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Democratic Club leader makes difference

Even though they have seen it for two years -- so many people streaming into meetings of the Red Rock Democratic Club that standing-room-only crowds are not uncommon -- Bruce and Betty McLeod still can't quite believe it.

"Three years ago, we'd have 11 people for these meetings," Betty McLeod said Thursday as she watched young and older Democrats fill the rows of chairs around her at the Sahara West Library for a meeting that would feature a presentation by Rep. Shelley Berkley. "Now we always have more than 100."

Bruce McLeod, a 73-year-old retired director of education for the U.S. Army in Europe, said the reason for the increase in turnout is simple: Steve Fernlund.

"He brings people together while he's trying to build the party," McLeod said of the 53-year-old Fernlund, president or vice president of the club since 2005.

"And that starts off with little things, like listening to people, making sure meetings run on time, and that there is an agenda to follow instead of just aimless talking. And he brings in speakers we all want to hear."

Fernlund, a freight brokerage business operator, former newspaper owner and editor and self-described "political junkie," moved to Las Vegas from Minnesota with his wife, Becky, in 2001.

While he had been involved in grass-roots politics in Minnesota, Fernlund doubted that he would have much impact in his new home.

"I joined the Red Rock club in 2001, and when somebody said I should run for vice president three years later, I was sure I'd lose," he said. "I did it to make sure there was competition."

When he was elected vice president, members immediately saw a difference.

Steve and Sharlene Tolman noticed he began to bring in speakers on a variety of topics, ranging from health care to the war in Iraq.

"He knew how to get people interested," said Steve Tolman, a 71-year-old retired dentist.

When he became president in 2006, Fernlund made sure people who offered to help were given something to do.

"I told him when I joined that I'd be happy to help out, and just like that he had me working" setting up the meeting room and greeting people, said Ed Fishman, a retired physician.

A pipe smoker who is a trim 6-foot-1-inch tall man, Fernlund said he can always tell whether an organization is well run by how its leaders respond to offers for help.

"If the organization doesn't immediately find something for an individual to do, you know it's not going to flourish," he said.

"Once people are doing something within the organization, they pay attention and their energy can be used toward accomplishing a goal. If we do this right around the country, we can put a Democrat in the White House."

Fernlund said his longtime support for the Democratic Party was born out of its support of "issues that mean most to people."

Under the Democrats, he says, universal health care for people can become a reality.

"The people of the country and our candidates see that as a major issue," he said. "And being a small-business man, I know how important it is to business."

Fernlund's ability to energize Las Vegas Democrats about their party, and the upcoming presidential caucuses, has drawn attention from party officials.

"He's kind of a rock star in our party, " said Kirsten Searer, communications director for the Nevada State Democratic Party. "There's a lot of buzz around what he's doing in Summerlin. ... Let's face it: Summerlin is hardly a Democratic stronghold. But that club now has other Democrats saying, 'How can we do what Red Rock's doing?'''

As Berkley began her talk Thursday, she noted how the Summerlin club had changed and thanked Fernlund for his efforts.

"The first time I spoke here, the numbers weren't so exorbitant," she said. "I'm glad it's growing with such vigor."

The attention isn't going to Fernlund's head. "I doubt if the Republicans even know that I'm alive," he said.

He's right.

"That name (Steve Fernlund) is completely unfamiliar to me," said John Hambrick, chairman of the Clark County Republican Party. "You want me to check around and see if I can find someone who knows him?"

When he was in high school in Minneapolis, Fernlund's older sister was a vocal anti-Vietnam War activist who often was seen on TV.

"I was very embarrassed," Fernlund said. "At that time, I just didn't think that kind of involvement was something you should do. But I came to realize that standing up and being counted for something you believe in was a very gutsy thing. Now I admire people who believe strongly in something, that it's not foolish."

Fernlund didn't find it at all embarrassing recently to hold a sign touting Mr. Goodbar candy bars at a mock caucus to teach Democrats how to participate in caucuses. Instead of supporting political candidates, Democrats on hand supported types of candy.

Fernlund's political involvement grew out of his endeavors in the freight brokerage business, in which he matches truckers with shipments.

When Fernlund decided some interstate commerce laws were unfair, he lobbied politicians. "I even ended up testifying on transportation issues in Washington," he said.

The lobbying led to an unsuccessful run for the Minnesota state legislature in 1992.

Four years later, he sold his freight business to employees and bought a newspaper in Grand Marais, Minn. That city along Lake Superior had 1,300 people, the county 4,500, and Fernlund's Cook County News-Herald had a circulation of 5,000.

"I had always wanted to be a writer, and I thought owning a newspaper would be a way of trying that out," he said. "It was fun being in a city that had more moose than people."

His columns and editorials show his stance on government involvement.

In a 1996 editorial headlined, "Show up or shut up," he wrote, "Our democracy belongs to those who show up. The people who are willing to attend public meetings, participate in the debate, and are committed to the outcomes will be the ones who run the show."

Liz Foley, former chairman of the Clark County Democratic Party, said Fernlund's sincerity about participating in government comes through.

"He likes people to be passionate on issues, but he warns them to turn down the heat, to not get personal. He builds consensus within the party. He'll often say, 'Is that really a mountain worth dying for?'"

What Fernlund said he tries to do with the Red Rock Democratic Club is the opposite of what Democrats are doing in several states: fighting over who will have primaries and caucuses first.

"I want to see us working with positive energy, not directing our energy in a negative way," he said. "This was all set up by the party, and now Democrats are fighting about it. We have to keep our eye on the prize."

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