Wednesday, March 25, 2009

How Democrats Can Rebuild in Pinellas County

Ramsay McLaughlin, the new chair of the Pinellas County Democratic Executive Committee (DEC), gave a talk to Tiger Bay about what the DEC needs to accomplish in order to build the party and win elections.

He makes some good points – the DEC needs money, yes; the DEC needs stronger organization; and yes, the DEC (and Democratic candidates and electeds in Pinellas) need a coherent message (message being something that requires a posting all its own in the future).

Nevertheless, without disputing the need for the DEC to focus on those three, core aspects of political campaigning (money, organization and message), let me offer my own little bit of “strategery.”

In some ways, I hate to talk about strategy. Too many times, when I hear some talk about political strategy, it means I am about to hear a candidate or an inexperienced campaign manager give me some excuse why they are delaying or not going to raise money or knock on doors or otherwise engage in avoiding some critical aspect of modern political campaigning. These people often spend huge amounts of time with their kitchen cabinet discussing the campaign website and yard sign strategy, but don’t have a basic palm card to hand out during door knocking with the election only a few months away.

So please, don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say – the DEC and every political campaign needs to focus on money, message, building a strong organization.

That said, let’s get into the weeds a little.

Some of this I’ve gone over before, but let’s take it from the top.

In 2008, the Pinellas DEC engaged in a massive coordinated campaign called “Vote Local.” It was focused on promoting all Democrats running for office. It was a grand idea that was designed to dovetail with the large GOTV operation being promoted and run by the Obama campaign.

It did not work.

Obama won Pinellas with roughly 55% of vote, a very strong showing considering Pinellas had been won relatively narrowly by Gore in 2000 and by Bush in 2004.

But Democrats down the ticket failed to benefit or even do very well.

The Vote Local centerpiece was an oversized palm card that contained the name and logo of virtually every Democrat running. It looked sort of like those super expensive concert t-shirts that contain all the images and logos used on all the other concert t-shirts.

Now, I love my Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers concert t-shirt, but it is inarguably cluttered and you have to stare at it for a remarkably long period of time to figure out which album he was touring in support of.

You should not have to stare for more than two or three seconds at a good piece of campaign literature to figure out who or what is being supporter and why.

The second part of the package is perhaps the most tricky.

It is very difficult for local party organizations to focus on those races that the most winnable, because that invariably means leaving other candidates behind.

But I truly believe it is a necessary part of political life. I have worked for a number of state party organizations and it is never fun to cut someone you’ve worked with off from the support and resources they were hoping for an expecting from you. It is even harder when I’ve been on the other side – cut out of the loop by my party.

But resources are finite – if you spread them too thin, nothing gets accomplished.

For example, in 2008, I believe that the party could reasonably have determined that the Democratic candidates with the best chance of picking up a local seat were Carl Zimmerman and Rene Flowers.

Rene Flowers had run for and won public office in the past and Zimmerman had laid the groundwork (and his opponent made the gaffes) for potential victory. Both lost, but unlike Democratic candidates for other offices, they came close enough that a concerted effort by county Democrats could have put one or both of them over the top – more than could be said for the party’s candidate for supervisor of elections.

This is not meant to disrespect Jack Killingsworth, the aforementioned candidate for supervisor of elections, but it does lead into my final point.

Not everybody is ready to run for every office.

Running countywide is expensive and difficult. So is running for the legislature. Very few Democratic candidates in Pinellas in ’08 had prior experience in public office. Bob Hackworth was Mayor of Dunedin and Rene Flowers was a St. Petersburg City Councilwoman. Other than that, the field was pretty thin.

The DEC would be well advised to think about the next round of municipal elections. We just had a bunch, but another cluster will be along before you know it. Think of it as helping a candidate learn to walk before s/he runs.

Think of it as providing a base from which to run from.

If the DEC wants to start winning legislative seats and county positions, they need to first focus on winning city elections in Clearwater and Tarpon Springs (why the DEC didn’t jump into the Dunedin mayoral election earlier this spring is beyond my feeble mind to grasp).

Jumping directly into a (relatively) big race is not necessarily the best idea for folks. It is important to think about races that suit your personal, financial and geographic strengths.

For example, an environmentalist in Hillsborough, rather than making their first campaign a quixotic effort to unseat a sitting member of the county commission, might choose to run for the Water and Soil Conservation District.

A young teacher (sort of) won a mayorship in Kenneth City by did of hard work and public dissatisfaction with city government.

Kenneth City? Soil and Water Conservation Districts?

They may not sound sexy, but it’s how a party builds real strength (read up on how social conservatives laid the groundwork for their period of political domination by systematically running candidates for school board).

Get elected. Get some folks used to the idea of voting for you. Then take the plunge and go after one of the big boys.


At 3/26/2009 01:09:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you know so much, how come you never bring these ideas up at DEC meetings?

At 3/26/2009 02:09:00 PM, Anonymous I Like To Play on the Interwebz said...

The forum that these ideas are presented in doesn't change advice behind them.

I've been aboard campaigns when the the party jumps ship - it's a kick in the junk.

I believe in the "no race goes unopposed" model, but as the race goes on, a focus on winnable races has to prevail.

And candidates shouldn't expect the party to win races for them. If a candidate prepares and runs a campaign to be self-sufficient, they'll be better off.

P.S. Sorry if my not bringing these comments to your next meeting upsets anyone.


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