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The DeMarco Factor

Transforming Public Will into Political Power

Michael Pertschuk

Publication Year: 2010

Vinny DeMarco might be a latter-day Don Quixote except that he tilts his lance at real obstacles to social justice: lobby-locked state legislatures and Congress, stonewalling the public will. And he makes impossible dreams come true. In twenty years of organizing campaigns in Maryland, he has led successful efforts to pass gun control laws (against National Rifle Association opposition), to hike cigarette taxes to prevent youth smoking, and to extend health care to hundreds of thousands of low-income workers. He has also built a unique alliance of mainstream and conservative faith groups, which helped secure rare bipartisan votes in Congress for the enactment in July 2009 of landmark FDA regulation of tobacco manufacture and marketing. DeMarco's unique strategic template, developed over two decades of serial campaigning, includes momentum-building stages over a multiyear campaign; unrelenting, skillful access to the media for engaging public support; coalitions of hundreds, even thousands, of faith, community, labor, public health, and business groups; and a hard press on candidates to support legislation before elections, rather than after they are comfortably in office. As an organizer/leader, Demarco also succeeds in his campaigns through force of personality: his unquenchable exuberance and idiosyncrasies delight and madden his opponents--sometimes his allies, too. Michael Pertschuk, himself a veteran advocate, here chronicles three of DeMarco's campaigns, each facing a different obstacle course. His deep analysis draws out strategic and leadership lessons that engaged citizens and advocates for popular causes stonewalled by powerful lobbies can put to immediate and practical use.

Published by: Vanderbilt University Press

Title Page

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pp. iii

Table of Contents

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pp. ix-x

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pp. 1-6

I first learned of Vincent “Vinny” DeMarco in 1993. I was at the Advocacy Institute in Washington, D.C., helping to train a new generation of public health and social justice advocates. We were not immodest about some of our achievements, especially our efforts to help build an effective national tobacco control movement. Then an old colleague and good friend visited us and issued a challenge: “Tobacco control is nice. Now try something hard. ...

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Part I. The Maryland Children’s Initiative

In Part I, we learn more about Vincent DeMarco: where he came from, his leadership qualities, his strategic template, his quirks and strengths as leader and strategist. I introduce his closest associates—and most formidable adversaries. I then chronicle a model DeMarco- led campaign, integrating virtually all of his signature organizing skills and strategic innovations. ...

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1. Rescuing a Lost Cause

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pp. 9-28

Maryland is a tobacco state—a historic tobacco state, if not a Big Tobacco state. Carved tobacco leaves adorn the balcony railing in Maryland’s historic Old Senate Chamber. When the State House was built in the 1770s, tobacco was a form of currency as well as Maryland’s major crop. The Great Seal of Calvert County (via Lord Calvert), adopted officially in 1954, features a tobacco leaf, representing the county’s leading product. In 2007, the seventy-second...

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2. The DeMarco Campaign Template

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pp. 29-45

Policy advocacy campaigns usually follow a customary path: set a legislative objective; call upon known allies to activate an existing coalition, whose leadership signs petitions to the governor and legislators in session; organize from among coalition members supportive letters and e-mails; recruit impressive witnesses to testify before legislative committees; mobilize a few volunteers and one or two paid lobbyists to lobby the legislature; generate...

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3. Media Advocacy: "A Giant Telephone"

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pp. 46-53

The unwillingness of the 1997 Maryland legislature to raise the cigarette tax was not the result of the legislators’ rejection of Smoke Free Maryland’s arguments. The legislators simply weren’t listening to them. They weren’t listening because they didn’t have to listen. They didn’t have to listen because their constituents weren’t demanding that they listen. The coalition might have produced a panel of Nobel Prize–winning scientists to testify on the proven connection between high taxes and falling cigarette...

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4. The 1998 State Elections: Bridgehead for Action

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pp. 54-65

So extensive and favorable were the results of the MCI launch in December that many committed legislators and advocates, along with DeMarco’s deputy Glenn Schneider, began to harbor hopes that they were going to pass a big cigarette tax in 1998. “Had a big argument with people,” DeMarco says. “They asked, ‘Why is this a two-year plan? Let’s just get it done this year.’ ” While he agreed with Schneider that they should give it their best shot—“You just don’t ever know what can happen,” Schneider said—DeMarco was certain...

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5. Politics without Partisanship

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pp. 66-79

As the November general elections approached, DeMarco’s challenge was to inflict electoral damage on those candidates who refused to sign the pledge and enhance the electoral chances of those who did. This was no mean task, as MCI was constrained by both its nonprofit tax-exempt status and its nonpartisan credibility, and most of the candidates who did not sign the pledge turned out to be Republicans (although a good number...

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6. Victory and Accountability

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pp. 80-87

Within ten days of the House vote, articles in the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post documented MCI’s unprecedented visibility and power. Three veteran political analysts who had closely followed the initiative reflected on the changed political environment—to DeMarco’s delight (and not without his influence). On April 1, 1999, the Sun’s C. Fraser Smith, his early skepticism abating, wrote a column headlined “Tobacco’s Lobby Wilting as...

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Part II. Health Care for More: The Chameleon Campaign

In his first meeting with the Smoke Free Maryland Board following the 1997 legislative session, DeMarco had presented a remarkably comprehensive plan based on the strategies he had developed during ten years of trial and not much error in six successful gun control campaigns. Despite a bump or two, that was the plan the DeMarco team followed to a successful conclusion in 1999 for the...

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7. An Impossible Dream?

