Janis Williams knew before the Iowa and New Hampshire presidential primaries that Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry was the Democratic candidate to beat.
"[Vermont Gov. Howard] Dean got so much press about his grassroots organizing and his team," says Williams, a North Sider and volunteer organizer for the Kerry campaign. "We've had a network of people who communicate through the Net, donate their $25," she points out. When Kerry was pronounced dead weeks before any primary, "we've known, those of us who were working behind the scenes," that it wasn't true.
Williams, an office manager at Isenberg's Auto Body in McKees Rocks, hooked up with the Kerry campaign in July 2003 through a gathering organized via meetup.com. While these particular grassroots had some fertilizer -- a few paid Kerry staffers were on hand -- about 45 Pittsburghers tried to get themselves organized for the fight last summer.
"When Dean started to gain all that momentum in October/November," Williams says, "our meet-up size dwindled quite a bit to where we were having a dozen or so people. Then, after we won in Iowa and New Hampshire the next meet-up we had 40 to 45 people" again. "We actually had a lot of people come over from the Dean campaign ... which is wonderful."
The group, which meets on the last Thursday of every month, has added a second gathering, on each month's second Thursday, called Southwestern PA for JK, which Williams is co-chairing.
She helped to organize two vans of University of Pittsburgh students and County Executive Dan Onorato supporters who went to Iowa for Kerry, and joined a vanload herself the next week to New Hampshire. The group handed out pamphlets, talked up strangers and stood on corners with signs, feeling the love. "Don't get me wrong -- we had some detractors," she allows, "and a van full of Dean people who booed us as they went by."
Williams' efforts may be more crucial elsewhere than they are in Pittsburgh; by the time Pennsylvania's April 27 primary roles around, Kerry may have the nomination sewn up. Williams is still cautious -- Dem rivals Gen. Wesley Clark and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards say they're sticking out the race -- and still gathering signatures to put Kerry on the state ballot, for that matter.
"Unfortunately, yes, our primary is very late," she says. "But you don't know. There's an outside chance that Pennsylvania will matter."