This weekend the Executive Committee of the TNDP will come together to elect a new chair. The race for the Chairmanship, which began with around 6 candidates, has predictably narrowed to two: current Treasurer Dave Garrison of Nashville and former State Senator from Weakley Co., Roy Herron.
I’m not going to get into the pros and cons of either candidate. I’ve talked to several Executive Committee members in Shelby Co. I’ve read many of the emails that have been circulated in support of both men. I know what I don’t know… the internal politics of the Executive Committee and their ideas of what needs to be done or how the next two years need to be handled.
On Saturday, perhaps we’ll have a better understanding of what the Executive Committee thinks those priorities are. In all likelihood, we won’t know much more about anything. It will be up to whoever wins, and the staff they bring to the table, to set many of the priorities going forward.
There are only 72 people that have a say in this process… the members of the Executive Committee. The candidates that remain have largely made their case to their electorate. This is an insider’s game. We can debate whether that’s a good thing or not. Actually, I think that would be a productive debate… but not for today.
The State of the Party
Since 2006 the number of elected Democrats in the State House and Senate has declined from solid majorities to irrelevant minorities. With just seven members in the Senate and 28 in the House (22 of which are from largely urban, solidly Democratic districts), it’s fair to say that the Democratic decline in Tennessee is either at, or near a bottom.
Determining whether or not this is the bottom of the decline is largely up to us. That is the topic of the remainder of this post.
Building a New Beginning
While the losses in the past several years have been painful, we have an opportunity. The long malaise that led to these losses didn’t start in 2006 or any time since. They started long before then. They started with an institutional complacency that, unfortunately, has not found a bottom yet.
Democrats lost seats drawn by Democrats in every election between 2006 and 2010. In 2012, when the Republicans took control of redistricting, we predictably lost more. We knew this would happen and we were unprepared to reverse the trend. Now is the time to begin building a new beginning for the party.
To do that, we will need to build an army of supporters statewide. This means working with rural Democrats to help them build strength. The hard truth is less than 41% of the state’s population resides in the five most populous counties. If we don’t start focusing on the other 59%, we have no hope of ever turning the page on our fate as a party. That doesn’t mean walking away from the issues our largely urban caucus currently is focusing on, but finding ways to make those issues relevant to people in rural areas.
There is a way to do this. We have to find it. It is, truly, our only path back to relevance.
In finding that path there are some specific things we need, and some even more specific things we don’t need. Understanding the difference is critical to any success we might find in the coming years.
What We Don’t Need
There are a lot of things we do need, but first I think it’s more important to talk about what we don’t need as we look forward to the next two years.
No Prima Donnas – We don’t need a leader who will make the most dangerous place in Tennessee the space between himself and the media. This can’t be about personality. It must be about management expertise. If either candidate is thinking of using this as a jumping off point for something greater, I pray that whoever wins will focus on effective management rather than showboating. We don’t have anything to showboat about. Sometimes quiet, competent management is the best solution to reversing a decline.
Keep it simple, stupid – We don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on turnkey strategies from places that bear no resemblance to our state. They don’t and can’t work.
Sit Down, Shut up, Get to Work – We don’t need a leader who will talk out of turn on policy issues. Leave the policy fights to the people in the trenches…the 35 elected Democrats who serve in the General Assembly and activists who have been working to move the ball down the field for decades. Support them. That is your role. Don’t make their re-election any harder than it was going to be in the first place.
What We Do Need
Fundraising – We need a Chair that knows how to raise money and a lot of it. With groups like the TFA spending $75,000 to remove a solidly conservative member over a policy pissing contest and Students First spending several hundred thousand dollars in support of vouchers, funding will be a key component of any success. The Chair also needs to encourage donors to become more active beyond giving to the party and candidates. Right now we don’t have an answer to some of these well-funded independent groups. We need one.
Management – We need someone who will be an effective manager that nurtures and helps build future leaders. Someone who will build some institutional professionalism that we haven’t had in a very long time. In doing this, the most positive result is that these individuals move on from the confines of the party to become campaign staff in the 2014 and later elections. This also needs to happen more on the county and division level.
Candidate Development – We need someone who will focus on candidate development immediately. Over the past four years I’ve heard of way too many instances where candidates were being courted just days before the filing deadline. This is unacceptable. We can’t expect people to be sacrificial lambs just to achieve a certain number of candidates. We have to involve them early, get them prepared with the tools they will need to succeed and then get out of their way.
Playbook – We do need someone who will build a playbook. While policy fights aren’t necessarily productive from the party Chair, providing candidates with the information they will need to build a case for new representation in their district is productive. Leaving a new candidate to their own devices is a recipe for disaster. Take that supporting role mantle and run with it.
Activating the Base – Finally, as I mentioned at the beginning, we need to have a leader who is focused on activating solidly Democratic voters beyond just getting them out to vote. Waiting until the August before the election to get people involved is a strategy for failure. The more people we have involved early, the more likely we can develop the candidates, staff and volunteers that will make our campaigns more successful.
It says a lot about where we are as a party that fundamental things like this even need to be mentioned…but they do. It seems like some folks just believe things will magically turn around. I’m not patient enough to wait for magic.
For people who aren’t on the State Executive Committee…like myself, this is a critical moment. What happens in the next two years will either put in motion a turnaround or further delay our return to relevance in statewide affairs.
It is also important that all Democrats in the state become familiar with their Committee members. You can find a list here. Introduce yourself to them. Start a conversation. Politics is about relationships. Build a relationship with the folks who represent you in your party.
For rank and file Democrats, understanding the role of the body is key. The Executive Committee is supposed to provide oversight and be our representatives in party issues. That means sometimes taking a skeptical eye to things, even if you voted for the Chair. It is incumbent on the Executive Committee to provide adequate oversight. The lack of oversight is part of what brought us to where we are today.
In 2010 there were only 9 of 66 races for the Executive Committee seats were contested. That’s a ridiculously low number, especially in the face of the massive losses that we saw in 2006 and 2008. This also says something about our party. If we, as the Democratic faithful, don’t start seeing a change in the months after the election this weekend, it may be time to think about changing who represents us on the Committee.
But now is not the time to talk about that. Until that time, I wish whoever gets elected Chair the best and hope they know I stand ready to assist them.