September 21, 2003
What Texas Democrats Should Do Next

(This post is part of a blogburst.)

Whatever else you may say about our neverending legislative session and the incessant push by the state GOP to redraw Congressional boundaries, one thing that you can't deny is that Democrats wouldn't be in this position if they'd done a better job in recent years getting people to vote for them. Here are my thoughts for how Democrats in Texas can do better in the future. For all I know, some or all of these things are already being done. I will be more than happy to print a response from someone on the inside detailing what they are doing.

1. Share the wealth

I'm going to talk about money first, because it's both the most distasteful aspect of politics as well as the most important. Democrats in Texas are seriously outfinanced. That's partly the result of being the minority party, partly the result of the Republicans' relentless pursuit of money, and partly their own damn fault for not using the resources they do have as wisely as they should. See if you can read this John Williams column about the differences between the Harris County Democratic Party and the Harris County GOP without steam coming out of your ears.

Though they rely on Democratic voters to return them to office, they don't really want to get involved in local party politics.

Go to a Harris County GOP Executive Committee meeting and there is a line of elected officials waiting to be introduced and say a few words.

Few, if any, elected Democrats attend the Harris County Democratic Party Executive Committee meetings.

"I tried to get our local officials involved," former Harris County Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue Schechter has said. "But it's hard."

The money matter is especially problematic for Democrats.

Without paid staffers, the party has no one dedicating a full-time effort toward organizing grass-roots operations and developing issues.

No money? No paid workers to answer the headquarters phone, or to schedule volunteers to help out.

The local GOP has an annual operating budget of about $250,000, with money that also comes from companies such as Continental Airlines and Reliant Energy.

The Democrats' budget is about $50,000.

Last year, state Rep. Sylvester Turner and state Sen. John Whitmire each gave the party $1,000. Justice of the Peace David Patronella provided the next highest contribution -- $420.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, who has a campaign war chest of at least $170,000, gave $120.

Democrats who gave nothing include U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee ($150,000 campaign cash balance), state Sen. Mario Gallegos ($50,000 cash balance) and U.S. Rep. Gene Green ($380,000 cash balance).

In contrast, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay ($302,000 cash balance) gave the Harris County GOP $2,500 two weeks ago.

The Harris County Democratic Party got more contributions from candidates who eventually lost than from incumbents.

This is disgusting and it needs to change now. I don't know how it is in other counties or at the state level - I'm told that Dallas pols support the local party more than Harris ones do - but there's simply no reason for this.

Whether a new Congressional map passes or not, there will be a lot of Democratic officeholders who will face no or token opposition in their next races. Every single one of them will have way more campaign funds than they will need to get elected. It's time for all of them to make a commitment to the state party and to their county parties to spread some of that money around so we can grow some new Democrats.

In addition, members of the Killer Ds and Texas Ten have done some national fundraising and are being treated like rock stars. That's great, but if it doesn't contribute towards winning elections here, it doesn't mean anything. Use the spotlight while you have it, and use the money to strengthen the party.

2. Get on the same page

If there's one lesson to be learned from the Ardmore and Albuquerque excursions, it's that the Democrats can get a lot more accomplished when they work together than when they pursue their own individual interests. There was a lot of encouraging talk out of Ardmore about finding common ground with each other. That needs to continue, and needs to be built on. Texas Democrats these days are largely minorities, rural whites, and some urban whites, all with different constituencies and priorities, none of which will get anywhere without cooperation.

I've talked in the past about how state and local Republicans have a "brand identity" that gives them a common philosophy from which to work and enhances their campaign advertising. Developing this sort of brand identity will help encourage the kind of cooperation I'm talking about. Individual Democrats may stand for different things, but all of us share a core set of values. We need to revisit what those values are and get everyone to start talking about them and acting on them.

Two specific items for the immediate future:

  • Resolve the John Whitmire situation one way or another. Either mend fences and get on with life, or mount a primary challenge and hope to get rid of him. Just be sure that if you choose the latter, you win - the only thing worse than the present situation would be to try to knock him off and fail.

  • Protect vulnerable incumbents like Patrick Rose and whichever Congressmen still have a fighting chance to hold on after all the mapmaking is completed by ensuring they have the cash they need to win reelection in 2004. As noted in item 1, unopposed incumbents have a duty to help out their embattled colleagues. We cannot afford to lose any more ground.

3. Get wired

It should be a priority for every county and statewide group that is officially affiliated with the Democratic Party to get its own domain and web page, one that is managed by someone who will take the task seriously. A little funding to help defray their costs (see Issue #1 again) would probably go a long way. I don't mean to pick on the Harris County Democratic Party, but a quick survey of the Party section on their links page shows five broken links and a sixth that is "under construction". (The state party links page is better.)

