'Tis the season for political reckonings. As the national Republican Party performs a messy post-mortem on its failed strategy to get Mitt Romney elected President, the Democratic Party in Indiana is also asking itself what it needs to do to be more effective. The Indianapolis Star says that "Indiana Democrats have plunged to their lowest level of power in decades after Tuesday's election."
This week the Palladium-Item's editorial page rightly took the local Wayne County Democratic Party to task for being too quiet and minimally effective in local politics. (I am on the P-I editorial advisory board but I did not contribute to that piece.) Today's edition features some analysis of the local party's current leadership, with about the amount of internal finger pointing you'd expect from an organization in some disarray. It's the candidates! It's the leadership! It's the unions! We just need to get on Twitter! And so on.
I've followed local politics for a while now, perhaps never so closely as last year when I was a candidate myself running on the Democratic ticket. It was an eye-opening experience in many ways, including discovering first-hand the significant organizational deficiencies in the Wayne County Democratic Party (and how well-organized the local Republican Party is, due in no small part to the tireless efforts of its Chairwoman, Misty Hollis). Unfortunately, I've seen some of those deficiencies come into play again in this year's campaigning.
In the name of trying to address that imbalance (as the editorial linked above says, "where there are too few voices and competing public ideas, a community ultimately suffers"), I offer some unsolicited advice here to the Wayne County Democratic Party, eight ways to be more effective. (I'm enough of a political junkie that I would enjoy doing a similar analysis for the local Republican or Libertarian Parties, but I don't have enough first-hand knowledge to do it well.)
- Make it much easier to get involved. Whether someone wants to throw their hat in the ring as a candidate, volunteer for a campaign or otherwise offer their skills, there's no clear entry point for being able to act on that interest. You have to know the right person to call, and just hope they have the time to be responsive. The party holds meetings at times and in locations that sometimes aren't accessible or convenient. Rules and processes for party operations and governance are conveyed as stories around the campfire instead of clearly written documentation, creating a lot of work for someone trying to understand how they can best contribute. The local party needs to remove these and every other barrier it can to encouraging engagement and involvement from those who might want to give their time and talents.
- Open a headquarters location. Retail politics may not be the future of political campaigning, but in Richmond and Wayne County, people still assign important credibility to brick and mortar operations, more so than efforts organized entirely online or in living rooms. Having a visible, dedicated and accessible location to coordinate efforts of the party seems essential, and we know that the local Republican Party makes good use of their headquarters facilities for just that.
- Reframe the role of unions. Labor unions have historically been heavily intertwined with the Democratic Party, and that's usually been a good thing for representing the needs of lower- and middle-class workers and families. But over the last few years, unions have been vilified by conservative efforts to paint unionized workers as greedy, lazy and unreasonable in the face of tightening economic times. (Even as I type, local city officials are trying to finalize a budget for 2013, and the mentions of negotiations with unions representing city workers has that disdainful flavor of "if those darn unions would just stop being so unreasonable, we could get something done here.") If the Democratic Party wants to see sustained support from the assembly-line workers, teachers, fire-fighters and law enforcement officers here, they need to help change the public narrative about what value unions bring to conversations about the health of the community, and re-establish themselves as a rallying point for those who care about equitable pay, fair and safe working conditions, and the promise of self-advancement through honest, hard work.
- Find professional, distributed, diverse leadership from non-candidates. Building and maintaining an effective political operation is not work that can be done in one person's spare time. And when candidates themselves try to do it, the work of convincing voters to support a particular individual gets too easily confused with the work of building a strong organization and advocating more generally for its candidates and platform. The Wayne County Democrats need a diverse and widely ratified leadership team with clearly defined roles. It needs leadership that is consistent beyond whomever happens to be running for office in a given year. It needs leaders capable of strategic planning, complex logistical coordination and facilitating effective communications across many election cycles.
- Use technology tools for marketing, organizing and campaigning. The local party seems to rely largely on 20th century communication tools for its work, and that leaves it at a severe disadvantage here in the 21st century. Democrats in Wayne County need to quickly invest in technology tools as a core part of their work, from informational websites to social media to voter databases to online donor relations. When they do, they can amplify and improve volunteer coordination, strategy communication, and engagement with the populations they need to reach.
- Rebuild a relationship at the state level with the Indiana Democratic Party. As far as I can tell, state-level Democratic political leaders and local Democrats don't really communicate with each other very often. When I sought state-level connections as a candidate myself, I was told not to expect much, and indeed my calls and emails went largely unanswered. Whether this is because of old baggage, bridges burned or just miscommunication, it represents a significant missed opportunity. All politics may be local, but we know that the state and national political apparatuses bring infrastructure, funding and connections that are essential even in municipal and county races. Again, the local Republican Party certainly takes good advantage of what's happening at the state and even national levels within their party, and they get results because of it.
- Design a grassroots fundraising and donor-relations strategy. There are a lot Democrat-leaning people in this community who have extensive experience with cultivating and sustaining a base of donors, but none of them seem to be involved in the local party. The result is that when the Wayne County Democratic Party wants to raise money for its campaigns or other activities, it is left to an awkward combination of one-off, low-yield, high-effort events and then begging past significant donors to get out their checkbooks once again. We know that Barack Obama's successful presidential bids have hinged on soliciting a wide range of donation amounts from a large number of people, and then keeping those people informed and excited as the campaign progresses; local Democrats could do the same here.
- Create a detailed guide for potential and first-time candidates. I spent the first few months of my own campaign last year trying to gather the basic information I needed to know about being a candidate at all, let alone being a successful one. This involved a labor- and time-intensive series of meetings, phone calls, emails and follow-up efforts that I could have been spending on building my campaign. Throughout my entire campaign, no one could clearly articulate exactly what kind of support (financial or otherwise) I could expect to depend on from the Democratic party. If someone wants to become a candidate on the Democratic ticket, there should be a clear, accessible set of resources to make getting started the easiest part of the whole experience.
These obviously aren't the only ways the Wayne County Democratic Party can be more effective, and no doubt some with more political perspective or experience than I have will find valid faults with this list. I'm sure some of it even sounds like sour grapes from a losing candidate. But as disapproving as some of the above might seem, this list isn't about criticizing any particular person or trying to place blame.
I believe that the Wayne County Democratic Party, its leaders and candidates could play a critical role in the revitalization of our community and in making local government work better for the people who live here. I think that despite all of the strong local organization and momentum of the Republican Party, there are still plenty of conversations where the voices and effective actions of the Democrat Party are greatly needed.
I hope the above ideas contribute something useful toward meeting that need.