Monday, February 02, 2015

Reaching Out, Reaching In

Friday night I attended a meeting about this fall's school and city elections, hosted by Black Voices Project and Sound Off.  It was an interesting evening, at times effective and at times not, with a diverse crowd. 

There was an undercurrent, not overwhelming but noticeable, of criticism of the local Democratic Party and its relationship to the local black (and other minority) community, roughly summed up as "the Democrats don't care."  I defended the Dems a bit, which may or may not have mattered.

I ran into another one of the attendees, an older white male, at another political event the next day, and asked what he thought the black political community wanted from the local Democrats.  He answered quickly and concisely: "Endorsements and support."

There's a lot in those two words (and one conjunction).

I can't pretend to understand this whole issue, and I'm obviously much more familiar with the workings of the Democratic Party. But two things stand out here.

One, Democrats are clearly missing something in efforts to connect with and include the minority community.  That's been a problem the whole time I've lived here, and the Obama era has only just barely begun to change that.

But the flip side may be that outsiders to the process, such as the minority communities of Iowa City, can have unrealistic expectations about what "the Democrats" can do.

The Democrats I know want to reach out and be diverse.  We KNOW that not everyone knows the rules written or unwritten, or that the rules may be different in the different communities that make up our larger community, or that not everyone has access to information. But sometimes we forget, just for the moment.  And it's just human nature to think more about the people you know than the people you don't.  We can always do better.

Here's one example: money.  This scares people away from politics a lot.  We know it.  And it's an especially touchy issue with underprivileged communities.  Yes, political people are going to ask for money. It's essential to doing what needs to be done.  But in Johnson County, our policy formal and informal is to never turn anyone away.  (Not every place is like that, but Johnson County is.)

Problem is, we forget that not everyone knows this, or we forget that it's just embarrassing to not pay, or for another example to ask for a ride, or what the rules are, and we insiders forget to offer or answer or be proactive about these things.

So this post, which might be the first of several, is my thing to to be proactive.  Most of this information is public, in some form or another, if you know where to look - which itself is an assumption that's too easy to make. 

First off, there is no such thing as "THE Democratic Party." There are a whole bunch of different local, state, and national organizations with "Democrat" in the name.  I could devote a whole post just to listing them all.  For purposes of this discussion, I'll just list four.

The largest and simplest: the Registered Democrats. Anyone who fills out a voter registration form and checks the D box is, by definition, a "Democrat."  Historically, Democratic Party primaries around here have been the decisive races for county level offices in our county, and many old-guard conservative establishment locals are registered as Democrats for just that reason.

I'm thinking especially of here of people like Terry Dickens, the guy whose highest priority after getting elected was to stop homeless people from begging in front of his jewelry store.  By this definition he's just as much a "Democrat" as I am.  There's nothing I or the "Democratic Party," or any of the Democratic Parties I'm defining, can do to change that.

The next "Democratic Party" is the one that most outside observers see locally: the Headquarters Democrats, the campaign apparatus that gears up every two years or so.  It's got an office and a paid staff and an intensified level of volunteer activity and a lot of money coming in from outside.

This Democratic Party only exists for about six months or so every couple years.  It DOESN'T usually exist during the odd number year when Iowa elects its city council. (I've argued elsewhere, in vain, that Iowa City should elect its officials in higher turnout general elections. But for now, that's state law.)  The locals don't have much more control over the Headquarters Democratic Party than they do over the Whoever Checked The D Box Party. 

During the off times, the local "Democratic Party" is the Central Committee organization.  This is an all-volunteer operation with no office, some but not much money, and a relatively small core of people.  Some of those people do a lot of stuff, others are just names on a list.

Our activists are progressive minded, no doubt.  But, looking in the mirror here, we are disproportionately older and wealthier than the average community member.  I don't mean RICH rich.  I mean things like stable jobs and permanent addresses and work hours with enough free time and flexibility to allow for an evening off for a political meeting. That single parent working two shifts is unlikely to be there.

