You build from the ground up…

The party should re-think itself rather than react.
The party should re-think itself rather than react.
You may remember the legislative effort in the spring to change the makeup of the TNDP Executive Committee.

I opposed that effort, at first because I saw it as a power grab, and or sour grapes…but also because I’m not a big fan of “top down” solutions to these kinds of issues.

In a letter to the Caucuses I wrote in part:

While I was disappointed that my preferred candidates for Chair did not win over the past two cycles, I understand my opportunity to have a voice in who becomes chair in the future is through lobbying current Executive Committee members, and if they are unresponsive, through my work to elect someone more responsive in August 2014. Further, as a Democrat, and someone who values the democratic process, I understand we must work together to show our strength. This effort does not affirm that value.

While I oppose this current effort, know that I am not completely opposed to a potential change in structure. In fact, change is something I have openly advocated for in the past, and will likely advocate for in the future.

This is the part where I advocate for changing the way the Executive Committee is structured.

The Current Structure

Currently, the TNDP Executive Committee is made up of 66 elected representatives (1 male and 1 female from each Senate District) and six ex-officio members. The regular members are elected in the August of gubernatorial election years (next one is August of 2014).

In 2010, only 14 of those 66 contests were contested (21%). While some may say this is because people support their Executive Committee members, what I found through knocking on over 10,000 doors last year was the the vast majority of Democrats have little to no knowledge of the State and County party…or how the executive committees are selected.

While an election, on the face of it, may lead one to believe that the will of the people is best expressed, if rank and file Democrats have little to no knowledge of how their party is composed, it should come as no surprise that the Party has a difficult time building and growing.

What’s also interesting is that I’ve met more than one State Executive Committee member who had no idea how their County parties are organized.

That should never happen.

Building a Party from the Ground Up

So the issue, at least in my mind, is one of continuity.

County parties select their committee members at a bi-annual caucus (with the exception of Davidson who elects theirs thanks to a private act passed a long time ago). The state committee members are selected by a quadrennial election.

Because neither of these two selection processes have anything to do with each other, it stands to reason that there is a natural disconnect between the two levels of organization, when in reality, the two should be working together hand in glove.

In order to create a direct line connection to the county parties there must be some process in place to make that happen.

Of course, I have a suggestion.

A modest proposal

What if, rather than electing the TNDP Executive Committee, its composition was determined by a Caucus system that started with the County level re-organiztion and moved up through State Senate districts to the state level?

This would, in effect, reverse the timeline of the re-organization process…putting Counties first, Senate Districts second, and the final composition of the state organization third, including party officers.

This process would require state party members to be aware of the County organization process, and would help build a more direct line of communication between the state and local parties, as their ascension to the state party committee would depend on their ability to both organize, inform, and work within and around the County party system.


Under this idea, the party itself would have two levels of governance:

State Executive Board: made up of party officers (and at-large positions) elected by the committee of the whole as set forth in the by-laws. This group would be a part of day to day decisions and propose issues to be brought to the general committee.

State Party Committee: made up of no fewer than 66 and no more than 99 caucus members plus ex-officio members that met in person at least every 6 months.

The Committee would elect the executive board as set forth in the by-laws, approve budget and large spending proposals, consider by-laws changes, and consider issues brought forward from the executive board.

The Committee would also have veto power over issues decided by the Executive board subject to the rules of the party, but my immediate thought is that a petition signed by at least half of the committee members would have to be used to stop any issue until the next committee meeting.

Practical considerations

TN Code annotated sets the manner for election of state party executive committee members. However, since State Parties are not a part of the state government, and have the power to determine the qualifications of their own membership, by simply changing the section of the State Party bylaws that deals with the manner in which the Executive Committee is selected, the party could remove itself from the election process entirely.

Putting that process into motion would take a change to Article IV Section 1 of the state bylaws as well as other sections depending on the structure the party settled on.

Amending the bylaws takes a 2/3 vote of the 72 members of the committee (66 elected and 6 ex-officio) for a total of 48 votes. This could be done with one vote, if the amendment were fully drafted.

Another consideration is that the Executive Committee would need to act on two issues very soon:

1. Informing the Secretary of State to remove State Democratic Executive Committee elections from the ballot before the petitions are issued on January 3rd, 2014.

2. Including a provision to extend their own terms through the new re-organization period…whenever it would begin.

Dealing with this change after petitions are issued would cause undue confusion, and might lead to a legal challenge.

Final Thoughts

From my vantage point, there needs to be more communication and coordination between the State Party, County parties, and elected members (in county, state, and federal positions). By establishing a caucus system, more communication would be required between and within the County and State organizations to ensure members of the state and executive boards didn’t lose the confidence of their constituents.

