Too broken to bother with?

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.

Conclusion

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.

7 thoughts

  1. It might be constructive to realistically assess where you are as a party at the present time. List the positives and negatives. After brainstorming (this takes all stakeholders in the party) set goals of where you want to be as a party. Then figure out how to successfully get there. Sounds simple, but folks who are so motivated can do the heavy lifting to get there. There will be some pain involved, but there are leadership tools and strategies. if used wisely can help get you where you decide you want to be. It would be helpful in this to have some folks help facilitate this process. Keep your eye on where you are at present and develop and fine tune your focus as to who you want to be as a party.

    Ramblings of a retired teacher.

    1. Maybe we can look at other successful democratic parties who may be similar to our city. It is silly to see that we are a Democratic majority but get beaten badly in the countywide races. To win whole of county you have to broaden your appeal. In some ways Democrats in Shelby are stuck in the Civil rights era. Instead of a racial focus we should take a page out of bill Clinton’s play book. It is the economy stupid. The wallet issues appeal to all races. The Republican theory of cut cut tax less is a proven dumb idea. I heard democratic candidates tell voters to vote for them because they were the only blacks in races. In fact a group of them got together and decided to clear the field for one on one races. The problem with that though a good idea they had bad candidates who had no experiences. They so angered the sitting judges that they banded together whipped voter enthusiasm up and easily won. In fact one of the candidates had been suspended as a lawyer for 18 months. This candidate exemplified what was wrong with Democratic strategy. Democrats need to win not come up lame brained schemes which they could not execute right.

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