Harry Demarest

Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Board, March 2019

HD:  I grew up in Summit New Jersey which is a fairly affluent community. I went to public and private schools.  I was a fairly shy boy. I was involved with Teenage Republicans in high school and I converted to Mormonism for some foolish reason when I was in high school also.

MJC:   On your own?

HD:  Yes.

MJC:  Tell me what your life was like in general before you got involved in the women’s movement and how that happened. 

HD:  I went to college; I was working on a graduate degree and I was becoming a scientist. I worked in the summer at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory where they designed atomic weapons and I was trying to remain in the closet although I was fairly liberal. I did not want to be out and so I would not sign petitions or anything like that because I felt it would be bad for my career. When I got to Los Angeles, Merry became a strong feminist. My wife, Merry Demarest became actively involved in the feminist movement. The Fat Feminists, The Radical Therapy Group and also I believe NOW – National Organization for Women.

I got my PhD there and then we went to Chicago for four years and then I ended up in Corvallis on the faculty of the geology department where I was still pretty much in the closet. Meanwhile, Merry was working on the ERA campaign and she wanted us to be excommunicated from the Mormon Church which was opposing the ERA campaign and even excommunicated some of their members who were strongly in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment. At that point I decided to go along with being excommunicated and that was a big public affair. It was on TV;  it was on the front page of the newspaper and I was no longer in the closet. So, at that point having done this fairly radical thing there was no point in not being outspoken on other issues.

MJC:  So, it freed you up in a way. And what did you think about the women’s movement at that time and Merry’s involvement?

HD:   I was in favor of it. My family had always been very pro-choice. My mother was a radical pro-abortion person and I’d always thought it was fair to be fair to women.  It never really made sense to me to be against homosexuals or lesbians. I had just been staying low because of my career and since I no longer had to be, I became active with Merry in the National Organization for Women and I started going to meetings and it was kind of fun. I had been a very reclusive person or thought of myself as that way. I was involved with NOW and in a way was fairly outgoing and communicating and taking leadership roles. I became active in Corvallis NOW around 1981 to 82. I guess we were excommunicated in 1980 so it would have been after that.

In December of 1982 the people who had been officers did not want to run again and we were sitting around the meeting saying who is going to run for chair? Will you run for chair? Will you run for chair? Finally, I believe it was Carol Carver who said – Harry, why don’t you run for chair? And I felt this wave of euphoria coming over me. It was the power vacuum that we sometimes experience where I felt – yes I can do this. So, my emotions took control and I said – Yes, I can do this I’ll do this. So, I became chair of the Corvallis NOW chapter which was somewhat unusual and newsworthy. I put a lot of energy into it, into having programs that create the activists that we accomplished things. I did that for a year.

One of our chief things was reproductive rights, pro-choice during that year and several subsequent years. I organized several demonstrations in the State Capital either pro-choice demonstrations or anti – anti-choice demonstrations.   I’d call up friends, other now activists to call up other people and we would get as many as 50 or 100 people demonstrating at the Capitol. As my term as NOW president came to a close I began to realize that I was getting many benefits out of being the chapter president. But it was a feminist organization and I saw that there were advantages to having women take those leadership roles and I helped encourage people to think that I was not doing as good a job as I might. They needed to get somebody else in. Somebody else came forward to run for chair and I finished my year.

During that period of time a bunch of us decided to get involved with the Democratic Party. We became Democratic Party Precinct Committee persons and one of us, I think it was Carol Carver again and said – Hey why don’t we take over the Democratic Party? And so, we decided – hey let’s do that.  There was a number of steps involved and we began those steps of more of us becoming Democratic precinct people being active in the Democratic Party. By the time we took it over almost everybody who was part of that initial group was gone or it was no longer interested but Judy Fortmiller and my wife Merry and I are still involved today in the local Democratic Party.

