Democratic Scion Plumps for New Tammany

122506 article ratner Democratic Scion Plumps for New TammanyWilliam Samuels, Democratic donor, semi-retired businessman and son of three-time gubernatorial candidate Howard Samuels, sat in one of the Victorian parlors of the National Arts Club on a recent Thursday, looking like a boy who was showing off his stamp collection. His eyebrows were furrowed, his eyes excitable, and from the rushing whiz of his words, it was clear there would be no interrupting him.

“You’ve seen the book—but I wanted to show you,” he said, gesturing to a thin, rectangular volume.

As it happened, this volume was not the final resting place for his favorite exotic bird stamps, but was, rather, a piece of political paraphernalia—a modern-day mock-up of the old Harper’s Weekly. Across the top, the words “Blue Tiger Democrats” appeared in bold, blocky letters, while in the center a cartoon tiger licked its chops. In the mock-up—or manifesto, really—Mr. Samuels, 63, had created his own proposal for saving the Democratic Party, one local organization at a time.

“I spent well over a year doing research,” he said as he straightened the mock-up on the tabletop in front of him. “And that meant going through all of these old Harper’s and seeing the illustrations and reading books about what it was like in 1870 and what was it like in 1935, and is there anything in that period that was good? Did we walk away from something? Did we lose the touch?”

Mr. Samuels’ conclusion—hinted at before he actually said it—was a resounding yes: Yes, the Democrats had lost touch; yes, they had walked away from something. As for what that something was, Mr. Samuels identified it, improbably but undeniably, as the grubby, old-world beneficence of Tammany Hall.

It was the missionary do-good-ism of the forgotten party faithful, the chicken-in-every-pot activism of the defunct Democratic clubs. It was, in a phrase, civic engagement. And unless the Democrats reclaimed it, resurrected the old Tammany ways—minus the corruption, of course—the party would go the way of the dinosaurs, done in by independent voters and the well-funded Bloomberg apocalypse.

It was Mr. Samuels’ mission to help prevent that from happening.

“It is extremely dangerous—dangerous,” he said of the current state of party affairs.

Even the Democrats’ thumping midterm success hadn’t help calm his inner Cassandra, and he warned his party-mates against too much complacency.

“Yes, the Democrats just won in Washington. But they did not win because they were respected; they won because of the disgust of the activities of the Republican Party,” he said, his hands resting fingertip to fingertip in his lap, politician-style. “If we don’t do something different, we will have the same disgust.”

With such fears pricking at his neck, Mr. Samuels decided to do his own little disgust-busting part, to create a civic-engagement organization. He dubbed this effort the Blue Tiger Democrats and, over the course of just two brief years, has shelled out “between $750,000 and $1.5 million” to various candidates and party organizations. (Mr. Samuels’ father made a fortune in plastics, and the son has himself created and sold two businesses.)

Along the way, he reached out to politician friends like New York’s lieutenant governor–elect, David Paterson, and Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, hired up some staff—most recently, blogger and former State Senate candidate Brian Keeler—and launched several pilot projects: a program to help Michiganites lower their heating-bill costs, a computer course for Arizona seniors, and a project to donate books, snacks and other knickknacks to hospital-bound veterans.

Just last week, he proudly announced the creation of an “online reform initiative” directed by Mr. Keeler called the Albany Project. “Right now it’s a blog, but it’s going to be much more than that,” Mr. Keeler promised.

Tammany historians like Peter Quinn, the author and former speechwriter for Mario Cuomo, are skeptical. The Blue Tiger projects, Mr. Quinn said, were more “like benign volunteerism than reborn Tammany.”

But Mr. Samuels is staunch in his faith.

“We’re going to try to prototype a new type of party,” he said, his face beaming beneath a cap of white hair. Dressed in the casually elegant mufti of a semi-retired businessman, he wore charcoal-colored pants and a lush charcoal sports coat, a small tiger’s-head pin fastened to his lapel.

“You see, we stopped talking to our base on a regular basis,” he said, “and that’s risky because you become detached, you lose touch, you don’t really understand the problems. Now that is why we believe bringing back some of that old culture is so crucial if we want the Democratic Party to be respected and survive.”

Or, as etched in gold and blue on the Blue Tiger manifesto cover, “The key to our FUTURE is in our PAST.”

From the Ashes

In cooking up Blue Tiger, Mr. Samuels has concocted an idea that is at once utterly his own and very much part of the trendy Democratic moment: In fact, since John Kerry’s bruising Presidential defeat, it has sometimes seemed as if every Democratic sugar daddy with some cash to spare has been trying to orchestrate a blue-party resurgence.

