Leadership means organizing

These two guys are clearly at war. /snark

There’s new leadership at the Democratic National Committee. Saturday, the members of the DNC met in Atlanta and elected former Labor Secretary, Tom Perez as the new Chair of the party. The contest was very tight, with Perez barely edging out Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota.

Many folks cast this race as a replay of the Sanders/Clinton primary, but I side with David Corn of Mother Jones, this wasn’t about “establishment vs the left”, nor was it centrism vs progressivism. It was a race where the front runners were two solidly progressive candidates (and several second tier candidates that I liked as well).

I didn’t have a horse in this race. Both Ellison and Perez seemed like good choices. I sat in on conference calls with each of them, and listened to their interviews on Talking Points Memo

So while some might have chosen to cast the contest as a litmus test, or saw the result as a win for the establishment, I see it differently. Both men have plusses and minuses. They ran on largely the same platform. Both have strong progressive credentials. In years past we would have killed for these kinds of options.

Setting Expectations

The position of Party Chair, whether on the national, state, or local level is one of coalition maintenance/building, fundraising, and resource distribution. The DNC Charter and Bylaws explicitly say that the Chair has no real power over policy. That power rests in the hands of elected members from the states (US House, US Senate and President).

A sudden leftward turn will not happen until a new committee is formed. Each state party handles that. The DNC apportions members by state. The selection criteria is set up by state party committees.

Because the DNC is decentralized massive change is slow. Some states have seen a slow shift from “establishment” members of the DNC to more activist members. That’s more a function of how the state parties are established than anything else. If you want to make change at the national level, you best understand the state and local level.

That rule follows everything with Democratic party politics.

The national party maintains a list of voters. But really, the state parties administer those lists. The national party sends out communications. But really, the state parties are supposed to deal with the stuff that impacts people locally. The national party may get behind a specific candidate, but that doesn’t happen if the local Democrats aren’t on board.

The DNC isn’t this borg-like centrally planned machine. Its a 50 state affiliate program, where some affiliates work better than others, have more customers, and know how to communicate more effectively. National trends don’t necessarily translate to every affiliate.

All Politics are Local

Take the 2006 wave year for example. Democrats nationwide saw huge gains that year in response to the George W. Bush economy, which was on the precipice of disaster, and Iraq. But in Tennessee, we neither saw any gains or losses. The 104th General Assembly (2005-06) was about the same as the 105th (2007-08) in terms of party representation.

That national trend didn’t translate here.

In 2008 Democrats in Tennessee lost the majority in the State House. They only held on to power thanks to a “Carter County Republican from Elizabethton”. This happened despite a national trend of Democrats winning in formerly Republican states.

It should be noted that all this was happening during the 50 State Strategy era of Howard Dean at the DNC.

Tennessee, and many other southern states, may be the outliers here. Still, lets not pretend that any national Chair is going to affect real change in any particular state. That falls on the leadership of each state party to manage resources, fundraise, and build/maintain coalitions.

Hopefully by now you’ve figured out where I’m going with this. If not, read on, because its pretty simple.

You Build from the Bottom

Its hard to build an organization that can be relevant nationally in any election cycle. But even if you do that, you have to contend with the entrenched organizations. That’s another stumbling block to change.

Every organization, from your local neighborhood association to the US Senate is ultimately concerned with a couple of simple things. The biggest concern is maintaining the prevailing order in the organization.

The Democratic Party is no different.

Every state has different rules to get on the state party committee. The rules are set up by the people in power to maintain power. That doesn’t mean you can’t challenge them. It just means the process is longer than you might want it to be and takes a lot more effort and energy than signing a change.org petition or being a cry-baby on Facebook.

You can start at the neighborhood level, the county level or just jump up to the state level. To change the way your DNC members are chosen, start at the state party level.

How to Run for the TN Democratic Party Executive Committee

In Tennessee, elections for State Executive Committee members will be held in August of 2018. Elections are held every four years and organized around State Senate districts. Only voters in the August Democratic Primary can vote for State Democratic Party Executive Committee.

As a member of the State Executive Committee, you can vote on the State Party Chair, the DNC Convention delegate process, and the members of the DNC from Tennessee, among other things.

The filing deadline will be in March or April of 2018, so you’ve got over a year to decide. There are 66 elected members of the State Executive Committee (a male and female from each district). In 2014, 28 of the 66 contests (42.4%) were unopposed.

To become a candidate, contact your county Election Commission and ask to be notified when petitions will be available for State Executive Committee races in 2018. You need 25 signatures from registered voters in your State Senate District to get on the ballot. Get 50 names at least. 100 is better. Find someone to be your treasurer and actually file the Appointment of Political Treasurer document with the appropriate office. Put some money in a checking account and start looking for supporters.

