Nov 14 2010

Thinking About the Chair

Posted by Steve Ross in TNDP, Uncategorized

Tuesday, November 9, 2010, the day of his birthday, TNDP Chair Chip Forrester asked the members of the TNDP Executive Committee to elect him chair once again.

The timing of the Chair’s appeal may seem indelicate. Just one week has passed since the most devastating election cycle in history, and just hours before the letter was released one of the House Democratic Caucus’ most tenured members passed away. That said, I don’t think Mr. Forrester’s intent was to seem indelicate. Chances are, this was part of a long-held plan that was carried out despite conditions not cooperating.

There’s been a lot of talk about the state of Tennessee’s Democratic Party. There will likely be a lot more talk about who should chair the organization. That said, I think an honest critique of the past two years is necessary. It hasn’t been all bad, but there’s also been plenty that hasn’t been good.

First we should look at the list of accomplishments .

Accomplishments

Forrester lists 10 things as accomplishments: Executive Committee Involvement, Open Communication, Training, County Outreach and Party Building, Solid and Sustainable Fundraising, Elimination of Party Debt, Candidate Recruitment and Training, SOS Trainings, 21st Century Technology, TNDP Staff Development.

There are some things here that I think Forrester did well, and some other things that I think he did not.

Clearly eliminating debt is a big accomplishment. Of course, we’ll have to wait until the next disclosure to find out if that debt is completely gone, or if it’s re-appeared in the wake of the last cycle.

Executive Committee outreach is good, and keeping your door open to your constituents (the Executive Committee) is a good idea. In fact, Forrester opened his door to many of us, early on. It seems that once the political climate cooled down a little, that openness gave way to something else.

The Technology enhancements and Staff development are also good things. If we want to compete consistently, having a group of people who have done the work and know what to do is really important. With more resources, this could have been even better. With a better, more cooperative political situation, it could have been bulletproof. Still, the investment is a good start for whomever becomes Chair in January.

Needs Improvement

Training is listed three times in the list of accomplishments. I assume, based on the structure of the letter that one was for Executive Committee Members, one for Candidates, and one for regular Joes like myself. Having attended one of those trainings, I can tell you that it was a good intellectual exercise. However, the kind of training you need to be a valuable volunteer, or a mid-level campaign person is the kind you can only get by doing it. On that count, the training left much to be desired. Not coupling an action with the training was a missed opportunity.

Because I’m not an Executive Committee Member I don’t know what training occurred, or to what effect. I know several members of the State Executive Committee. Some are very active in the community, others seem to be seat warmers and little else. Still, the effort to activate these party leaders is a good thing, even if it didn’t have a huge effect. If we can’t get the people elected to represent us with our party involved, it bodes ill for the future of our party.

Based on the results of the election, I would say that candidate recruitment is sorely lacking, though that is a coordinated effort between the TNDP and the Caucus organizations, so you can’t pin it all on one person. I am aware of some serious last second scrambling as the filing deadline approached. That alone leads me to believe that the recruitment process needs improvement.

Ummm, I’m not seeing that

County Outreach/Party Building and Fundraising are also listed as accomplishments. Maybe these things are happening somewhere else, but they’re not happening in the areas of the state that I have contact with. We raised $2m in 2008 and 2010 and still lost. Clearly, just raising money isn’t the key to victory.

On the flip side, if you have an engaged and activated electorate, they’ll be sure to vote, and maybe even take some people with them. But no one I talk to feels any strong allegiance to the state party. They call themselves Democrats, but they see the TNDP as a bunch of “Nashville people” who don’t really care that much about anyone outside of Nashville.

But the problem runs deeper than that. Most people don’t even know who their state party Executive Committee members are, and almost none of these functionary positions are ever contested. Of the 66 positions up for election in August, only 14 (21%) were contested, and one didn’t even have a candidate. If the party were healthy, and people felt they had a chance at some voice in its operations, these seats would be stepping stones for higher office.

Until people feel like the investment they make in time to a party will lead to a stronger organization, rather than a relationship that uses and forgets, this isn’t going to change. It’s not Chip’s fault that the system is set up the way it is, but I haven’t seen the party generally, reach out beyond the usual suspects to engage people. That has to happen statewide to ultimately be successful.

