03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Demos Promotes Participatory Democracy

I felt pretty good when, at 13, my summer camp sent me to the Greylock Tennis Tournament in Massachusetts as first singles player. When I got trounced in the first round, I thought maybe I'd just had the bad luck to get pitted against a guy who was going all the way. Then I ran into Miles Rapoport -- not only the smartest kid in my junior high, but also the best tennis player -- who, representing his camp, had just taken apart his second-round adversary without breaking a sweat. Not knowing his opponent was the same guy who'd clobbered me, he described him as "not very good."

Coming of age in the sixties, Miles applied his smarts and competitive energy to community organizing and then electoral politics. He became a successful grassroots organizer in Connecticut, then served in the state legislature and as secretary of the state. But in 2001, he may have found his true calling when he was named president of Demos, a Manhattan-based non-partisan research and advocacy organization gearing up to oppose the myriad right-wing think tanks then dominating Washington.

Demos has done pioneering work on a wide variety of issues. One of its principal efforts has been expanding democratic participation, especially among people often left out of the process. The organization has championed Same Day Registration, which has increased voter turnout by 7 to 10 percent in the ten states that have it. And Demos has vigorously pressed states to implement largely ignored provisions of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act that require them to register people to vote when they receive social services.

Demos produced an "Implementation Guide for States", and has worked cooperatively in states like North Carolina and Virginia to vastly improve their compliance with the law. In other states, it wasn't so easy, and the organization is prepared to play hardball when necessary. Demos, Project Vote and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law sued the state of Ohio in 2005 when Republican Secretary Ken Blackwell refused to take responsibility for compliance. Democrat Jennifer Bruner, the current Secretary, took the shocking position that compliance was the responsibility of each individual county, not the state! The battle raged through several court decisions until just last week, when a settlement agreement made Ohio an exemplar of cooperation, with the most comprehensive program in the country.

If history is a guide, Ohio's program will produce tremendous change: In the year since Demos forged agreements with three smaller states -- North Carolina, Missouri, and Virginia -- more than 300,000 new people have been registered. Brenda Wright, director of Demos' Democracy Program, says the group's work nationwide "could register close to a million new voters by 2010. And because it is structural reform, the increases will last."

A multi-issue, values-based outfit, Demos has successfully tackled a number of other issues. For example, Demos has played a seminal role in credit card regulation. Their 2003 report "Borrowing to Make Ends Meet" called for re-regulation of the credit card industry. Debunking the conventional wisdom that people misused credit cards to buy gadgets, Borrowing revealed the credit card as the "plastic safety net" -- a last resort to compensate for inadequate incomes. Demos persisted on what then seemed a fool's errand, testifying at congressional hearings and working with the Federal Reserve and congresspeople to push for change. When Fed officials finally promulgated new rules last year, they cited Demos' work in their announcement. The CARD Act passed soon thereafter, putting a good chunk of Demos' recommendations into law.

Demos works to promote previously "excluded alternatives" in public debate. With public education everywhere under attack from budget cutters, Demos is developing policies to give students the economic and social support they need to earn degrees at community colleges. And the organization has created a broad-based program to demonstrate that de-regulation has gone too far -- not only in the financial arena, but in trucking, commercial air travel, and other industries. Rapoport explained that "de-regulation, and the belief that the market, left to its own devices with minimal governmental interference, would produce good outcomes for all, was conventional wisdom embraced by both major parties. It has been a disaster in area after area of our economy. But it won't fix itself; we need sustained intellectual and advocacy work to make effective regulation a more accepted idea."

Equally important, Demos has created an institutional platform for leading thinkers to do intellectual and policy work. Its "Fellows Program" now comprises 26 fellows, including such distinguished scholars and journalists as Bob Kuttner, Gus Speth, Benjamin Barber, Linda Tarr-Whelan, and Mike Edwards. An "Emerging Voices" program spotlights young public intellectuals like Rich Benjamin ("Searching for Whitopia") and Jared Duval, who's writing a book about the new environmental activism.

With all the amazing work Demos is doing, it's still comforting to know that Miles isn't perfect. Early in his tenure, he had lunch with a Demos board member he felt needed to be more active. When it became clear the member just couldn't devote the necessary time, they agreed it was probably a good idea that he leave the board. And with that, Barack Obama was a Demos board member no more. Holding a mock gun to his head, Rapoport explains, "as Hillary Clinton once said, 'Based on the information I had at the time, it seemed like a good decision.'"