Towards the end of my time as chapter president there were people who did not like me being there, just a few. Somebody started the rumor that I was supporting Mark Hatfield. Mark Hatfield was an Oregon senator who was anti-war, anti-abortion – very strongly anti-abortion. He had a lot of support from Democrats, but I hated him so the rumor that I was supporting him was libelous. It would be like being Nazi or something. That was very annoying. And then it came to pass that that Margie Hendrickson state senator was going to run against Mark Hatfield, and I didn’t really know Margie Hendrickson and some of the people who didn’t like me we’re big supporters. I found out that Margie Hendrickson’s campaign wanted a local organizer, a local campaign committee chairperson volunteer. When I found that out, I wrote up a cover letter and a resumé because I thought that this would be a very competitive thing where lots of people would want to do it and they’d carefully evaluate each person.

The reality is they’re desperate to find anybody at all to fill these positions. But I did fill the position and that sort of shut up the opposition who supporting Margie Hendrickson was more important to them than opposing me and it gave me a chance to move out from the NOW organization. I also had many volunteers that had worked with me in NOW who could also work with me on the Hendrickson campaign. And we did, we ran a lot of phone banks for Margie and we canvassed every door in the city of Corvallis and in neighboring cities of Philomath and Monroe.

It was a very intense campaign. We did everything right. When the dust was settled statewide Margie Hendrickson got about 30 percent of the vote which is about what you get when you don’t do anything. And in Benton County she got about 30 percent of the vote. It was as if we had not done anything, but we had done a lot of work and we’d learned a lot of skills. And we had another large bunch of volunteers who had worked with me and over the next two years.

For years I became more involved with the Democratic Party and then subsequently in 1986 I was elected vice chair and in 1988 I was elected chair of the Democratic Party. We had a bunch of meetings. We had our friends and there were disagreements, we would have votes on things and the new people would sometimes win and the old people would get upset. One time one of them walked out the door saying that the Democrats were being taken over by NOW and the lesbians. That was that was a lot of fun.

I probably should’ve been more mature and not have much altercation between us and the old folks, but we did take it over and we did end up having a very effective Democratic Party. During that time, I was chair for 10 years. Our county is the 10th largest county in the state but we raised more money than any other county party either democrat or republican even Multnomah County which had ten times as many voters.

Now going back,  pro-choice was my big issue. It’s a gut issue. There were abortion clinics that were being harassed with demonstrators and people were being escorts helping women get into the abortion clinic without being harassed by the demonstrators.  I decided that what was needed – there was likely to be some kind of legal proceeding and it would be good to have videotapes. I got a video camera which went on my shoulder and it held a VHS cassette. It was heavy. It cost a thousand dollars. I went there every weekend.

I would go down and take videos of the demonstrators and my wife and daughter would often go down at the same time and do some of the escort service.  I heard demonstrators screaming at the women going in – you will hear your baby cry every night for the rest of your life. I saw demonstrators blocking an ambulance trying to leave the abortion clinic for the hospital. The films that I took eventually went to a lawyer where there were some big lawsuits and I don’t know exactly how it ended up. I think one woman ended up losing a lot because she had claimed that somebody had AIDS whereas he really only had HIV or something and there was a lot of lawsuits. Who knows what happened. But eventually my tapes were useful, and I was very happy with that.

After I had left Corvallis NOW we were involved with Oregon NOW and there was a canvas project going on,  a paid canvas where they had people going door to door and getting memberships. The person running the canvass was also the president of the Oregon NOW and the Treasurer for NOW was her former partner I believe.  The money was not making sense. There were no financial reports being submitted but the money was being taken in and was used to run the paid canvas organization and not to send in membership dues to national NOW like they were supposed to. We were not able to get this stopped. It eventually stopped on its own, but we tried to do an intervention and we did not have  enough support from the rest of the membership to do that. And that was sort of demoralizing and got me out of that.