The sooner you start, the more time you have to get supporters. But it also means your opposition has more time to organize. I suggest you do some research before you begin on potential opponents, potential allies and election laws. This will keep you from embarrassing yourself.

The Tennessee Democratic Party is an opaque organization. Meeting times aren’t published. Agendas aren’t widely distributed. Some meetings are held over the phone. This isn’t a new thing.

Part of the rationale for this is that Tennessee is a very long state. Two of the state’s 5 largest population centers are more than three hours away from the center of the state. Conducting business over the phone allows for more meetings and fewer instances of no shows.

It also adds a level of difficulty in finding out what the hell is going on. But, you can always start by asking your representatives on the Executive Committee. If you don’t know them, you should reach out. You can’t win an election against someone if you don’t know what you’re running against. And hey, they might not be all that bad! You can still run against them even if you like them personally. This is politics, not Barbie Dreamhouse playtime.

Change is Slow, Temper-Tantrums make it slower

After the DNC Chair election was complete, I saw a lot of huffing and puffing on social media about the “establishment winning again”. Proponents of this thesis said this means Democrats will lose young voters for a generation, yada, yada, yada.

One of those posts on Facebook came from a dear friend of mine, who I won’t name because it just doesn’t matter.

I personally think this is defeatist bullshit.

In the spring of 1992 I was a long-haired radical on the campus of Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. I won the race for President of my College Democrats Chapter. There were only 8 active members at the time so it wasn’t hard.

Then Bill Clinton won the Democratic nomination. Clinton, you might remember, was the Governor of Arkansas at the time.

Over the summer I met with some local Democratic leaders in Northeast Arkansas. This was after the House banking scandal, and a young upstart in the area, Blanche Lambert Lincoln was in a primary challenge longtime Rep. Bill Alexander.

I didn’t know much about all that at the time, but I made sure my displeasure about Rep. Alexander’s role in the scandal. It was clear, the old guard wasn’t real happy with me.

In the fall of 1992 there was a challenge to my election. The challengers said there wasn’t a quorum at the election meeting. I was young and kind of dumb about this stuff. I wanted to be fair. We reset the election for the next meeting, and, in accordance with our rules, said any dues paying member could vote at that time.

The next meeting came around and my opponent brought his whole fraternity and sister sorority, all armed with 5 bucks to vote.

I got my ass kicked.

I was too young and dumb to even see this as a possibility. This wasn’t some organic uprising, but prompted by those old guard guys I had so impressed. I was too naive to see that.

Organizing was something I didn’t know anything about. Hell, I had a whole music department and most of the College of Arts on my side. I didn’t even think to get them involved! (I said I was dumb)

At the time it crushed me.

But it didn’t stop me.


Setbacks are part of growing. Setbacks make you smarter for the next fight. If you see this DNC Chair election as a setback, don’t bitch, organize.

Want to take over the City Council or State House? Organize to win the election. Want to take over your state Executive Committee? Organize! Organize to do whatever you think it is that needs to be done.

Think you’re done organizing? You’re not. Organize some more.

Don’t bitch on Facebook and Twitter. You’re just showing your hand to your opposition. Organize.

Don’t cry when someone says “Its not your turn”. Organize and TAKE YOUR TURN.

Because that’s what leadership is…not ranting, not bitching, not hyperbolic declarations that have no basis in reality or fact…leadership is organizing.

If you’re not willing to organize, then you’re just talking out your ass. People who are organizing will rightly stop taking you seriously.


There is no change in this world that you want to happen to you that happens in an instant (outside of winning the lottery).

Heart attacks, strokes, car wrecks, happen in an instant. Change…real lasting change, is a struggle that takes a long time to take hold.

You may feel like you’ve been fighting for change for a long time. Like no one is listening. You may feel like an island.

If you’re showing real leadership, you’re building an army. When you’re organizing, people have your back. If you’re really pushing for change, one election is a setback, not an apocalypse.

So stop and look in front of you and see who you’re following. Look behind you and see who’s following you. Look to your left and right to see who’s standing with you.

If you really are alone you have some soul searching to do. You put yourself there by not organizing.

Chances are you’re not alone. Lock arms and fight for progress. Put your hand on the shoulder of the person in front of you so they know you’re there for them. Reach back to the person behind you and pull them forward.

That’s how you start to make lasting change.

That’s how you stay focused on the real fights instead of the distractions.

It’s how you build coalitions and gain traction.

It’s the only way I know of to get what you want in politics.

That is leadership.

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