(One thing we locals needs to do way way better at: kids.  Other than our big centerpiece annual event, our fall barbecue, there's rarely child care or even anything for kids to do.  Certainly not at our routine monthly meetings.  It gets circular: no one with kids comes, so we have nothing for kids, so no one with kids comes.)

The Central Committee part of the Democratic Party can be a little frustrating. It's full of bylaws and rules.  Those rules are set up with the idea of openness and inclusion and giving everyone plenty of time and notice that things are going to happen.  The rules got reformed nationwide in the post-Vietnam, post-civil rights era. They're set pretty hard in stone; it can take as long as two years to change some of them.

And they got set up that way because in some places the Central Committee meeting used to be in the back room of Boss Hogg's saloon after closing time, and only Boss Hogg, Roscoe P. Coltrane, and Enos were invited. Yes, I know the symbolism of those names, that's why I picked them.

Unfortunately, sometimes those rules have the opposite effect of openness and become barriers and excuses to hide behind.  Especially since we have some people who care more about the details of those rules than they do about actually getting things done.  Our meetings, frankly, suck, which is its own form of vote suppression.

But I've found the Democratic Central Committee to be a meritocracy. If you have a skill, any skill, even if that skill is just you being you, there's a place at the table for you.  It might not be a VOTING place - the rules on that are especially dense - but the door is open. And my message for those unhappy that the party doesn't represent you? Show up. Please. We need the help.

Let's return to that "endorsements and support" question and how it ties in with the "The Democrats."

Does "support" mean the kind of headquarters and paid staff and mailings and TV ads that you see in October of an even numbered year?  If so, then you're right.  You're not getting "support from the Democrats," because you're thinking of the Headquarters Democrats, and during the city election the Headquarters Democrats don't exist.

The permanent local volunteer Central Committee Democrats in this community, or another community this size, are simply never going to have the resources for a permanent headquarters and staff.  In fact, a lot of the work of the Central Committee Democrats in the odd-numbered year is raising and banking money to help pay for that headquarters in the even numbered year.

Also: because there's no permanent office, our meetings move around a lot, one more thing which makes it harder for an outsider to get involved.  Sometimes we go to Coralville or North Liberty.  (The southeast side isn't the only place that sometimes says "the Democrats don't care about us.")

As for the other piece, "endorsement."  City and school elections in Iowa are, officially, non-partisan.  That's one of the reason some folks want the Democrats to endorse; the ballot doesn't have that cue of a D or an R which, in our polarized era, is probably the single most valuable tool of evaluation.

If the formality of a Johnson County Democratic Central Committee endorsement is that much of a symbolically important thing, it CAN happen.  It was a big fight about 12 years ago, but we set up a system.

The process is complicated and, most prohibitive to an outsider, requires two months of lead time.  And depending on how the calendar lands, that could be a problem, and this year is one of those years.

Iowa City's primary system has two elections 28 days apart.  This year, the city election is on November 3, and a primary if it happens would be October 6. The filing period is August 10-27.

Democratic Central Committee meetings are normally the first Thursday of each month.  This fall, those dates would be September 3, October 1, and November 5 which is after the city election. 

To make an endorsement, the Central Committee has to vote twice.  We vote one month to allow for an endorsement and include that on the notice for the next meeting - because, under our rules, those notices are a Big Deal. Then it takes a two-thirds vote the next month to actually make the endorsement.  And with this year's calendar you really need THREE votes.
1) A motion at the September 3 meeting to allow for an endorsement.

2) Another motion at that September 3 meeting to move the date of the October meeting from the 1st to the 8th. Otherwise, the Central Committee could endorse a candidate on October 1, only to see them lose in the primary on the 6th.

3) a two-thirds vote on October 8 to actually GET the endorsement.
That endorsement's no sure thing. On the rare occasions these motions have come up, there's a certain share of Automatic No vote. There are some people in the party, some of the best progressive Democrats I know, who just philosophically believe that political parties should not make endorsements in non-partisan races.  (There are regular, non-activist voters who feel the same way too, so endorsements risk backlash.)

