Local political candidates hit the blogging trail


Edward Cone
News & Record

Jeff Thigpen has something to tell you. Lots of things, actually, like what a boisterous meeting of the Guilford County commissioners looks like from a commissioner's point of view, and why you should vote for him to become Register of Deeds in November. So Thigpen got himself a weblog, and now he can talk to voters and constituents any time he likes.

By writing directly onto the web, Thigpen has the ability to communicate with a potentially enormous number of people, in his own voice, unmediated and at almost no cost. He's got his own media platform now; he doesn't have to wait for television or the newspaper to carry his message, or dip into his campaign budget to buy an ad every time he wants to get a message out. And because readers can leave comments, he's able to have something like a conversation with them.

The Greensboro Democrat says the weblog will make his online campaign "more interactive and personal." Having seen the success of the Howard Dean presidential campaign at creating a community of inspired volunteers, Thigpen decided he could apply some of the same magic at a local level. Political weblogs were a novelty two years ago, when Tara Sue Grubb became the first candidate to use one in her quixotic campaign against 6th District congressman-for-life Howard Coble. Now they are in the mainstream, and Guilford County is still leading the way.

The medium may prove particularly powerful in local and county races, says Mathew Gross, the former director of Internet communications for the Dean campaign, who now works as a campaign consultant from his home in Oak Ridge. "It's essentially free, and it provides a conduit of information that most local campaigns don't have," he says. "It means you can talk in detail in a way other than going door-to-door. The power of word-of-mouth in local races is very high, and if you can enlarge the circle of supporters by just a few people, it can make a big difference."

Another weblog-wielding candidate of local interest is Erskine Bowles, who launched a campaign blog last month to support his run for the U.S. Senate. "I believe the Internet can connect people to the political process in a completely new and exciting way," says the Greensboro native, who has retained Gross as a consultant. "North Carolinians must be able to take part in the campaign directly." One early sign of success: The Bowles campaign raised $25,000 in small contributions during a four-day Web fund-raiser earlier this month. A spokesman for Bowles' opponent, Winston-Salem congressman Richard Burr, says his campaign is considering a weblog of its own.

Weblogs are not going to replace other means of communication, in part because face-to-face conversation and broadcast media have their own virtues. Also, says Thigpen, "We have a technology gap in this country and blogging has to be integrated with other means of communication for those who lack access or can't navigate through it."

And blogs are not the only way to do politics online. County commissioner candidate Mike Winstead, who knocked off incumbent Mary Rakestraw in the District 7 Republican primary, says a more traditional Web site has been useful to his campaign. "My website has helped me emphasize my position on various issues," he says. Even static sites are getting more blog-like, though, with an increased focus on interaction. Winstead is adding a feature to allow online donations by credit card, along with e-mail lists for people who want to volunteer or put a sign in their yard.

But there is something special about a weblog. It keeps people coming back by adding fresh content and allowing for a running conversation. It lets the experts on a given subject speak for themselves, rather than just be spoken for and about. Winstead's Democratic opponent in the general election, at-large incumbent Mike Barber, is consulting with popular local blogger David Hoggard as he mulls his own Internet strategy. Also on the ballot is Libertarian Jim Capo, a longtime blogger. (District 4 commissioner candidate Carl Allen has used a blog, although not much of late as he prepares for the GOP runoff.)

Both Barber and Thigpen pledge to keep writing online if they win their races, which would take blogging to the next level of political life: governance. Says Thigpen, "Part of my campaign platform is enhanced and more holistic technology in the Deeds office. A blog can be a quick way to solicit input on the services we provide."

Even if he loses the Deeds race, Thigpen says he will stay online. "If I'm not elected Register of Deeds, I'm still going to blog as a commissioner. I have to respond to countless letters and e-mails from constituents, and blogging is the next generation of communication," he says.

"I wish I had started the blog earlier. I'm hooked."

Edward Cone (www.edcone.com, efcone@mindspring.com) writes a column for the News & Record most Sundays.

© News & Record 2004