Dubie.

When you’re talking with a personal trainer, who, in her work, is always on her feet, it’s no surprise that ideas aren’t of much interest unless they take shape in action. What is a surprise is the non-ideological tone of her response.

Bevans says: “Knowing the value system of the person you’re voting for gives you a big hint about where they stand on the issues. But the whole workings of government are to take everybody’s ideas—if it’s doing it well—and issues and smush them into some kind of public policy that we all benefit from—and that we can all live with. You can’t govern on my issues. There’re too many of us and we all have our issues and ideas. When government functions well, the people who we choose as our representatives do the best they can for all of us. And I learned when I was running for office—when someone says, ‘What are you going to do about such and such an issue?’ The answer is really ‘Not much. I’m going to work with a whole lot of other people and we are going to work on what we can do best for the most people.’ It’s not a one-person show.”

And that is probably as good a description of Judy Bevans’ approach to the job she now holds as you’re going to get.

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