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Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Asleep At The Switch

How the Democrats Lost Johnson County

The first thing to say, of course, is congratulations to John Etheredge. A win is a win. We've only chatted a couple times but we'll get to know each other better soon. I think John has a lot to learn. Anyone new to that job does, though Terry Dahms was as close to ready as anyone I've ever seen. But the people chose otherwise, and as a fellow public servant I'll do my small part to help John do the job.

My dad was a coach and he had a pat answer when asked the standard dumb sports reporter question: "are you going to win?" He'd say: "Well, if we play our best and they play their best, we'll win. But: if they play their best and we don't, they could win."

The Johnson County Republicans didn't quite play their best; Etheredge polled less votes than Lori Cardella did in her January 2010 special election loss. (Of course, he wasn't married to a spouse with deep pockets who owned his own call center either.)

But they played a far better game than the Johnson County Democrats who, frankly, were asleep at the switch. Terry Dahms barely won half the votes that Janelle Rettig did in the `10 race. Blame the weather? Maybe. But that doesn't explain the much lower early vote total. We saw that coming two weeks out. It doesn't explain Dahms' narrower early vote margin, which should have been 3 to 1 rather than 60-40.

The bigger turnout problem than weather was the sheer lack of interest in the election. Burned out from the school election fight last month, overshadowed by Linn County's gambling vote, looking ahead to the justice center vote in May -- which looks a lot iffier after yesterday  --  this election was orphaned, like a bad Iowa City primary with five candidates, the top four advancing, and one person who isn't campaigning at all.

We're coming off an election cycle where the Obama campaign showed up a year and a half out, recruited all the bodies, made all the calls, then left with their volunteer lists. Us locals stayed behind, complacent and out of shape and not able to get up to speed fast enough for a sprint-paced special.

We have a lot of Democratic voters focused on national and state issues who don't even know what a supervisor is, who don't get county government's critical role in human services and mental health and conservation, and aren't racing out to vote if the name Obama isn't on the ballot.

I think or at least hope that this means Tuesday's result won't be repeated next year. I can't think of anything that'll boost People's Republic turnout more than Steve King at the top of the Republican ticket, and bonus! a chance to vote against Terry Branstad. A Republican down-ballot candidate, even as an incumbent, will have a tough time fighting that tide.

But for now, Johnson County has a lot of lefties who will call their legislators about an amendment to a bill that won't even get out of the funnel, rather than calling their neighbors to get out and vote in a local election. We have a lot of ivory tower types who are above gauche townie things like a zoning fight, which is why Iowa City's council had been business conservative dominated all my 20+ years here.

There's also an ugly split in our community (other than the Love The Hawkeyes Hate The Students split in the city). The Democratic Party, and specifically county government, has a serious rural problem. We saw it in the Rettig-Cardella special, and it was the centerpiece of the Etheredge campaign. (This at-large win makes a strong argument against the Republican's supervisor district plan, doesn't it?) I don't have the answer, it has to be more complex than just "tax bad," and as an urban lefty I'm the wrong person to try.

Sure, we had "party unity" after our contested convention, compared to the 90s when candidates who lost at convention bolted and ran as independents, one winning and one losing. But we spent more energy on that convention than we did on the campaign for the election itself.

And it delayed the launch; remember that Rettig was already up and running as a candidate for the 2010 primary when Larry Meyers died in September 2009. The signs were printed, the funds were raised. There was no excuse for a delay here, as this election and even this time frame had been expected for a year and a half.

I've lost an election, but I could look in the mirror and say "gee, I must suck" afterwards and brush it off. It hurts me more to see a friend lose. Terry Dahms took over our local party at our nadir, after a contentious two years and after a terrible 2010 defeat. Despite his personal loss, the strictly local structure, while still recovering from 2009-10, is in better shape. (Yes, even with our current disarray, it was worse.) Terry still has much to give to the county and the party.

This doesn't really have a conclusion, at least not yet. There's some key elections and some key votes between now and November 2014 before we know how this story turns out.

5 comments:

Mona Shaw said...

I also posted this on Facebook.

I’m going to throw my 2 cents in here out of some fading hope you might hear this. Johnson County Democrats blew this election. It wasn’t blown because people just assumed “a Democrat would win.” While that was a factor, it’s not that simple. People didn’t show up because you didn’t give them a compelling reason to. What you’re failing to see is that the possibility a Democrat could lose wasn’t that compelling this time.