And then, of course, there's the matter of what happens with that endorsement.  Remember, the Headquarters Democrats aren't there. A Democratic Central Committee "endorsement" is just words on paper unless someone does something with it.

Which is where we come to the fourth, and for purposes of a local election, the most important "Democratic Party."  There's no real definition other than The People Who Get Stuff Done.  It's an informal network, a meritocracy of individual activists. Some have titles or elected offices, some do not. It's opinion leaders and donors and worker bees and people with old war stories.  The people who can introduce you around and will do the work.

Some people think I'm one of them. I'm not so sure, but if I am, it's one more piece of evidence that this process is a meritocracy.  I'm not a lifelong townie or wealthy.  I just showed up as a grad school dropout and I helped and I learned.

THIS is the "Democratic Party" whose endorsement and support is most valuable.  And THIS, and now I'm talking to the people who are part of it, this is the Democratic Party that needs to reach out.

A lot of us HAVE been there for those outsider campaigns.  But we don't always emphasize our Democratic Party connection, because of that City Elections Are Non-Partisan thing.  That's something we "insiders" can change about ourselves, and that's something I said Friday: I'm here be cause Democrats care. 

No one wins elections without allies.  And we the People Who Get Stuff Done Democrats are ready to be allies this fall.

But without the Headquarters Democrats and their offices and TV ads and headquarters and national news and millions of dollars, which the locals can't provide, there will be nowhere near as many voters this fall as there were last year.  I can tell you right now: About 8000 to 10,000 people will vote in Iowa City this November.  That's about 20% turnout.

Sure, the Democrats need to reach outside.  But to win, the outsiders need to reach inside, too. 

Every candidate is going to bring SOME new people to the table.  That's good.  But in 25 years in Iowa City I've seen literally dozens of campaigns base their entire strategy around Changing The Electorate, usually meaning students but sometimes meaning other under-represented communities.

Only two have succeeded: Barack Obama and the 19 Bar campaigns.

You're not Barack Obama. You're not beer, either.

And remember those bar campaigns were funded by tens of thousands of dollars.  Dollars that didn't have to be painstakingly fundraised $20 or $50 at a time; the bar owners just wrote a check. And remember that, after they won one with the element of surprise in 2007, they lost the next two in 2010 and 2013.

Don't get me wrong. I love new voters.  But in a local campaign strategy, that's the EXTRA, not the core.  That's votes in the dozens, or if you're really good in the hundreds.  And if turnout is 8000 to 10,000, you need 4000 or 5000 votes to win.

Almost all of those voters are going to be people who vote in every election.  Those every-election voters are easy to identify and you need to reach them.

Not all of them are reachable.  The every-election voters are older, whiter, and richer than the city as a whole.  And even among people who are liberals on state, national, and world issues, there are some pretty conservative attitudes toward local stuff. But there are enough local progressive voters to get a candidate MOST of the way to that magic 4000 or 5000 votes.

Not ALL the way.

I think one reason the 2013 city election turned out the way it did: Kingsley Botchway and Royceann Porter brought in a lot of new people - again "a lot" means dozens or hundreds, not thousands.  But Botchway, for whatever reason, did better with the every-election voters than Porter.  Rockne Cole's own people, meanwhile, overlapped a lot with folks who were already every election progressive voters anyway.

So, with new people plus a bigger chunk of the every-election people, Botchway got about 900 more votes than Cole and Porter and was able to win. (Royceann was in a separate contest from Kingsley and Rockne.  That district system is a whole `nother post...)

Cole told the crowd Friday he's running again.  And while Porter didn't commit, she gave a rousing speech to close the night.  With enough insiders reaching out, and enough outsiders reaching in, maybe this is the year.


JSN said...

The view that we have to keep the White Power Elite White is part of the problem.

