Bar Change We Can Believe In

Between drags on his cigarette outside of a crowded 22nd Street bar, a bearded Kurt Walburg explained why this year’s political candidates should not expect checks in his name.

“I don’t really have a lot of money,” said the 26-year old, who works as a sound engineer at a couple of South of Market dance clubs.

Neither does his smoking partner, 22-year-old Matt Stolz. With a five o’clock shadow and suspenders that blend the trappings of his two pursuits—a poet (“Stanford-educated”) and corporate salesman (“because I need to pay the bills”)—Stolz articulated the philanthropic designs of many of his peers. “I more or less donate to bartenders,” he said.

Not that night.

Instead, Walburg and Stolz paid the sliding scale of $10 to $20 to drink and hear a lineup of well-known authors and comedians perform at the Progressive Reading Series. And, in a tradition of literary political fundraising that has strong historical roots, every dime handed to the doorman for entrance or used to purchase a book by one of the featured writers went straight to the Barack Obama campaign.

In this election, it is unexpected, and sometimes unwitting, funders like Stolz and Walburg whose five and ten crumpled dollar bills at artsy events like this are helping Obama’s fundraising advantage.

As any penny-pinching hipster knows, ten dollars and ten dollars eventually adds up.

Stephen Elliot

Stephen Elliott

Stephen Elliott, a San Francisco-based novelist who founded the Progressive Reading Series, estimates that over the last three election cycles, it has raised $60,000. “But if you count all the events that grew out of those,” he said, including house parties with higher ticket prices, and readings around the country by LitPAC, the political action committee he started, “you’re probably getting up to half a million.”

Grassroots fundraisers like the Progressive Reading Series have piled up to almost $300 million in small donations for Barack Obama, according to the non-partisan Campaign Finance Institute. That accounts for nearly half of Obama’s total contributions. In fact, according to the research institute, small contributions to Obama exceed the total contributions raised by John McCain.

Elliott emceeing the Progressive Reading Series.

“Some of us have lost sight of that, but writing is a political act,” said Elliott, author of Happy Baby and other novels.

The idea for the Progressive Reading Series began in 2003, when author Peter Orner suggested to Elliott that they use their talents to help then-Supervisor Matt Gonzalez run for mayor to succeed Willie Brown. Gonzalez lost, but by 2004, the literary event became a monthly Make-Out Room affair with big-name writers like Jonathan Franzen and Dave Eggers donating their time, and proceeds funneled to the political action committee MoveOn.org and progressive congressional candidates around the country.

What sets it apart as a political fundraiser, besides the literary component, is the crowd it attracts. “It’s basically hipster kids,” Elliott said. “People who can afford $10 for a really fantastic literary event, but can’t afford $250 for a house party.”

The creative grassroots tactics have a long history in the Bay Area.

“As long as there have been artists,” said Phil Isenberg, a former California State Assembly Member, “there have been artists involved in politics.”

No more so than in the San Francisco Bay Area, where you can trace the wedding of art and liberal politics anywhere from Jack London’s 1901 Socialist Party bid for Mayor of Oakland to Diego Rivera’s 1931 pro-labor mural at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Andy Warhol for McGovern in 1972; Shepard Fairey for Obama in 2008.

Andy Warhol for McGovern in 1972; Shepard Fairey for Obama in 2008.

During George McGovern’s 1972 campaign for president, in which Isenberg served as the Northern California director, he found abundant support among the flower power crowd of San Francisco’s thriving counterculture. Musicians performed benefit concerts, painters donated work for auctions, and, like today, artists applied their talents to unique campaign posters. Isenberg says he may still have a few psychedelic rock posters that musicians donated for auction stashed away in his filing cabinets.

“It was a time when cash was acceptable,” said Isenberg, and buckets would journey through the crowds of rallies and rock concerts to collect donations for the presidential candidate.

Changes in campaign finance law have since limited cash contributions. But Obama’s campaign has found success in creating a 21st Century update to the donation bucket: social networking.

At the Progressive Reading Series, most guests paid their entrance on the website of ActBlue, a fundraising clearinghouse for Democratic causes. With his personalized Progressive Reading Series page on the site, Elliott sent invitations and compiled a list of donors to admit at the event.

On My.BarackObama, a social networking portion of the campaign’s website, personalized pages promote Bay Area art auctions, music concerts, dance-a-thons, and a film series to raise money for the candidate.

One of the fundraisers, called Artists for Change, recently raised $7,900. The organizer, Oakland painter Robert Brokl, said it was easy to persuade a few dozen artists to contribute to the event. He said there is a good reason artists, a notoriously penniless bunch, are eager to donate time and artwork for political change. In these hard economic times, he said, “artists are really feeling the pinch.”

“I have a show in San Francisco right now, and it couldn’t be a worse time to have a show.” Timing couldn’t be better, though, to throw a fundraiser.

Filed under: Art, Elections 2008

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