Mar 15 2015

Congratulations Delegates #SCDP

Posted by Steve Ross in Memphis Politics, SCDP, Shelby County

The Shelby County Democratic Party held the first part of their biennial convention Saturday, and with it comes a fresh crop of delegates to the Convention on March 28th.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve already picked a candidate for Executive Committee to represent your House District, or if you’ve settled on a candidate for Chair, you’ve got just under two weeks to decide. Take your time.

Yesterday, I published a post targeting participants in the caucuses. Those things apply to you too (you were a participant after all), but as an elected representative of a precinct (which is what you are), you have some additional responsibilities beyond just showing up in two weeks and voting.

See, one of the (many) things the Shelby County Democratic Party lacks is a robust party leadership structure. I’m not talking about the folks who will be on the Executive Committee (though they definitely need some help), but leadership all the way down to the precinct level.

Guess what…you are now part of that leadership structure. Congratulations!

If the past decade of watching and being involved in the party has taught me anything, its that the Executive Committee alone just can’t (and often won’t) get the party on the right track by themselves. They need help. And as an elected representative of your precinct, you’re just one of the many people that will be needed to do it.

You’ve got a lot of work ahead of you. Here are some ideas to help stay involved, and get other people involved as well.

1. Meet the other delegates – Chances are you are backing one of the candidates for Chair. If you are, chances are you’ve either met with, or know who you’ll be supporting for the Executive Committee spots in your district. But if for some reason you don’t you’re going to be contacted by them, asking for your vote. Don’t commit without asking some questions, such as:

  • What specifically will you do as a member of the Executive Committee?
  • Don’t let them off easy. Demand specifics. If they can’t give them to you, then maybe they’re not the right horse to back no matter how many votes they’ve locked up.

  • Who are they supporting for Chair, and what is that candidate’s platform?
  • Like I said, most of the sorting with the usual suspects happened weeks, maybe even months ago. Make them say it out loud. Make them email it to you. If elected, they’ll be working for you. You need to make sure you have something tangible to hold them to.

  • How committed are they to developing and building a precinct based organization in their House district to strengthen the Party
  • If they look at you like you’re crazy, or seem confused by the question, they haven’t considered the fullness of their responsibility as a potential member of the Executive Committee and may not deserve your vote.

    2. Show Up – It happens every two years…a bunch of delegates don’t show up to the second round (which will be held March 28th), and that swings the election of Executive Committee members, and ultimately the Chair, one way or the other. Usually it doesn’t end up as an upset, but with several candidates vying for the Chair spot, it could this time. Regardless of whether the candidates for Executive Committee met your expectations in answering the questions above (and possibly others), if you don’t show up, you have forfeit your vote, and from my perspective, ill served the people who voted you in as a delegate. Don’t be that guy/gal.

    3. Stay Strong – Don’t get too disappointed if you want to be an Executive Committee member and don’t make it. There are only 29 spots for 14 districts. Chances are, you won’t make it. But if you stay involved, show up to meetings, and keep your constituents informed, there may be a spot for you either on a committee, or on the EC when/if someone resigns, or gets kicked for not showing up. It happens every term. Being there is the best way to ultimately get what you want.

    4. Learn Something – Anyone who thinks the work of the party is sexy doesn’t really know what the party is supposed to do. The main things are:

  • Raise money
  • Recruit/train/elect candidates/volunteers
  • Get more people involved
  • The party regularly fails at at least two of these each term. These things sound intuitive, but they’re not. Raising money is tricky. Training and recruiting candidates and volunteers requires a special skill set. Getting folks involved means there has to be something for them to do.

    I mentioned the training conference in Spring Hill in my last post, but if you can’t make it to that, there are plenty of other opportunities out there from all kinds of progressive groups like Democracy for America, Wellstone Action, and many more. Some have online training options. No matter how much you think you know, you can always benefit from learning something new.

    5. Do Something – Another thing to think about…you don’t have to wait for the party to get it together to do something. You can start today.

    Maybe its something simple like registering voters. That’s easy. Just print out copies of this form, then get some friends, and some pens and clipboards, and set up a registration drive. Here are some good guidelines for doing a voter registration drive. Make sure you have permission to do this on any private property. You can do it at any number of places, even church.