My wife Merry ran for action vice president of National NOW and so we went to the conference. Before that happened there was a lot of altercation.  Given that we didn’t like national NOW at that point, I decided that the best way to approach it was to do a membership drive at the local level which would give us more delegates going to the national convention which would give us more votes. It seemed like a way to do something constructive for the organization and also pursue this. I developed phone banks to get donations and memberships and we increased our membership from about 100 to about two hundred seventy five. We went to the national conference where the election was to be held and it was a very interesting and intense thing.

My wife was running, and Peggy Norman and I stayed up all night helping write her speech. One of the things we said was – we did not lose the ERA because we did not march enough. The idea that just marching was not doing it, we needed to have a professional organization with paid lobbyists and that sort of thing which was contrary to what the establishment wanted to do which was to do things as they always had done it. Putting a lot of personal energy in and sitting at the kitchen table and doing it all themselves.  Non-professional way to do it but a lot of fun sometimes if you like that kind of intense stuff. During that campaign there were five officers to be elected. Lois Racket was one of the officers, an incumbent who was going to be part of the  insurgent team. After she had been nominated she decided she was really on the other team and she started telling stories against the challengers. We had a meeting late at night commiserating what to do.  The nominations have been made that nobody else had filed. We had encouraged other people not to run against Lois.

At that meeting I thought –  I wonder if we could reopen nominations.  I thought I should probably check my Robert’s Rules – I didn’t have Robert’s Rules with me, and I thought – well probably not. So I let it go. And when I checked later when it was too late, we could have reopened nominations. It was a completely legitimate motion. It probably would have passed, and it probably would have led to Kappy Brooks-Gordon being elected instead of Lois Racket which would have given us three to two on the board instead of two to three. It could have completely changed the course of the feminist movement. It’s just an example of where you have to check these things. It was a little mistake, that was a big mistake.

We also became disillusioned with the local NOW group and it didn’t seem like anybody was thinking of anything to do and I couldn’t think of anything for the NOW group to do either. We dropped out of that and eventually it shut down. NOW it has  reformed again, and I imagine they’re doing something, but I don’t know what. I’m still involved with the Democratic Party, trying to get good people elected. When I became president of Corvallis NOW, I was working with computers. The mailing list would be on a page typed up so that you could Xerox it onto a sheet of labels – 30 labels to a page. That was how everything was done in the database.  I wrote a little program and I got everything onto my computer, so it was a little more convenient to make changes and to sort it in different ways.

When I became vice chair of the Democratic Party I did the same thing for the Democratic Party list.  In 1989 someone broke into my office and stole my computer. I took that as an opportunity to upgrade my computer and get one with what was then a very large hard drive that was large enough to hold the whole county voter file. I had the county voter file available on my computer. I used that for some of the pro-gay rights campaigns we were running. There was a county measure 0206 which was against gay rights. We campaigned against that and it was the only city. There were a bunch of them in Oregon and ours was the only city where we won. Benton County [was] one of the very few counties or Democratic organizations in the entire country that had access to our voter list.

Our home computer where we could do whatever we wanted with it. In one election there were two candidates and I preferred one over the other. The one that I preferred got a walking list where he could walk door to door. This was a primary, so it only hit the doors where there was two or more Democrats who voted. Most of the time his opponent was knocking on every single door. And so that made a big difference in that election and the person I supported was elected. After that we had our own voter file and the Democratic Party would call people up and identify people if they were voting for the Democrat or Republican. And then we would create our Get Out The Vote list from that.

We had a Get Out The Vote pool of about 10000 households and in those days we had polling place elections so we would during the three weeks before the election call through our list of 10000 reaching some people three times and then on election day we would call over and over. Meanwhile there were poll watchers at the polling places who would keep track of who voted. We would get those names back and pull the names out of our lists and keep calling everybody who hasn’t voted until 8:00. There was only a few left. We’re calling people every 15 minutes.  And we still we got people as late as eight minutes before 8 o’clock to get them to go to the polls.

MJC:  So, you’ve really developed an early modern technique of doing electoral politics. 

