As you’ve probably read by now, the Shelby County Democratic Party has been decertified by the State Democratic Party. The County party organization, which has been a hot mess for nearly al of the 12 years that I’ve lived in Memphis, never truly distinguished itself as a force for anything but highlighting how not to run a political organization.
That’s not to say the SCDP has never done anything right. I think the 2012 County election was perhaps the most organized the party has ever been. It was a rare bright spot in an otherwise undistinguished resume. But since then, and in many cases, before then, the party has devolved into a series of pissing contests with a few actors who clearly put their personal interests above maintaining and growing an “organization”.
It would be easy to put this situation on one individual or one instance, but the truth of the matter is, the party has needed an organizational enema for some time. Its only now that things have devolved to the point the state party has enough justification to do so.
So what’s going to happen now? Well, details are sketchy. What I’ve been able to glean from a few conversations is that a group of local leaders (read elected Democrats and some activists(?)) will be looking at everything from the organizations bylaws and rules, to internal controls and all the other stuff that it takes to make any organization work…with an eye to have this thing turned around in time for the normal re-organization in March.
Since the party is doing some soul searching, I thought it might be a good idea to look at some of the things a local party should be doing and maybe a few structural things that would help keep this from ever happening again.
The first words of the County Party’s bylaws read as follows:
We, the Democrats of Shelby County, Tennessee, convened in Memphis in October of 1978, to organize the Democratic Party of Shelby County, Tennessee. The purpose of this Organization is to encourage the citizens of Shelby County to support Democratic Party candidates for election to public office, to encourage participation in Party affairs by every citizen who shares our ideals, and to maintain a strong, active and continuing organization dedicated to the principles of racial and sexual equality, individual liberty and economic justice for which our Party proudly stands.
You see these kinds of mission statements attached to all kinds of organizations. In theory, the rest of the document would go about explaining how this mission would be achieved (through committees, organization and activation). But the simple truth is while these ideological goals are full of virtue, they miss the point of a political organization: to activate people of a like mind through organization, information, training and fundraising.
The SCDP has only marginally been able to do one of these four things: fundraise. The result has been no push to activate the public to a common cause, because the party can’t agree on a common cause except for maintaining itself in its former disheveled condition. Part of that goes to leadership, which has been suspect at best over the years. Part of it goes to a sense that the SCDP Executive Committee “is” the party, rather than elected representatives “of” the party. That structural, intellectual, and psychological misunderstanding is at the core of the party’s woes.
Currently, to become a member of the SCDP Executive Committee you must have been nominated and elected by your peers in your State House District at the bi-annual reorganization meeting.
What’s always been striking to me is that these elected representatives rarely, if ever, reach out beyond the auspices of the Executive Committee to engage and activate the rank and file Democrats in their districts. This is borne out in pitiful turnout numbers in previous County elections, which has led to massive defeats.
Getting elected isn’t the end, its the beginning.
Since 2008 we have had the ability to identify Democratic voters in Shelby County. In 2010, I and several others encouraged the Party to begin using that resource to reach out to Democratic voters through their Executive Committee members. But a series of distractions and a lack of an effective training regime for members put that effort on hold.
If the SCDP Executive Committee is to ever become an effective force for good in this county, this kind of outreach must be at the core of its mission.
Process and Procedure
Like most things, organizations cannot survive in a vacuum. Organizations need written rules to fill the void and ensure they don’t get lost in the vastness of space. The SCDP Executive Committee has never had or distributed any written rules outside of the bylaws (which is akin to the Party’s Constitution).
Can you imagine how messed up this country would be if there were no law other than the Constitution? There would be no process to prosecute crime, no way to ensure ownership of property, no rules other than this founding document, and the subsequent amendments?
The Bylaws, like the US Constitution, are supposed to be a means to guide the heart, soul, and provide a framework to inform the rules of the the party. They cannot be the only rules.
Many will argue that the party rules are Robert’s Rules of Order. While this set of processes and procedures may be a fine starting point for managing meetings, it doesn’t address processes for internal controls, like auditing financials. The lack of these kinds of controls is part of what led the SCDP to the place it is today.
What’s more, Robert’s Rules are complicated. Earlier this year, a group of #NeverTrump organizers in the GOP sought to change the rules of the GOP convention to Robert’s Rules. The meeting has customarily used the rules of the US House of Representatives for its meetings. That move was rejected.
Why? Because Robert’s Rules, while comprehensive, are so complicated that there would have been a ton of ways to obstruct the proceedings…and while that might have been must see TV for folks who would take much joy in the RNC’s inability to get anything done, as someone who’s lived it with the SCDP, I can tell you its not much fun.
Nearly every deliberative body has some abbreviated set of rules for procedure (making motions, resolutions, and what to do with those when they are properly, or improperly made). Those rules also detail everything from internal controls to discipline. Any effort to rewrite the SCDP Executive Committee bylaws should also include a set of model rules to be adopted based on one of the many legislative rule sets out there (The Memphis City Council, Shelby county Commission, TN House, and TN Senate all have their own legislative rules, based loosely on the ideas set forth in Robert’s Rules of Order and governing law).
Idle Hands are the devil’s workshop
The most important role of the SCDP Executive Committee that has never been realized, is to facilitate the building of future leaders of the County.
There are a lot of reasons this has never happened. Some people, both inside and outside the Committee, see this kind of effort as a threat to their authority. The guiding notion here is that if there’s no one strong enough to challenge them, their position is safe.
But building leaders isn’t merely about challenging prevailing power. It can also support it and facilitate its evolution in a rapidly changing world.
This promotes relevance, and ensures that everyone is at the top of their game. I can’t think of a place that needs this more than Shelby County.
Unfortunately, the organizational knowledge of the party has atrophied to the point of nonexistence. There has been no effort to mentor future leaders. There has been no training to inform activists of new organizing tools. There has been no awareness of policy to activate members of important changes here at the local, state, or national levels.
This inactivity has allowed individuals to retreat to their respective corners for their own purposes, and ultimately, erect roadblocks to any activity. The lack of clear, realizable goals has forced those who would seek leadership positions in the community to seek out other vehicles to reach those positions of leadership. And in the process, it has degraded the party’s ability to nurture this talent, further marginalizing the party structure.
It is my hope that whatever comes of this process will include a set of achievable goals for the party, as well as support from the State party organization to help realize those goals.
There’s a lot more I could say about this, but in the absence of details about how this process will work, I’m loathe to go there.
I hope that the state party will clearly and carefully detail the process forward, and include people who are not currently part of the state party structure. I believe this is the only way to achieve the kind of buy-in from folks here in Shelby County to make this process successful.
I also hope that this will be a transparent process. The activities of the party have been extremely opaque, despite efforts by some to open up the process and activate interested parties outside of the Executive Committee.
At this point I’m cautiously optimistic about the endeavor…even though I know it is fraught with potential problems.
No one person led the SCDP to this point. It will take a lot of work from people both inside and outside the party structure to make the SCDP something more than the bucket of dysfunction that has been a feature of the organization up till now.
I hope it works.