    There are other things you can do as well, like throw a house party, or a neighborhood meeting. These take a little more organization, and usually need to be tied to a specific goal (financial or policy driven). If you want to do something like this, feel free to shoot me an email or contact your Executive Committee member for details on what information you need to collect and the state rules (for donations). Raising money is great, but also just making contact is a step. Don’t underestimate its importance.

    (Quick Note: Be sure to communicate your plans to your EC member. They may be willing to help, or get more people involved. The more the merrier.)

    6. Demand Accountability – As a delegate, you have a voice in determining the future of the party. That voice doesn’t have to end with the election of a Chair. If you’ve done your due diligence, and networked your way into people’s email/phone lists, you’ve positioned yourself to stay on top of the Executive Committee members who represent you…and you can make some demands.

    Most importantly, you should encourage EC members to inform their constituents. All too often they expect to be sought out for information. Members that think that way have the relationship exactly backwards. Its their job to inform you, not your job to track them down and ask questions (though if you do have questions, its on you to ask them). Demand that they do this (in a nice way). This will be foreign to some, so some coaching might be required. Set up meetings, or email lists or other networking opportunities to inform yourself, and the people you represent. This way, you won’t be surprised if something goes horribly wrong, and you might even be able to catch a problem before it becomes a problem.

    Ask for meeting agendas, copies of the rules (and that they adopt real rules not the bullshit standby of ‘Roberts Rules’ which no one really understands), and resolutions. If they can’t/don’t live up to that expectation and you’ve made contact/expanded your network of people, you’ve set in motion the beginnings of booting them in two years for someone (like yourself) who will do what you believe needs to get done.

    For the past 10 years, I’ve seen EC after EC come in good intentions, then behave like the Caucus and Convention are the end of organizing. They’re wrong, its just the beginning. If you can treat it like its the beginning, stay in touch with people in your House District, keep them informed, and prove you’re interested…you’re a step ahead for the next time around.

    As a delegate you need to demand the EC treat it like the beginning. Do that, and you’ll have played a role in helping strengthen the party going forward.

    The truth is, elections are a 24/7/365 affair now. They have been for a long time. It begins with the first actions those elected officials take in office, and while 2/4 years may seem like a long time, its not. Staying up to date on what these folks are doing (in your name) is the best way to: 1. Communicate and eventually get what you want, and 2. Hold them accountable if they aren’t moving the ball forward.

    Remember, you are a part of the party…simply by saying you are. Showing what you’re willing to do to move the party forward is just one of the many ways you can be a part of getting this County Party and this County back on track.

    Mar 14 2015

    The Caucus is the first step to rebuild the party

    Posted by Steve Ross in Memphis Politics, SCDP, Shelby County

    Its time to step up Shelby County Democrats

    Its time to step up
    Shelby County Democrats

    Today, the Shelby County Democratic Party will begin the process of selecting new leadership for the next two years at its Ward and Precinct Caucus.

    For the first time since 2007, I won’t be there.

    Truth be told, I haven’t been directly involved with the County Party since I resigned my post back in January of 2014.

    Time is not on my side. I have too many things to do, and too few hours in the day to do them. And while I would love to be in the thick of rebuilding the party, I also know that doing so is more than a two year job.

    So while I won’t be there today, I’m also not going to sit on the sidelines. And participants, neither should you.

    With that in mind, I do have a message for the people who will be participating today.

    It doesn’t matter whether you are selected a delegate or not, you are the party, and whomever you select to be your delegate to the convention in two weeks, is your representative.

    And while it may seem (and some may wrongly contend) that after today, your role with the party is over, this is not the case.

    The Executive Committee is not the Democratic Party…rather, they make up the leadership. You are the party, and its incumbent on you that some things get done to ensure the party moves forward in a positive way:

    1. Know your delegate – Before you leave today, get the name, phone number and email address of your delegate (if you aren’t one). Tell that person that by electing them delegate, you expect them to be involved in the process (regardless of whether they’re on the Executive Committee), and that you will be checking in with them periodically to find out what’s going on and what you can do to help.

