Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Gala Grumbling

I skipped out on the Iowa Democratic Party's big event Monday night, not out of any objection but in part because of the scheduling. I will say one more time that while the name change needed to happen, the new name of the event formerly known as Jefferson-Jackson is so aesthetically lame that I refuse to use it. Sounds like a new variety of apple.

So I see predictable praise of candidates from supporters, comments that it was a nice event from many who were there, and assorted grumbling from some who were there and from more who were not.

The grumbles fall into three categories:
  1. the weeknight timing and choice of speaker;
  2. the optics of having an event that is very obviously two-tiered with "elite" and "cheap" seats; and
  3. the larger issue of high dollar fundraising. (And even the "elite" seats at The Event Formerly Known As JJ are mid-dollar seats. There's always a truly high-dollar "clutch event" where the biggest donors get face time and a picture with the Big Shot.)
I've been in the periphery of speaker recruiting on the local level and it's challenging. Iowa makes it more challenging, and the year after a presidential election without your party in the White House makes it even harder. The axiom is no politician goes to Iowa by accident, and the 2020 hopefuls are just not ready to put themselves under that First In The Nation spotlight yet, says the man who used to have a Days Since Hillary Has Been To Iowa countdown on this page.  

That limits you to either an Obama (and even Michelle is not immune to speculation) or a non-politician. And measured by attendance and entertainment value, Alec Baldwin was a success. 

While attendance was good, there was still the optics problem that a weeknight in Des Moines was "for Polk County only" - a common complaint in IDP circles in the last year.It did contribute to my decision not to attend. (While I'm lucky and have lots of time off work except in October and early November, I was just wrapping up an extended Thanksgiving vacation on Monday and didn't want to extend that another day.)

You don't on-purpose go for a Monday night. The way scheduling this kind of event works is: you line up the speaker and the speaker says "I'm available this date." Then you either set that date or you say "Sorry, Alec, but a Monday night is a deal breaker" and look for another speaker. 

Clearly IDP did not want to deprive all of America from Baldwin's Trump impersonation by asking for a Saturday night, though we could have brought in the whole cast and said "Live, from Des Moines, it's Saturday Night." 

(I'm shocked they had the self-awareness to actually play this clip at a Democratic Party fund raiser.)

As for the optics problem of a multi-tier event, with higher dollar donors seated for dinners and general admission in bleachers: We've heard grumbling about "elitism" from the bleachers but it might be interesting to ask some of the bigger donors. Here's a gentle reminder that all other things being equal (which they admittedly sometimes aren't) it is a good thing to be able to give the Democrats a lot of money.  Most of our high end donors, at least in Iowa, are good people and not corrupt influence peddlers. So let's ask them what they like and dislike about the setup and see what "frills" they would be just as happy to do without.

Johnson County is egalitarian, sometimes to the detriment of our bank account. We have had a long-term and explicit policy that no one is turned away from an event for inability to pay.

The Johnson County Democrats have two main events each year. The big one is our fall barbecue which is low-dollar (usually $20ish) and egalitarian seating at cafeteria style tables. The draw is speakers, usually candidates or out of state big names. We get a few new people at this, usually drawn by the speakers.

The other event is our spring Hall of Fame event which is a little higher dollar, dinner table style seating (though it's just coffee/dessert) and centered around the honorees. The people who show up at this are the long-time activists who know the people being honored. Candidates are introduced but don't speak; Dave Loebsack gives a short speech but the tone is not Re-Elect Me, it's The Congressman Is Here To Honor Your Lifetime Award. He always has a good story about each honoree.

Both these events have "host" levels, but the recognition is just a name in the program and not a better seat. At the BBQ you sit wherever; at the Hall of Fame the front seats are reserved for honorees and their personal guests.

Not every arm of the party is as loud about it as the Johnson County Dems, but it is almost always possible to get into an event for little or no money.

It's not easy to get into a closed door clutch event, because those are often controlled by the Big Name themselves and not the event host. But there are Regular Folks at those. I've never paid the four-figure donation for a clutch event, but I've been invited to them as a Key Local Activist or as a Person With An Interesting Story. My experience is the people who are there based on money only get the handshake and the picture, while the invited Regular Folks get better quality time.

It's almost always possible to get into the main speaking event free. You can volunteer and get in. Despite my lucrative career as a political consultant, I usually don't pay to attend events. I make the invitation list as a volunteer, that's my donation, and I show up. Most events also need regular volunteers without a special skill set.

Another way to get in free: Campaigns or unions buy blocks of tickets and give them to supporters. I was offered tickets to Monday's event by Nate Boulton's campaign because I'm supporting him.

Or if you're a long time activist who's short on bread, the organizers often just let you in.

Here's the problem. Unless you're already to some extent an "insider," you don't know about any of this. You see the price tag, get sticker shock, don't go, and express frustration. 