This bi-annual vote of confidence (the caucus) would also build relationships statewide, and help the party create stronger networks of party faithful that would help in the building of a better grassroots base to support candidates for local, state and federal positions.

In this post I noted that my focus has been on building some semblance of permanence when it came to the state party. In order to do that, you have to build something at the County party level. Establishing a structure at the state level that actually utilized the county parties rather than running an end around on them is a way to create something with some level of permanence and accountability that brings more people in rather than the more exclusionary system we have now.

This post is meant more as a conversation starter, I do have a draft of a proposal prepared to put this organizational plan into action. If you’re interested, you can contact me here or on twitter.

12 Replies to “You build from the ground up…”

  1. I am all for improving the Executive Committee, but the fact is, a large number, if not a majority, of county parties in this state are dysfunctional or even non-functional. I guess you have a chicken or egg problem, but county-by-county the local parties are in even worse shape than the EC. Tying the EC selection to county conventions would effectively disenfranchise a huge majority of Democrats in this state. And you are going to have a much worse, rather than a better, problem with fiefdoms and party hackery than we do now.

    I commend you for putting some thought into improving the party structure. But I think your proposal is not the best approach.

    I agree that the EC is more interested in who sits next to the speaker at the bean supper, who gets a good table at Jackson Day, and who gets to go to the convention instead of what should interest them — their ONLY job: to help elect Democrats. And I am way past being weary of their petty little games.

    So if you want to improve the EC (and I share that desire with you) get some good people to run for the seats. It’s no more complicated than that. I guarantee that an active, enthusiastic new candidate (young or not so young) could beat the sock off of almost any one of those hacks with a little real campaigning.

    1. Thanks for the Comment. A couple of things:

      1. You’re right, many county parties are in disarray. Its been that way for a long time. It won’t change overnight. But that isn’t likely to change when the folks who represent us at the state party level have no responsibility or need to engage in the County party process, and a Senate District caucus process (which would force rural county parties to engage with each other in a single Senate District) to get their position on the state EC, which one would hope would address the hackery and fiefdoms that you note.

      As for disenfranchisement…what I’ve found through several County party caucus processes, is that I meet people in my area, many of whom I didn’t know before, and whether or not we back the same horse, make relationships with those folks. These are the people who will absolutely show up to volunteer for things. We need a vehicle to get more of those folks so they can get more folks involved as well.

      2. One of the issues with the elections for EC, is that because there is little knowledge of the position at all (outside people who spend way too much time thinking about this…like myself), and have little knowledge of the process itself. In 2010, I know at least one EC member who didn’t even campaign, and won because their name was first on the ballot (which disturbs me to no end).Further, if some upstart does decide to run against a long established member, depending on the relative political power of that individual…the upstart gets crushed to the point they may not ever be able to run again (I’ve also seen this happen both here and in Arkansas).

      So the question I posed myself was, “how do we get more people involved in the process?” It sets up a scenario where all seats can be contested is a more safe environment if it is managed properly. And more people can make more connections with each other, outside of their usual suspects, which helps build a stronger community of the party, particularly in rural areas where people are more isolated by distance than in urban areas.

      I know that’s a big if.

  2. Steve,

    I appreciate your work and research for this post. Obviously, the Democratic Party in TN needs to find a way to work better. As a relatively new member of the State Exec Committee, who did run with opposition, I am not adverse to finding a different way of doing things. I am very skeptical about the idea of county committees having the power to determine the State Committee members. As Perry said, many of them are either nonexistent or not very active. Some of the active ones, including the one I know best, generally have little to no influence on the election of officeholders. I feel very satisfied by my election in that I went directly to voters. We can debate how the best way to make changes might be but , in the meantime, I think more people should actually running for these positions, and campaign for them. I may regret that if some of you run against me 🙂 but, as incumbents, we all need to defend our records.

    1. Dwayne,

      The County Parties wouldn’t necessarily be determining State Party members. In most cases, they would elect delegates to a Senate Dist. Caucus. Shelby Co. would be different…since we have 4 completely and one partially within our borders.

      My aim, in thinking about this was giving some of these smaller organizations a reason to stay organized. I don’t think anyone can credibly argue the current system does that.

      But again, this is really more about starting a conversation than offering a specific proposal…which from the looks of it, has been accomplished on some level.

      As for the upcoming elections…if nothing else, I hope this post has spurred folks to think about participating in the process. Looking at the 2010 returns in some areas, 36% of Execom races had fewer than 5000 people involved in selecting their representatives to the state party. Would a caucus system bring in more people? Probably not…but it would bring in the most interested people…who are interested in giving up a chunk of their time to process. Those are the folks who will eventually become leaders in their areas…if we provide them a vehicle, and an opportunity outside of the normal 5 min. voting period every 4th August.

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