HD: Yes, and in ’96 the Democratic Party and the local progressive groups decided that they wanted to have their own voter file. They hired a national vendor who completely messed it up. They wanted to have  the file themselves. They did not want to use one of the more established and very reputable vendors who were already doing the Oregon voter file. Fred Hewitt, a friend of mine and I offered to do it. To take over the project from the group that had failed. And they had already ruled out the two vendors that they should have used. Fred and I partly based on our political credibility from the other work we’ve done in the state got the contract and we built the Oregon voter file that year and added phone numbers and all that kind of stuff.

We realized that most of the people who had the voter file on a C.D. did not know how to use it. Right. And it was it was sitting in their desk. They had pride of ownership, but it did not do them any good. And Fred and I would do some little projects for them creating lists on our computers that they needed. But two years later we decided to create a desktop program so that individual candidates or county committees or something could use the voter file. We wrote that program and people used it. It was good for some of them.

It was hard to update the data, so the next time around we decided to use a web-based version so that any candidate or committee that had access could go online create whatever kind of list they wanted. Count the number of voters in their list. Print out PDA. Adobe Acrobat files for walking or phoning or mailing lists. In the 2000 election we had that program going for Oregon and then later on we in 2001 we had it going in Oklahoma for a ballot measure campaign. We ended up working in probably 10 states before it was over, and we worked with some national organizations.  We were working well through 2006. Then we petered out till 2009 and then we shut down the operation when it was no longer profitable. And that was a good time for me to retire.

MJC:  OK. Great. Well that’s a great story in development of a political process that we’re familiar with now that was really originating out of your shop. What are you most memorable and important experiences you would say from that period?

HD:  Well I think the general experience of having Benton County changed from a more leaning Republican county to a strong Democratic county and which was probably 90 percent of that was demographic changes having to do with Hewlett Packard and the university. But it happened simultaneously with me being chair of the party and so I feel some kind of sense of ownership regardless of to what extent it was justified. But a lot of people here see me as having been instrumental and they did see the party itself grow from an entrenched group that that did not do much to it was saying we can’t do this we can’t do that. The people said we’d like to do this what will it cost. How do we raise the money? And still one of the more effective democratic party organ organizations in Oregon today even though I’ve been not in the leadership for 20 years. 

MJC:  Good model.  How would you say the involvement in the women’s movement and subsequent movements change your life politically or personally?

HD:  Well if it hadn’t been for my involvement in the women’s movement I would not have been involved in politics. I would have had a job and I would have might have gone to work for Microsoft. I was teaching at  Oregon State for a while, but I did not continue doing that. I think it changed the direction of my life and I probably would have found satisfaction in whatever I did instead. But most of my satisfaction has come from stuff that came as a result of the initial involvement the women’s movement. I’m not involved with it with the local now chapter. But I am still a precinct person in the button County Democrats. I don’t get involved in the state Democratic Party but locally I run the rules committee and I’m there as a resource for people.

I consider myself a troubleshooter which means I don’t do the things that somebody else can do. If they need help I’ll do that.  I think that one of the techniques that I used very well was using phone banks to recruit volunteers and to raise money. I developed a lot of that on my own in Corvallis using ideas from Merry, my wife and other people. I also learned a lot about volunteer recruitment from a week I spent working with Project Vote.

I remember those phone banks and learning more about the script to recruit volunteers. And so, we ended up using a script – we decide if we needed volunteers or money on that particular day and then we would ask for volunteers first and as they said no, we would ask for money and vice versa.  If we needed the money more and we were at our best we would our regular phone bankers would say you sound like a great Democrat, can we have somebody call you later this evening.  We would pass it on to Bob Isaac who was our best phone banker and he would call up those people and ask them to volunteer or for money. I worked very well.

MJC:  Thank you very much.

HD:  Thank you Mary Jean.

MJC:  I enjoyed the interview and thanks for participating.

HD:  Thank you.