Having a web page with all the usual resources - voter registration information, news, links, etc - is nice, but content is king. My biases may be showing here, but I firmly believe that every single one of them ought to at least look into installing some blog software. Whether or not you believe that blogging is The Next Big Thing or just a callow fad, blogging software makes it ridiculously easy to provide regular updates to a web page. You don't have to muck with HTML, you just write. Putting up something new on a frequent basis, along with accessible links and archives, makes it that much easier to bring people back to your page. There's a reason that the other Democratic Presidential nominees have followed Howard Dean's lead.

Weblogs do a couple of other useful things. They can build a community, as Dean's blog has done, which in turn can be used to help recruit volunteers. They allow you to get your own message published without having to rely on a reporter or editor. They also help by making it easier for people to find out about you. Quite a few people have told me that they've found my blog by Googling on a particular topic - redistricting, light rail, etc. I'm willing to bet that the only way most people ever stumble across a party or candidate's web page is by searching specifically for that party or candidate. Wouldn't it be nice if the next time a voter sat down to look up some information about "tort reform" or "school finance" or "health care" they wound up here?

And of course fundraising will benefit from a strong online presence. The national party has its ePatriots program, which is essentially fundraising by distributed computing. We all know how successful Howard Dean has been at reaching new donors, something he could not have done without first building the online community that he has. Message, community, fundraising - what more do you want?

4. Tap into the support that already exists

The first time I ever gave money to a political campaign was 1996, when I contributed to Nick Lampson's successful challenge to the nutball Steve Stockman. The next time I ever gave money was 2002, when I donated to Ron Kirk in his Senate bid. I've voted in every Democratic primary since at least 1992, I've owned a home since 1997, and I've been on Planned Parenthood's mailing list since at least 1989. Yet somehow, in all that time, no one connected with the Democratic Party has ever solicited me for a contribution.

I cannot begin to understand that. How hard is it to cross-reference primary voting with property tax valuations (both of which are public records) to put together a list of People Who Have Money And Also Vote Democratic? Hell, I could probably write a Perl script to do it. If the answer from the state or any county party is "We don't have the money to hire a programmer", go back to Item #1. This is an investment. Donors are out there. The redistricting issue has them fired up. Start soliciting!

Next, make a concerted effort to find and encourage unaffiliated grassroots groups, something I've mentioned before. Anyone who has taken the time to buy a domain and some web space on their own is a precious resource, even and especially if they live in hostile territory. Talk to these people. Link to their web pages. Recruit them to be precinct captains. Offer to provide speakers to their meetings. This is what grassroots activism is all about.

As long as I'm building on prior themes, I'll go back to Item #3 and talk about blogging again. There are an awful lot of liberal Texas bloggers out there, many of whom are participating in this effort. We do this on our own time and out of our own desire to make something good happen. Get to know us.

There's lots more that I could say, but I think this is enough to get started. I believe that the state party can hold the line in 2004 and possibly be in a position to win some statewide offices in 2006, and I believe we need to operate on those assumptions. Thanks for reading this far and for reading what my colleagues have to say.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 21, 2003 to Show Business for Ugly People | TrackBack

You know Charles, if you want to get together and start doing some intelligent fundraising (as you proposed here), then I think we ought to start a PAC of some sort that advocates competency in our party's leadership. And then give whatever gets raised to county organizations that start showing some progress towards decent leadership.

Posted by: Jim D on September 21, 2003 1:32 PM

You know what, Chuck? When YOU are ready to run for office, let me know. I'll contribute to your campaign, and I'm a poor grad student who doesn't even live in Texas anymore. But if I knew someone with your passion and intelligence was trying to do something to improve my ol' home state, I'd want to be a part of it.

Posted by: Amy on September 22, 2003 1:14 AM

Good work, Charles- As a New Yawker who is observing the Texas redistricting snafu with interest, I think you're showing how a blog can be used effectively.

Give 'em hell !

Posted by: peter jung on September 22, 2003 2:44 PM

In specific regard to number 3, you are right on.

The good news is that there is a plan in the works to bring the Harris County Democratic Party into this century from a technology perspective. Part of the plan was unveiled at a grassroots training seminar back in August. A lot of the plan, which was presented by the guy who just happens to be the local campaign coordinator for Dean, was based on emulating the types of things Dean is doing online.

Unfortunately, the degree to which the plan gets implemented depends on the party meeting its fundraising goals(the HCDP's big fundraiser was on Saturday). If all goes well, they'll start working on this before the end of the year. I know I have personally offered to help out and received positive feedback.

So there is hope.

Posted by: Rob Humenik on September 22, 2003 3:12 PM

Peter - Thanks!

Rob - That is good news, at least in theory. Let me say that I'm willing and able to help out as well.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on September 22, 2003 3:49 PM