The best thing you can do as a political junkie - if you're reading a blog, you are - is to let the new people know about this. Make the circle of "insiders" as much bigger as you can. You still won't reach the person who only reads the article, but if you can reach the person who's at their first meeting, that makes it just a little better. 

One SCC member who skipped last night's event suggested an explicit income-based sliding scale. Maybe that would help (Johnson County generally lists something like "student price"), but one problem Johnson County has with its no-pay policy is people who CAN afford to pay but don't. Not a big problem, but one some people take advantage of. In the end, the purpose of the event is to raise money and "it's a fundraiser but you don't have to pay" is a mixed message. There's a risk that if you ask Bill Gates for $25, he will give you $25 and no more.

Also. consider this: No volunteer wants to get told or feel like their hours are less important than someone else's big check. But neither does a donor want to be told "money doesn't matter" as they're pulling out the checkbook. Granted, it's more often one way than the other, but everyone wants to feel good about what they do.

The big picture problem of high dollar based fund raising is harder to address. The real solution, donation and spending limits or public finance, is a LONG way off, will require a super-majority level consensus to amend the Constitution which is impossible in the current polarized environment, and can't happen till we win under the current, bad rules.

So we need interim solutions. Unfortunately I only have negative answers. Unilateral disarmament on principle will cost us even more elections. Magic internet small dollar money has only been shown to work on either presidential campaigns or the very limited circumstances of special elections that are the only game in town for a little while. (And which sometimes has the unpleasant side effect of unrealistically raising people's hopes.)

And if we're going to build a stronger small dollar base, we have to ask and ask again and keep asking. A more aggressive effort to solicit small donors runs the risk of creating the impression that we aren't interested in anything BUT money.  We need rank and file people who can't give anything more than a vote. We need volunteers to knock on the doors.

But we need staffers. We need flyers. We need signs. We need offices. Yes, we need ads. 

And to do those things, we need money.


Gark said...

Nice piece, John. While I neither grumble, nor go to fundraisers--preferring magic online donations or responding to incessant email wheedling, it is not hard to see why regular people don't get super-psyched to join in party fun. It is nathering and nitpicking at its best and revisiting high school cliques at its worst. Ask an average person with kids to put to bed or a person dealing with a sick parent why they aren't at the clambake and be prepared for serious side-eye. Party politics has been designed to reward the serious partisan and to largely exclude the dilletante or the time limited, working person. Of course, thems the rules--there's no crying in politics (unless your side loses). As long as big money means access, politics will never be for regular folks except at the local level--and even there, it is not for the time-limited.

Laura Hubka said...

The biggest gripe I heard had nothing to do with money but with accessibility. There were no accessibility forms mailed out to people who needed it and the sign language interpreter was way at the front and the camera was not on the person for the people that may have needed it and not been able to afford the expensive seats to be close enough. Also something about it accessible door was covered by the Drumline and people were not able to get in and out. Accessibility is a big deal. And it should be a big deal.

Ira said...

John, the IDP's reliance on money is what caused rural Iowans to desert the party in great numbers. And a continued reliance on staffers, flyers, signs and ads aren't going to win them back.

We need candidates whom Iowans can trust, who are not beholden to issues that affect only one or two segments of the population, and who have a message we can rally around. That's not about money. It's about character, and hard work.

John said...

Candidates without staffers, flyers, signs and ads are not going to win anything above a small town city council level no matter how trustworthy their character is, because no one will have heard of them.

BlueLady said...

Spending time and/or money on politics is a choice. While we want to be as open and accepting as possible, there are some things that we, as individuals, have to accept. Some people have more money. Their vote counts just as much as mine. The kind of access that makes a difference in a vote on a specific piece of legislation doesn't come with a $250 dinner for two. Making it sound like it does, blurs the truth that some people DO pay their mega bucks to order the world to suit their needs. That is not what is happening with the type of events the IDP hosts.

Our family didn't do a lot of other things because John and I are both political junkies. We CHOSE to spend time working for candidates and the Democratic Party. We CHOSE to save money to attend the Harkin Steak Fry and the JJ Dinner and the Hall of Fame for our county, district and the state party. We almost never go out to a movie. We almost never go to a concert. I've sat in the cheap seats when we couldn't afford the dinner. I've tried to make it clear that we respect and need all the players on the field, not just the MVP, to win. I do believe the Party tends to give the recognition to those who give the most money, but having done the fundraising, I get it. Until you have to do it yourself, it is a difficult concept to grasp. It takes money to raise money. Even all those small donations required a hefty big spend to get them started. I keep hoping for the unicorn to spout meaningful campaign finance reform out of its horn, but until that happens, we will continue to have this conversation.

Ben said...

Ditto to what John said. I don't think rural Iowans left the party because they felt like the IDP did too much fundraising. The GOP holds high dollar events all the time.