    2. Host a Precinct/House District meeting – After the March 28th Convention, get together with people in your area, and host your Executive Committee members. Let them know who they work for (you), and what you hope to see in the upcoming term. It doesn’t have to be something elaborate…but get folks from your precinct or house district there in numbers, and make sure your Executive Committee members know you’re not playing around…you expect results. Let them know what those results might look like.

    3. Contact the new Chair – The field is thick right now, and no one really knows who will win. But once a winner is selected (March 28th), reach out to the Chair, introduce yourself (if you don’t already know him/her), and let them know you want to be a part of the process. There are 11 Committees and only 29 members. The Party will have to reach out beyond the Executive Committee to get these Committees functioning again.

    4. Go to a training – The Tennessee Democratic County Chairs Assn. and the TNDP are hosting a Spring Conference April 10th and 11th. Go there, and meet folks from across the state. Share ideas. Learn something new. Shelby County may be the largest Democratic County in Tennessee, but clearly we don’t know how to elect a Countywide candidate. Maybe some outside ideas will help.

    5. Don’t let up – Its easy to get discouraged, and God knows, there is plenty to be discouraged about, but don’t. The Executive Committee won’t right this ship alone. They’re going to need you, even if you have to drag them to success kicking and screaming (something this past Executive Committee was exceedingly good at). Demand access (without being a dick). Demand inclusion. But most of all, demand that the Executive Committee stop behaving like an exclusive but reclusive clique, and begin behaving like the legislative body for the Democratic faithful of Shelby County that they’re supposed to be. Make sure they know you expect to be in the conversation, even if you don’t have a vote. Demand that they adopt some real rules for the Party and rules of procedure to regulate the meetings, and that proposals and meeting agendas are sent out to all who want them, not just the Executive Committee. Show up to meetings. Talk to people outside of meetings. Find allies. Organize.

    Most of all, meet new people from outside your neck of the woods. Find areas of interest that you share with those people. Build relationships. Politics is about relationships…and relationships are something we desperately need right now to begin to grow and prosper as a party.

    Have fun at the caucus!

    Oct 28 2014

    Media Fail – 1, Transparency – 0

    Posted by Steve Ross in elections, media, Shelby County

    How I long for the good ole days.

    How I long for the good ole days.

    Once upon a time I thought the media was a defender of democracy. It was a check on the power government exercised. It was a force for good that sought to keep the people connected and the politicians and bureaucracy honest.

    Perhaps it was naiveté, or my fond memories of great journalists from the late 70’s through much of the 80’s and early 90’s.

    I gave up any illusions of this fairy tale long ago.

    That’s not to say there aren’t great journalists out there…they’re just fewer and farther between…and they’re trapped in a business environment where quantity, punch, and social media ‘engagement’ trumps a balanced account of the news.

    Such is the case with this truly ignorant report from WREG that aired in July.

    The web story is pretty benign, but the report that actually aired takes a Gary Vosot approach to reporting that demands you turn every fallen acorn into a “sky is falling” event.

    The news item I’m referencing involves a little known report called the “Participating Voter List”, aka PVL.

    What is the PVL?

    The PVL is exactly what it sounds like. Its a list of people who have participated in an election. It includes your name and address, precinct information, and in primary elections, which primary ballot you chose to vote on.

    Independent observers, political consultants, and campaigns use the PVL to see who’s voted, which areas are turning out more than others, and to tailor their communications to people who haven’t voted by purging the names of people who have voted from their direct communication list (mail, phone, and canvassing).

    If you don’t want annoying calls, knocks, or mail, vote early and all that will stop…if the campaign is managed effectively.

    Aside from primary ballot information, there is no information in the PVL that’s any more dangerous to your privacy than the information from an old school phone book, or white pages dot com.

    But reporter Michael Quander’s piece makes it sound as if the very act of voting could endanger your privacy in some way.

    That’s simply not the case. There are far easier and more informative ways and places to get that information than the Election Commission…though you’d never know it from his actual report.

    Because of Quander’s report, the Election Commission now only sends the PVL out by request, instead of publishing it in the deep dark recesses of the Election Commission website where only people who know where it is can find it.

    Why is the PVL important?