Back to the fundraising issue, it’s great that we raised $2m, but until the last three months, not one TNDP missive was issued with an ask. Seriously, I’ve received hundreds of emails from the TNDP, each costing around $250 to hit all the people on their mailing list, according to disclosures, and the only ones to ask me for money came in the three months leading up to November, when everyone and God was asking for my hard earned scratch. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. My sense is that had the TNDP asked every time they sent out an email blast, they would have, at least covered the cost of the blast, if not gained more than they spent. Further, when people invest early and often they feel connected to the organization. That financial investment can lead to an investment of your most precious resource, time. Unfortunately, that didn’t materialize until the end of the game, and by then, the flood of money into the state coupled with a Republican Gubernatorial candidate with unlimited funds, made it too late to build momentum or have any particular impact.

Areas Not Covered

There are a couple of notable things missing from this list of accomplishments. Messaging being one of them.

There was never a coherent message that came out of the TNDP press office, ever. Looking back at the press releases the party sent out over the course of the past two years, the vast majority of them, particularly before the August primary, expressed “the sense of the Chair”.

I’m going to be honest, if people don’t know their state executive committee members, they also probably don’t know or care what the Chair of the state party thinks. For all intents and purposes, the leader of the Democratic Party was Phil Bredesen, like it or not. Bredesen had the bully pulpit as governor. The TNDP should have encouraged him to use it to give more impact to the message the party wanted to convey. Once the field cleared in the Gubenatorial race, the leader should have been Phil Bredesen and Mike McWherter. That never happened either.

While I’m aware of talks about establishing a common theme or coordinating a message statewide, it just never happened.

Again, not all of this can or should be pinned on the Forrester. Crafting a common theme can be difficult. Getting candidates to rally behind a theme can be like herding cats. But in order to establish a theme, everyone has to be on the same page on some fundamental issues and for a whole bunch of reasons, that didn’t happen.

Another issue that isn’t mentioned and probably didn’t help anything is the strained relationship between the chair and the “old guard”. We’ve seen this play out on comment threads since January of 2009, and in the media. After months of public and private fighting, a truce was called in late April of 2009. This was followed by a feel good Summit at Monteagle attended by a couple of hundred Democrats including yours truly.

Unfortunately, the truce didn’t come with any great measure of widespread cooperation, and the shadow party that the truce prescribed never really materialized, which isn’t Forrester’s fault. Despite two successful Jackson Day events, the party still hasn’t shown any tangible signs of regaining ground in territory it once held, as evidenced by the loss of 14 previously held seats in largely rural areas and seems to have focused its efforts in East Tennessee, which hasn’t gone Democratic since before Reconstruction.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, Tennessee Democrats are where we are…in the wilderness. The question we need to ask ourselves is who is best suited to guide us out? Whether or not Forrester is to blame for the massive losses we experienced on November 2nd is inconsequential. He was in charge and keeping him in charge sends a message to people that we don’t have a plan to get out of the mess we’re in. For that reason alone, I don’t feel like he’s the guy to lead the party for the next two years.

That said, I don’t see Forrester’s Chairmanship as a complete failure. Forrester brought good ideas to the table, but the execution of many of those ideas either didn’t happen, or left much to be desired. In short, I feel the TNDP had ideas, but didn’t have a solid game plan.

The task ahead for Tennessee Democrats is huge. We have to rebuild our fundamentals, and fight off a redistricting regime that will try to wall us out of the seats of power for a very long time. In order to do that, we need both ideas and a plan. We need cooperation and coordination. We need to craft a coherent message and explore ways to deliver that message. Most importantly, we need to identify and activate people who may have been sitting on the sidelines waiting for the internal strife that has marked the past two years to settle down.

Ultimately, it’s not up to me who becomes the next chair of the party, it’s up to the Executive Committee. As we move toward the election of the Chair in January, I’ll be looking at the candidates and talking to my local Executive Committee members about who they believe has the best plan to move forward. Depending on who emerges, the best way forward may be through Chip Forrester. But until we know the field, and have a sense of any future plans, I’m in wait and see mode.

Afterword

I think it bears mentioning that I applaud and respect the efforts of all the people who worked internally and externally for Democratic candidates in Tennessee. This includes not only the people who staffed the TNDP, but also the staffers and volunteers out there in the trenches of the multitude of House, Senate, Gubernatorial, and Congressional races. Our losses would have been much greater without your dedication and effort. I hope that you will continue working to rebuild our party.