'Grassroots' Movie Seeks To Inspire With Real-Life Campaign Story

In 2001, two Seattle alt-weekly writers teamed up to run a city council race that sought to challenge the local political structure and empower ordinary citizens.

The duo -- campaign manager Phil Campbell, a recently fired political reporter at Seattle's The Stranger, and upstart candidate Grant Cogswell, a music reviewer for the paper -- had the whole deck stacked against them. They were outspent, a municipal law prevented them from criticizing their opponent in a voters' guide, and they had no institutional backing. Despite all this, they mounted a clear challenge to an incumbent council member -- and, in the end, lost 45 to 55 percent.

Their story is told in the new movie "Grassroots," which is based on Campbell's 2005 book, "Zioncheck for President: A True Story of Idealism and Madness in American Politics." The movie is directed by Stephen Gyllenhall and stars Jason Biggs as Campbell, Joel David Moore as Cogswell, and Cedric the Entertainer as incumbent Richard McIver. The filmmakers provided the movie trailer to HuffPost exclusively.

It's a story, according to the film's website, about how "one person really can make a difference, and that standing up for what you believe in is a victory in itself." Or as Campbell (who now works for AOL, The Huffington Post's parent company) told HuffPost, the movie and the real events behind it show "the necessity of grassroots in everybody's life."

"If you are informed and you are passionate and you have your antenna up to what is going on in the world, you are qualified to run for public office," Cogswell said.

Before entering the city council race, Cogswell had been engaged in Seattle politics for nearly a decade, most notably as the co-author of a successful referendum that created an agency to build a citywide monorail system in 1997. He had also been active in the World Trade Organization protests. By 2001, he concluded that the only way to really change things was to enter the halls of government himself.

His campaign focused on continuing monorail development. McIver chaired the city council committee in charge of transportation and, Cogswell said, the incumbent was hostile to the monorail and supportive of a car-centric transportation policy.

"The campaign came in the middle of the decade where I was trying to get a monorail transit system built in Seattle," Cogswell said. "It was an attempt to take it from pure grassroots really to the halls of power."

Meanwhile, Campbell had been fired from The Stranger. "I was really disillusioned and really burnt out and trying to figure out how I could connect," he recalled. "Grant's campaign was really a last-ditch effort to see if I could have an effect on anything."

The duo grounded their campaign in the kind of grassroots politics they believed in. Cogswell defines grassroots politics as "coming from the people," as opposed to "coming predetermined by institutions that are putting large amounts of money to steer the elections and to get the results from the elected officials who fail to respond to the real needs and wants from the people." He bemoans the influence that campaign money has on Seattle politics, saying, "[A] complete institutional logjam had been created for so long, and the property developers and the general contractors and Boeing and Washington Mutual, who were really the big players when I was in politics in Seattle, have been privileging themselves over the rest of the people for so long."

In other words, said Campbell, grassroots politics means running "a neighbor-to-neighbor, small-dollar campaign."

And that principled stand created one disadvantage: The incumbent McIver raised two-and-a-half times as much money as Cogswell did.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks coming a mere week before the primary election did not help turnout.

But the biggest obstacle, according to Campbell and Cogswell, was the fact that the traditionally more progressive institutions -- labor unions and Democratic Party organizations and backers -- had already coalesced behind McIver before Cogswell entered the race.

A few factors worked in Cogswell and Campbell's favor. The initiative process provided a way for ordinary citizens like Cogswell to become actively involved and experienced in politics. The city's elections are also nonpartisan, putting all candidates from all parties on one ballot.

And finally, the American Civil Liberties Union aided the campaign's legal challenge to the city law that banned certain campaign materials critical of opposing candidates. Cogswell and Campbell won a temporary victory in the case and were able to send direct mail criticizing McIver. Media coverage of the challenge also provided them with tons of free press.

Despite Cogswell's loss, expansion of the monorail system remains a live issue in Seattle, and just last year, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission finally dropped the rule about criticizing one's opponent in the voters' guide.

Campbell believes that the story of the campaign, in his book and the movie, shows both how difficult it is to be involved at the grassroots level of politics and how important it is that people get involved. "We do have a crisis of faith about our political system. We need earnest and sincere people to get involved," he said. "Just your sole action to get involved is going to change something."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story indicated that Grant Cogswell lost to Richard McIver 26 to 48 percent in the general election. In fact, those were the voting percentages won by the two candidates in the nonpartisan primary. The general election was a much closer 45 to 55 percent in McIver's favor.