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Two schmoes
How to pump young Democrats’ energy and money into the political process

AS THE POLITICAL industry stumbles into the Internet age, it will surprise nobody that a pair of somewhat-geeky twentysomething MIT and Harvard alumni want to lead the way. Cambridge, after all, marks an intersection of techie entrepreneurship and lefty activism. Matthew DeBergalis and Benjamin Rahn — yes, go ahead and laugh, it’s Matt and Ben in Cambridge — have started a nonprofit political-action committee (PAC) called ActBlue. They want it to become the premier "clearinghouse for Democratic action," says DeBergalis, connecting eager progressives to the campaigns that need them.

Phase one, connecting progressives’ money to those campaigns, is already under way at actblue.com. The site — which takes its name from the designation of red (Republican) versus blue (Democratic) states — tells you what congressional and Senate Democratic candidates are in close races, and then lets you donate money to those candidates with a few clicks. It also shows you which candidates have been endorsed by, for example, TrueMajority (the liberal PAC founded by Ben Cohen, of Ben & Jerry’s), and lets you donate to multiple candidates with one payment. Your credit-card payment goes to ActBlue, which then sends checks out to the candidates you’ve earmarked. In the world of campaign finance, this is called "bundling." EMILY’s List uses bundling to raise money for women running for office; Republican heavy-hitters employ the practice to become fundraising "Pioneers" for George W. Bush. Now, with ActBlue, anybody with an Internet connection can become a bundler — you can create your own ActBlue page titled "vegetarian candidates," and future visitors to the site can contribute to your list of herbivorous Democrats.

Since developing the idea early this year, DeBergalis and Rahn have managed to cobble together the Web site and sort out the complicated tax and election laws to make it all work. More surprising, site visitors actually make credit-card payments to these two unknown, underemployed 27-year-olds. Donations already total about $250,000, in fact, and are rising fast — over $100,000 came in last week alone. As a result, ActBlue has sent checks to 125 different campaigns, some of which are taking notice. "They are our primary contribution-collection system," says Tim Tagaris, communication director for Jeff Seemann, an underdog congressional candidate from Ohio.

The ActBlue duo have also broken bread with some very serious Democratic funders in their search for seed money. Richard Burnes, founder of Charles River Ventures, has chipped in $5000 and advice. Chris Gabrieli, founder of Massachusetts 2020 and the party’s recent lieutenant-governor candidate, has done the same. It’s too early to tell whether ActBlue will become anything, let alone the name-brand progressive portal its founders envision. But Burnes, for one, bets it will: "I’m a believer that that’s what it takes to make a difference, is two schmoes in Cambridge with an idea."

DEBERGALIS FIRST met Rahn at what they call "geek camp" — a six-week high-school summer science program at MIT. Rahn ended up matriculating at that campus as a physics major, while DeBergalis headed off to study computer science at Harvard.

After graduating in 2000, DeBergalis worked for a tech start-up, left to form another with a friend, and then in 2003 ran as an unlikely candidate for Cambridge City Council. He very nearly prevailed. His experience convinced him that the world (or at least Cambridge) is filled with both eager, young, left-leaning people who don’t know how best to direct their energy, and Democratic campaigns desperate for volunteers, contributors, and voters. The two sides were not connecting, so he decided to connect them.

First he reconnected with Rahn, who was studying theoretical quantum physics at Caltech. Rahn took a leave from his studies to team up with DeBergalis (and to rejoin his fiancée, a graduate student at Harvard). DeBergalis does the tech work; Rahn handles the legal research (with help from a firm in Washington, DC) and outreach to potential funders. They are both "deferring salary." Rahn gets room and board as a resident tutor at Harvard, while DeBergalis lives off his savings.

After originally targeting volunteer coordination — and calling themselves StepUp 2004 — they realized that fundraising for campaigns was a better starting point. Despite all the recent attention to Internet-based fundraising, few candidates are taking much advantage of it. Campaigns prefer check donations, since credit-card-processing services like PayPal take a piece of each transaction. Besides, non-national campaigns traditionally work local donors, such as PACs, party committees, and supporters at fundraisers. But how many people in faraway places would contribute to, say, Patsy Keever, in North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District, if they didn’t have to bother with writing a check?

Quite a few, it turns out. That’s because Duncan Black — the man behind the popular Atrios blog — recently recommended that his readers contribute to Keever’s campaign. Black estimates that 40,000 different people visit his site on a typical day. Only a small number of them — 204, to be exact — have given to Keever, at an average of less than $40 each. But that tiny return adds up to almost $8000 for her campaign. "A few thousand for John Kerry is a drop in the bucket, but a few thousand for a congressional candidate is a lot of money," Black says.

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Issue Date: September 24 - 30, 2004
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