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pp. 91-111

In the spring of 1999, in the midst of the legislative session, Vincent DeMarco had only one goal in mind: get the tobacco tax passed. So focused was he that, he confesses, he “had no idea and no plan for what to do next.” But if he was not thinking of his next campaign, that campaign was thinking of him. Not a coalition, this time, but one passionate advocate: Dr. Peter Beilenson, the health commissioner of Baltimore. ...

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8. Follow the Leaders, Lead the Leaders

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pp. 112-128

From 1999 through 2002, as DeMarco and Beilenson developed their Health Care for All! plan, DeMarco was paying at least as much attention to the legislative environment that plan would face as to the polls, the consultations, the Hopkins experts, and the media. Although the chairs of the key committees that would handle health-care legislation would be important players in the plan’s legislative success, the fate of most legislation rests in the hands of the three great Maryland power...

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9. Coming to Terms with a Governing Troika

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pp. 129-139

Long before the 2006 Maryland General Assembly overrode the governor’s veto of the Fair Share law, even before the 2005 General Assembly passed the Fair Share bill itself, DeMarco was planning his next campaign: “One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that it’s important to think about your next steps—to have it started in your head—while you’re still doing the step you’re in, not waiting until you’re done.” DeMarco began to focus, ...

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Part III. A Leap of Faith Organizing

In Parts I and II, I looked at DeMarco’s roles as leader and principal strategist in policy campaigns. Now, I turn to his contribution in a secondary support role developing a broader advocacy movement. These two chapters chronicle the ways in which the DeMarco factor helped transform the state and the national tobacco control movement, most uniquely by building an alliance between traditional...

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10. The Birth of Faith United Against Tobacco

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pp. 143-149

From their first meeting, Vincent DeMarco “loved” Peter Fisher of the national Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (TFK), whose job was to assist states in their tax increase and other campaigns. Engrossed at the time with the MCI campaign, DeMarco also began to consult with Carter Headrick (“Great guy!”), TFK’s mid-Atlantic coordinator charged with helping state coalitions with their campaigns. He credits Fisher and Headrick, along with Glenn Schneider, with teaching him “everything I needed to know” about the tobacco issue. ...

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11. Faith in Action

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pp. 150-162

During these years, DeMarco and Sosa helped state and local faith and health alliances through every phase of their development, toward the goals of stronger smoke-free laws, higher tobacco taxes, and, at the least, no drop in funds for state tobacco control programs. The two over time would bring together local faith and health leaders in Virginia, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Oregon, Colorado, New Jersey, Connecticut, Ohio, Montana, Kansas, Oklahoma, ...

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Part IV. Lessons in Strategies and Leadership

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pp. 163-167

Vincent DeMarco is no revolutionary; he’s not even a radical. He does not pretend to have the key to long-term fundamental systemic change, such as a Canadian-style single-payer health-care system that every disinterested, sober expert agrees would be vastly superior to what we have now; or the nationalization of the tobacco industry, which David Kessler as FDA commissioner argued is the...

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12. Before We Do Anything Else

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pp. 169-184

Some forty years of involvement in issue campaigns—mostly consumer protection or public health—have taught me that one of the most common strategic errors passionate advocates fall into is leaping before they are ready. “There oughta be a law!” “Let’s run a public education campaign!” “Let’s attack the special interest lobbies!” “Let’s go lobby!” “Let’s create a coalition!” I understand these impulses, but they may prove useless sound and fury unless...

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13. Delivering the Messages

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pp. 185-196

The work of the campaign begins in earnest with the answer to Jim Shultz’s fifth question—How can we get the power holders to hear the messages? The effort to answer this question strategically is the essence of the campaign. This is the most challenging arena, and this is where DeMarco invests his greatest effort, once his organizing is well under way. ...

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14. Organizing Plus

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pp. 197-204

At the same time as the campaign strategist looks outward to answer the first five of Jim Shultz’s Nine Questions, an unsentimental look inside the campaign organization is essential to gauge its strengths and address its weaknesses. Equally unsentimental must be a readiness for midcourse corrections, even radical circumnavigation, if the facts on the ground so dictate. Shultz’s last four questions are designed to force such analyses. ...

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15. A Fistful of Campaign Leadership Roles

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pp. 205-217

“There are some people who are natural leaders,” says TFK president Matt Myers, “but it would be a mistake to suggest that it requires a unique person to do many of the things that Vinny does.” You certainly don’t have to be Vinny DeMarco to adopt the generic strategic and tactical lessons I’ve extracted so far from the case stories. Now, I examine lessons in the leadership roles that mark a successful campaign. This is a trickier task. Not everyone can...

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Epilogue: What Would Vinny Do?

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pp. 219-220

In the flush of excitement and optimism that followed the election of Barack Obama in November 2008, I cited the DeMarco factor as a model in a piece I wrote for the December 15 issue of The Nation (“Election’s Over—Time to Begin”). There, I speculated that the thousands of trained, highly motivated organizers and the millions of volunteers and contributors who made Obama’s victory possible could now be mobilized to make certain that his legislative...


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pp. 221-223


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pp. 225-234

E-ISBN-13: 9780826517043
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826517029
Print-ISBN-10: 0826517021

Page Count: 244
Publication Year: 2010

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Antismoking movement -- United States.
  • Tobacco industry -- Government policy -- Maryland.
  • Antismoking movement -- Maryland.
  • Tobacco industry -- Government policy -- United States.
  • Lobbying -- United States -- Case studies.
  • Public interest -- United States -- Case studies.
  • DeMarco, Vincent.
  • Lobbyists -- Maryland.
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