    The PVL is important because it is a way to, in nearly real time, see what’s going on with an election.

    The PVL was how Joe Weinberg and I found the redistricting errors that resulted in over 3000 voters receiving the wrong ballot in the August 2012 election.

    At that time, the PVL was posted directly on the Election Commission’s website daily. Because of this, we were able to run our tests promptly and without waiting for a gatekeeper to open the gate for us (other than waiting for the report to be posted). This allowed both of us the ability to work, as volunteers…using our own time and getting paid nothing for our efforts, to expose one of the greatest election screw-ups in recent memory.

    Had the PVL’s only been available by request, it may have taken several more days to complete our tests, causing a greater delay in resolving the problem, and potentially disenfranchising thousands of more voters in the process.

    There is a small, tightly knit group of mostly volunteers, on both sides of the aisle, who pay very close attention to this report. Any delay is a huge setback because we are working on our own time, and of our own initiative.

    Thanks to another barrier being placed due to unnecessary fear drummed up by this report, the next election disaster, should it occur, will take days longer to identify.

    Way to go Channel 3.

    Playing both sides of the privacy fence

    But what is perhaps most perversely ironic is that the PVL is more safe than many of the methods WREG, and other commercial websites use to make money off of you.

    Have you ever noticed that things you’ve browsed on Amazon or other online retailers regularly show up on ads at completely unrelated websites?

    That monetization of “Big Data” is something every single news website in the country uses to generate revenue. It uses cookies, scripts, and your browser history to tailor ads to you, to increase their revenue.

    In doing so, they’re taking advantage of your ignorance of potential privacy concerns far more than the Election Commission or any other government agency that is required by law to publish or make available information about you and yours.

    A blow to good reporting

    Aside from the report being…just dumb…the Election Commission’s decision to no longer post the PVL is also a blow to reporters who know what to do with the report…other than stir up unnecessary FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) in the minds of viewers.

    In years past, experienced reporters and election observers have used the report to do good journalism in the public interest. I remember the first time I started seeing reports like this, but in particular, the work of Commercial Appeal reporter Zack McMillian back in 2010 when he was on the political beat.

    He used the information in a way that challenged me to dig even deeper into the report…which ultimately led to the discoveries Dr. Weinberg and I made going public.

    Journalism is supposed to both inform people, and make those who engage in it, either by profession or by hobby, better. Quander’s report doesn’t do that. It preys on the uninformed fears of people, who are already scared of the very big data his company makes money off of.

    So way to go Michael Quander, and the Producers, News Directors, and other influential decision-makers at WREG Channel 3. You’ve just made it harder for people just like you to do their job. I know you’re proud.

    Oct 21 2014

    Roland’s Folly – Part Infinity

    Posted by Steve Ross in Shelby County, State Politics

    Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland

    Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland

    Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland says the County has a legal problem.

    See, back in 2007 and 2009 the County Commission passed two ordinances that established a prevailing wage and a living wage for workers who work for County contractors.

    The idea behind the ordinances is simple: If the County is going to pay a company to do a job, that company should pay their workers either a living wage, or the “prevailing wage” i.e. the wage paid to the majority of workers working in a specific field…rather than lowballing workers in a tough economy at a time when unemployment was high.

    It should come as no surprise that the Tennessee Legislature…led by Ron Ramsey, Brian Kelsey, Glen Casada and Beth Harwell just plain hated the idea that people should get paid enough to live on…or at least in line with market prices for labor of a specific type. So, they passed a law outlawing these kinds of ordinances.

    That was in March of 2013.

    Fast forward to today…18 months after the fact…Commissioner Roland has sponsored two ordinances that would overturn the County’s living and prevailing wage ordinances…because they’re against the law.

    Now, that may not seem like a big deal, but both ordinances stand as a statement against the kind of interference from Nashville that has been the hallmark of the Ramsey/Harwell era.

    Roland wants to overturn this because he says it puts the County at risk of a lawsuit. But the County has been abiding by state law since it was enacted…because state law has supremacy over local ordinances and all that stuff you learn in a basic Civics class.