The first mistake you made was how you handled the desire for rural people to have a rural representative. Okay, your candidate wasn’t rural. But, rather than tell them you believed it mattered that rural citizens were represented and how your candidate was an even better representative for them with specific reasons, you said that it didn’t matter. You didn’t get it. And you made it worse by saying things like you didn’t believe in Affirmative Action. Sure you tried to spin this as “Identity Politics” an obvious pandering to conservative voters, which turned off both conservatives and your progressive base as well. You can’t applaud the number of new women in the U.S. Senate and then say that a voice from an affected group really doesn’t matter. Apparently it doesn’t bother Johnson County Democrats that your board is 80% white, heterosexual men—not exactly the kind of thing that drives progressive voters to the polls.

Your lack of clarity on your stand on progressive values is creating indifference, and you won’t see it. You’re building a jail despite the clear racist ramifications of that. You’re playing fast and loose with private records of UI students. You obfuscate your position on SEATS leading people to wonder if you care about the elderly and disabled. And, in this case, rather than point to things that clearly show support for those populations, you tend to call voters stupid for not reading your mind.

You’ve not passed a clearly progressive measure out of the County in decades. Okay, you passed the County-wide Human Rights Ordinance but only after I embarrassed you in to it. When I first presented this at a Board Meeting, there was only one member who indicated any support for it, and that support was tepid.

There was a record party turnout for the 2006 Primary when it could have been low because that race was nearly uncontested, except for one. Clearly the voters felt compelled to clean up a mess in the Auditor’s Office that you covered up and let go for ten years. And, while it took them until 2012 to bring themselves to believe you’d done that. They did finally get it, and they fixed it. But even there you ultimately made yourself look bad. You have taken absolutely no responsibility for that error in judgment. People know, btw, there are many things you could have done rather than cover it up.

After the fact, rather than do any sort of mea culpa and tell concerned constituents what you were doing to make sure this never happened again, you accused anyone concerned with that of being “bitter” or “unwilling to move on.” People believe you don’t care if it happens again. People believe that what you actually want is to slap down whistle-blowers to make sure no one ever whistle-blows again. You chose a misguided strategy you thought was showing a “united front,” and it back-fired. People don’t buy it, and they don’t like it. Look at Joe Paterno, the Catholic Church, the UI cover-up of sexual assault, Lance Armstrong’s treatment of whistle-blowers if you need confirmation.

You do know your base is largely progressive, right? Progressives don’t know what you stand for anymore. You’re going to continue losing elections until you give them something real and substantive on which to hang their hat. Until you can point to very specific things they might lose if they don’t vote for you, they’re going to be more and more inclined to stay home on Election Day. Or you can keep listening to people who’ll tell you what you want to hear.

Talking With said...

Responding to the news that a Republican has been elected in Johnson County for the first time in over 50 years, Ace Hardware is reporting that they will be having a sale on sackcloth and ash this weekend, and the Iowa City Public Library has announced that there will be grief counselors available tomorrow afternoon, with light gluten-free, free range, fair trade and cruelty free cookies and coffee provided.

To celebrate his victory, Mr. Etheredge is planning a short victory parade on Friday where he will ride on the back of a Unicorn from the Pentacrest down Clinton Street to the County Building, where Bigfoot will sing the National Anthem. Afterwards, he will be giving children under 10 free rides on his UFO. When asked about the expense, Mr. Etheredge commented that "As long as local Democrats are seeing something they can't believe their own eyes, I figured I might as well give them a real show."

RFLatta said...

This is a fair microcosm of our current politics. As inequality widens exponentially between the rentiers and workers populist pressure for reform naturally increases. The reaction from the institutional left is to tell the hippies to shut up because Republicans are really scary so they are the only alternative. Do you really think workers will always show up to vote as effective wages fall and Democrats keep moving to the right?

The reaction from the institutional right is to co-opt populism with the Tea Party and concern troll the student vote from the left. How naive do you have to be to think that Republicans will protect your civil rights? But Johnson County Democrats, like national Democrats, are not giving students a viable alternative. And enabling binge drinking is not an alternative when it is difficult to imagine ever paying off your student loans.

Emily said...


We're coming off an election cycle where the Obama campaign showed up a year and a half out, recruited all the bodies, made all the calls, then left with their volunteer lists.


I think this is a little bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, to be honest. I'm a former OFA neighborhood team leader, and the first time I heard the whole "OFA isn't sharing its volunteer lists" thing I emailed Terry Dahms asking him if he'd like a list of my active volunteers. He didn't take me up on it. I've been showing up at every JC Democrats event that they'll have me at, and while everyone has been really nice and welcoming, I haven't got the sense that there's much of a role for me. I would have been totally delighted to make phone calls or knock on doors if anyone had indicated any interest in having me do it. I don't know how many OFA people would be interested in being involved in local Democratic politics, but it seems to me that the local Democratic activists are badmouthing us a lot more effectively than they're reaching out.

John said...

Thanks Emily. Part of the problem right there :(