- Spring 2008
David Zwick has been a ground breaking expert in grassroots politics and organizing and a national environmental leader for more than three decades. A primary focus for much of his work has been helping constituency and issue-based groups – including environmental, community and labor organizations – campaign on issues and elections.
With the aim of expanding his emphasis on politics going into 2008, Zwick recently stepped down as President of Clean Water Action (CWA), a national organization that he founded in 1972 and has headed for much of the time since then. He continues to advise CWA and other groups on their political programs. Zwick currently serves on the Executive Committee and as Treasurer of America Votes, a coalition of national organizations that coordinates and provides support for its member groups’ work on election campaigns.
Zwick has a Bachelor of Science degree from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. His graduation in 1963 was followed by four years as a Coast Guard officer, including an 18-month tour in Vietnam. There, Zwick captained 82-foot patrol boats in the Mekong Delta and served as an operations officer for the U.S. Naval Command in Vietnam. Upon his return, Zwick earned degrees in law (J.D.) and public policy (M.P.P.) from Harvard.
While a student at Harvard Law School and the Kennedy School of Government, Zwick became one of the early “Nader’s Raiders” – teams of public policy researchers working with Ralph Nader – heading a two year study of our nation’s programs to combat water pollution. After writing a book, Water Wasteland, reporting on the study’s findings, he spearheaded the coalition of groups pushing for Congressional passage of the Clean Water Act (1972) and the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974) and was a primary contributor to both laws. In 1972 he coauthored the best selling Who Runs Congress?, based in part on his experience with Congress. That same year Zwick launched Clean Water Action.
In 1975 Zwick was the first organizer hired to help form a statewide federation of community groups in Illinois, Illinois Public Action Council, with which he worked for four years (while remaining an active Board member of Clean Water Action). Zwick’s job for Public Action was to help start and strengthen local groups all over the state – rural farmer associations, suburban homeowner groups, and central city neighborhood and tenant organizations – and bring them together to campaign for protections against threats such as tax inequities and rising utility rates.
Returning to work for Clean Water Action in the late 1970s, Zwick pioneered non-profit groups’ use of the professional issue-based canvass for election campaigns – called “the most potent political advance of the decade” by U.S. Rep. Bob Edgar (D-PA), whose reelection was boosted by the work of the canvass. Clean Water Action’s own professional community canvass, started by Zwick, now reaches more than three million households each year – identifying, registering, educating, and turning out voters and enlisting members and campaign volunteers.
Clean Water Action has grown under Zwick’s leadership to have more than a million members, 500 staff (including more than a hundred seasoned campaigners), and 30 offices around the country. CWA’s campaigns have produced countless victories – stopping local hazards; strengthening protections for water, air, and communities, winning landmark laws promoting sustainable energy and a preventive approach to health-threatening chemicals, and electing hundreds of pro-environment candidates to public office.. Zwick and CWA have continued to be innovators, putting a special emphasis on advancing the state of the art of grassroots campaigning.
In 1979, Zwick started Citizens Campaigns, Inc. (CCI) to teach and assist client organizations to be effective in elections and grassroots campaigns. One of CCI’s early projects was for the League of Conservation Voters, with whom Zwick worked to establish LCV’s first field offices and field campaign staff. Zwick has taught grassroots campaign techniques to thousands of staff and volunteers for nonprofit groups. Recent CCI projects have included coordinating voter outreach programs for Americans Coming Together (ACT) in 2004 and for AFL-CIO’s fast-growing community affiliate, Working America, which signed up close to a million new members in just over one year. In all his various roles, Zwick has been involved with grassroots campaign work in more than a hundred election contests each two-year cycle since the early 1980s.