    By the way, County Attorney Marcy Ingram says changing the ordinances is necessary. But if you look at her track record of “opinion” you should find yourself questioning her legal judgement. If someone tried to sue the county for not complying with state law simply for having an ordinance on the books, that suit would be thrown out immediately, because, in fact, the County is complying. That the County has a law on the books that has been superseded by state law is unremarkable.

    Now, you might ask yourself, why keep this on the books since its no longer relevant.

    The answer is simple, because the people of Shelby County, through their elected leaders, passed these ordinances long before the State decided to intervene. In fact, there was an election between the passage of these ordinances and the passage of the new state law, and everyone who voted for the ordinances, including the author, was overwhelmingly re-elected…enshrining public opinion in favor of the ordinances. And in doing so, we made a statement about our collective values. For all we know, the state may decide one day to change their law, which would mean our ordinances…still being on the books, would be back…in full effect.

    Terry Roland wants to make sure this never happens.

    I hope the County Commission will take this opportunity to take a stand against the state’s interference, and reject Roland’s proposed ordinances and stand for fair wages for workers, even if the state’s GOP legislative leaders don’t give a damn about them (because that much is abundantly clear).

    If you want to read the ordinances proposed by Commissioner Roland, you can find them here.

    Living Wage Repeal
    Prevailing Wage Repeal

    Aug 13 2014

    Too broken to bother with?

    Posted by Steve Ross in Shelby County

    Not everything is fixable...but that doesn't mean its disposable

    Not everything is fixable…but that doesn’t mean its disposable

    There are some things in this world that are more disposable than others.

    When they break, rather than trying to put Humpty back together again, you just discard it.

    Wine glasses are the weakest link in our home. Hell, probably every home.

    They’re not really that expensive (if you keep getting the cheap ones) and when they break you don’t even consider fixing them because…well that’s just too OCD.

    Chances are, the thing wouldn’t hold anyway, or would leak like a sieve.

    Why bother.

    But there are other things that aren’t disposable. When they’re broken, battered or bruised, you need to try and help fix them.

    There are lots of both constructive and less-than constructive ways to do that…but we need to understand that just like no two people put a puzzle together exactly the same way…there is also no one set way to fix something you care about.

    No matter what, If you value something, you should be willing to be a part of fixing it.

    A conversation with a friend

    Over the 4th of July weekend, I was at a cookout with some friends. Most of the people I know are on the “more active” side of the political activity scale. Since early voting was just a few days away, the conversation turned to the election.

    As it happens, July 4th was just two days after Judge Joe Brown voiced allegations about DA Amy Weirich’s sexual orientation. Needless to say, due to the freshness of the topic, this was at the top of the conversation list.

    There was universal agreement that the attack was out of line. Just two years before the County Party had taken a stand in favor of equality for the LGBT community. It seemed wildly discordant that one of the party’s candidates would then turn around and try to use sexual orientation as a line of attack.

    Then came the question, “Why is the SCDP such a bunch of clowns?”.

    That got my attention.

    The speaker went on to air a long list of grievances, many relevant, some less relevant.

    I listened intently. We talked back and forth about some of the challenges. After hearing, yet another declaration of the party’s ineptitude I smiled and said, “You have the power to help change that. When’s the last time you came to a party re-organizing convention?”

    The answer was either never, or so long ago its not relevant.

    We talked about that. Eventually we agreed to disagree as to whether that kind of participation would do any good. Fatalism is a common refrain in Democratic politics, it seems.

    This person is a good strong Democrat. Someone we should want working with us. But they don’t feel like its worth their time to fix it. Its not that the party is disposable to them, its that their so frustrated, they don’t know what to do, and they don’t feel like anyone else is doing anything (or knows what to do) either.

    Putting Humpty Back Together Again

    Humpty before the fall

    Humpty before the fall

    From my initial involvement in the County party in 2006, to today, there has been plan after plan to try to transform the party into a positive force in the community. Some of those plans have been better than others. Few have ever been executed even partially.

    The party is factionalized, regionalized, and its members are often suspicious of each other…concerned about some grand conspiracy to somehow take what little power they feel they have away by empowering some other faction or another.

    Its tragically comedic, but it goes back to old fights…some decades old, and grudges that have outlived the patrons.