Chris said...

Thanks for this post. I think it’s a shame that the party has adopted rules that make endorsements in non-partisan elections so unlikely. As you point out, an endorsement in a local election is just a piece of information, but it’s one that at least some voters would appreciate. Why not take a stand? (And so why not make it easier for the local party to take a stand?)

And why a 2/3 vote requirement? I assume there is no equivalent requirement in making endorsements for partisan offices.

The state election laws just dictate that party identification won’t appear on the ballot in local elections. That’s not a determination that parties can’t endorse candidates (nor could it be, constitutionally), so why does anyone in the party choose to interpret it that way? And why substitute a state judgment for the party’s judgment anyway? Seems like just a convenient excuse for not getting involved.

I hear you that the process for changing rules is cumbersome and time-consuming. And I don’t think we can know for sure who would benefit from any given rule change. But I can certainly understand why groups that want endorsements would feel unsupported by a party that has this kind of rule. It *is* a choice not to support those groups and their causes, whether that was its intention or not.

At the very least it puts the party in an awkward spot when, in even-numbered years, it wants to call upon those groups to support its candidates.

John said...

The scope of the post was just my own community and just the Democratic Party. And a big chunk of the Democratic Party's "white power elite" supported Kingsley Botchway and Royceann Porter.

John said...

I was shocked to hear that "endorsements" were even an issue. That's why I wrote this. I got told "people want endorsements," I explained how.

2/3 was a compromise. Some people wanted simple majority, others wanted no endorsements at all, so the idea is we want it to be a clear and strong consensus that we want to do thiis.

I think someone like Royceanne or Kingsley could come before the central committee and get a fair shot at an endorsement.

I don't see non-endorsement as an excuse, because it's been a few years since anyone has even ASKED for an endorsement for a city candidate. Of course, people might not know that you would need to ask. Endorsement is considered an extra-ordinary thing, not a routine thing, and people may not know that you need to ask. Part of why I wrote this.

Remember, too, that the city elections are just three months before the scheduled caucus date, which means just two months before what will be the final real caucus date. That'll be a huge distraction. One problem that may be bigger than usual in our community: a lot of peopel are really caught up in national and even international issues, but don't get involved on purely local stuff.

One of the other issues is that, in many or most Iowa City elections, most or all of the candidates are registered Democrats. (See original post). Some people argued "we shouldn't endorse one registered Democrat over another."

Also, in local elections the lines are not always as cut and dried as they are in partisan elections. People often have different views about what "liberal" or "progressive" means. (See my collected rants on 21 Bar, 2007 through 2013.) And as you know in school elections, geography matters as much or more than party. I think it would be impossible for any ICCSD candidate these days to get 2/3. (Can't remember if rules state we can only endorse registered Ds. I do know that an registered R would have no chance.)

In a party primary, which in Johnson County is a local election, that gets settled by the voters rather than by endorsement. If the DINOs or even the crossover Republicans get out and nominate a moderate, that's the candidate.

Also, personally, I don't think they matter much. Because without the headquarters infrastructure, which is not realistic for a city election, an endorsement is just words, and relatively empty words at that). Which makes the 2/3 relatively unimportant: empty words are even emptier if there's not at least strong sentiment behind them.

Chris said...

I think there's an easy work-around if the party committee members are willing. I posted about it here.

I do think the words mean something, and apparently the people who want endorsements feel the same. I see no reason an endorsement should be harder to get in a local or "non-partisan" election than in any other election.

John said...

Endorsement isn't a question in a partisan election, because the primary decides.

In some states (Minnesota is one) a party organization endorses, or decides not to, before a primary. And in some states a party convention helps determine who can even be on a ballot. Iowa doesn't do that.

Again: I don't think the JCDems endorsement process is enough of a barrier to endorsement to need a separate side organization.

Endorsements haven't failed because of the process; endorsements have failed because no one asks. That's why I put this out there, so that it's less obscure.