The Democracy Alliance, the collection of wealthy George Soros types who have dedicated millions to funding a network of liberal think tanks, has perhaps been the most notable of these efforts. But along the way, others have sprung up, each one offering its own prescient or quixotic fix for the system: top-down, bottom-up, red state, blue state, every state, dream state.

In the case of Blue Tiger, Mr. Samuels traces its birth—or at least the idea of its birth—to Carl McCall’s 2002 campaign for Governor. That’s when he had his first epiphany about the way “things are different”—which is to say, the way campaigns have shifted focus, away from the grassroots and toward “money, money, money,” since the golden days when his father was running for office. This idea struck him as both profound and disturbing, and when he told his friend, the New York Times reporter Sam Roberts, Mr. Roberts urged him on. “Jeez, Bill, you ought to write something,” Mr. Samuels recalled him saying.

Still, like so many other donors turned party-savers, Mr. Samuels didn’t actually embark on his big venture until November 2004, after his friend, Senator Kerry, lost the election. (The two men go way back, to 1971, in fact, when Mr. Samuels raised money—“literally all of it”—for the famed Vietnam Veterans Against the War march that Mr. Kerry organized.) It was only after, on Nov. 3, that he at last hopped in his car, assistant beside him, and began what became an extended tour of Democratic New York: attending club meetings, reading party histories, and generally contemplating the difference between the party of his youth and the party of the present.

“It was a fascinating excursion,” he said, smiling to himself.

Mr. Samuels discovered a lot during his adventures, all of which he eventually wove into an elaborate cosmology that he spelled out during an hour-long monologue for The Observer. He discovered, for instance, that “civic engagement” was once considered the “second mission” of the Democratic Party; that the “liberal reforms” of the 1960’s and 1970’s had inadvertently undermined the party’s power; and that New York City once boasted 335 Democratic clubhouses but that now “we’re down to one!”

Along the way, he also discovered the Tiger, the stripy, fearsome creature that garnered a full chapter in Mr. Samuels’ manifesto and still inspires statements like “The tiger is a real grassroots, honest Democratic symbol!”

As Mr. Samuels tells it, the tiger was the symbol of the Tammany Hall Democrats, as well as of the national party, long before the donkey took over. That image, which was first used in the late 1820’s as a swipe at the “jackass” Andrew Jackson and later came to stand for the pro-slavery Southern Democrats, was foisted on the party in the late 19th century by a Republican “who purposely designed it to be a backward, not-too-smart symbol.”

Through Blue Tiger, Mr. Samuels has set out to do a rebranding.

Tremendous Progress

For all his “Go, tiger” spirit, Mr. Samuels was willing to acknowledge that his project might still have some room to grow, some steps to take before it can really “make an impact on a new type of Democratic Party.” After all, there are still projects to be planned, party leaders to be wooed, local clubs to be brought on board—to say nothing of the whole pesky issue of making the effort “self-sustainable,” or as close as possible, by 2008. (In other words, Mr. Samuels doesn’t want to be the only one footing the bills, but rather wants to see some “grassroots,” Dean-style cash applied to the effort.)

Nonetheless, it was mostly good, old-time enthusiasm from Mr. Samuels.

“We’re making tremendous progress,” he said, listing a number of recent successes, like the decision of Mark Brewer, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, to incorporate Blue Tiger into the Michigan party’s permanent structure.

Mr. Brewer is a powerful figure in the D.N.C. cosmos. As president of the Association of State Democratic Chairs, he is in a perfect position to be able to urge other state chairs to adopt the project—something he seems willing, perhaps, to do.

“I’d like to see these projects done by every state party and local party to the extent they’re capable,” said Mr. Brewer, who was introduced to Mr. Samuels by Michigan’s Governor Granholm. “It’s going to take a lot of work—we’re taking it a step at a time—but I think it has great potential to really improve state and local parties within this country.”

The promise of extra resources has also helped sweeten the pot. “I wasn’t really sure if they could put this together, so I rolled the dice and the idea paid off,” said Lieutenant Governor–elect Paterson, who credits Blue Tiger with helping win several State Senate races. “Plus they were raising a lot of money and they were doling it out.”

But not everybody has been enchanted by the project. By Mr. Samuels’ own admission, many of the politicians he approached simply declined to bite, and one longtime Manhattan-based Democratic Party activist dismissed the project as presumptuous, even “dilettante-ish.”

“Some of the clubs have not rolled over in enthusiasm,” the activist said.

Still, Mr. Samuels is undaunted by the criticism, convinced that the party has never been more ripe for saving, the moment never more right for a big idea.

“We have built a very good intellectual foundation of thinking,” he said. “And I happen to think that it’s the only way the party can regain respect …. It’s all about being straight, being honest, being open, caring about people.”

And with that bit of wisdom, he finished up his monologue, gathered up his manifesto and prepared to head into the blue afternoon.