    I’m not going to pretend the body has a long history of being truly effective. In talking to folks who were involved in the 80’s and 90’s, it seems clear that the party has long been more focused on the minutiae and turf wars than on the kind of “global” goals that would bring about success in those Countywide contests that have been so fleeting.

    There’s been an internal struggle over the “power of the party” which at the same time has rendered the party largely impotent. And truth be told, there are some elected officials who have benefitted by that impotence…though most of them, at this point, are either long gone, or are halfway out the door.

    Putting Humpty together again means getting past some of these old fights. In the 2011-12 cycle, it looked like we were getting there. But much of the progress of that term was lost too easily, as new leadership came in, and much of the party’s institutional memory shifted out.

    That’s not to blame Chairman Carson, or the new Executive Committee…because these things happen with leadership change.

    But while the leadership at the top of the County Party structure may have been in flux, leadership in terms of elected officials within Shelby County…Mayors, City Council Members, Commissioners, State House and Senate members, and all the way up to Congress, has been largely stable, and completely disengaged.

    When your elected Democrats aren’t engaged in the party, there’s no way to get around the leadership struggles…and lose a big part of the organization’s institutional memory in the process.

    Leaders must lead

    There’s an interesting dynamic between the County Party and elected Democratic officials in Shelby County…the lack of a working relationship of any kind.

    Most elected officials have been able to stay in office just fine without the help of the County Party, so its reasonable to understand why they might not see the value in to having an effective organization…until things go wrong.

    Then, just like disengaged “rank-and-file” Democrats out there who loudly complain about the party’s failures, so do the party’s electeds.

    The most visible example of this is the statement made by Congressman Cohen on election night, which I quoted in this post.

    I’m not saying Congressman Cohen is wrong, because he isn’t…but just like the conversation with my friend, its a bit hypocritical to criticize the County Party when you’ve not really been engaged in it.

    Cohen has built a powerful campaign operation every cycle since 2006. His campaign has very strong fundamentals…and that’s a big reason why he wins consistently.

    But as soon as the campaign season is over, that operation goes dark. The operators, by and large, go their separate ways, until the next time they need to assemble to defend the Congressman against a challenger.

    That level of expertise is direly needed in the County party. And while some members of the Cohen team have engaged the party, and been largely flummoxed by the goings on, the Congressman hasn’t taken the opportunity to mentor and nurture party leadership outside his organization.

    Its not my purpose to beat up on Congressman Cohen. He’s just one example of this scenario.

    Truth is Mayor Wharton (the Democratic County Mayor from 2002 to 2009), amassed an impressive campaign structure in his own right in 2011 only to dismantle it and disengage. He’s just as guilty of doing this, as is every other elected Democrat in Shelby County…current or former.

    Leaders don’t get to complain that something’s broken, then not try to be a part of working to fix it…especially when they’re associated with it (via party designation).

    But lets be clear here. I’m not calling on electeds to set up another kind of ‘boss’ structure. Competing bosses…even long after they’re relevant, and the unproductive fights they engage in, are a big part of what brought us to where we are today.

    I’m saying they should lend their expertise, and mentor up and coming leaders who can help the party become more effective.

    The effectiveness vacuum we’re going through now is not for the lack of bosses, but because of bosses…and damage caused by them that no one has been able to repair.

    I would hope our elected leaders would take part in helping repair that damage…without remaining part of the problem through neglect…or becoming part of a bigger problem through the strong-arm tactics of past bosses.


    The local party has had structural problems for a long time.

    What has happened this cycle is just a more extreme example of what happened in 2010, and nearly on par with the shenanigans of 2008…minus the success.

    Lets get one thing clear: the party isn’t a sentient being. It takes a coalition of people working together to keep going. It takes a great deal of expertise, time and care to have a healthy party.

    If the coalition that makes up the Executive Committee puts self-interest, or apathy, or any other negative thing ahead of the building, we find ourselves back at square one wondering, “what now”?

    Maybe that’s where we start…with “What can I do to help” rather than just stating the obvious…that its broken.

    If we don’t, we’ll find ourselves right back, in this same place in four years time…wondering how to put Humpty back together again…or if its even worth the effort to try.