July 04, 2005
All Out War, Redux: Can You Hear Me Now?

Since today feels like a Sunday, I thought it'd be as good a time as any to engage in a longwinded magazine-style blog post on a topic that Kuff and I have been doing a bit to emphasize. That point, running a full slate of Democratic candidates, may sound a bit too common-sensical to think anyone would dare oppose the notion. Yet it does. To a degree, that notion has its detractors on both sides of the aisle - more than a few Hispanic regions ran without GOP candidates in 2004, for instance. But being in the minority means you have to take the fight to the sound of the guns a bit more actively than the other side. Let them play defense, we'll play offense.

Ever since this post on my own fair blog, the idea has been bouncing around a bit more actively on the local front. But the bigger genesis for the idea, of late, has come from no less than DNC Chair Howard Dean. This week's Washington Post Magazine has as good a version of how Dean has been putting the concept into the minds of others:

Return of the Angry Man - Sally Jenkins
A student raised her hand. What was his specific plan for recovery? Dean ticked off several points. First, he would infuse state parties with cash and organizing help. The difference between the

Democratic and Republican operations in Ohio, where the presidential election turned, Dean hazarded, was that Democrats brought in thousands of volunteers from out of state. Republicans had thousands of volunteers in state, knocking on the doors of their neighbors. This lack of neighbor-to-neighbor presence, Dean suggested, was alienating.

Also, Democrats must contest races in all states, at all levels, in all years, not just presidential ones. "It is disrespectful not to come to Tennessee and Mississippi and Alabama as well as California and Michigan and Ohio . . . We need to come to Tennessee because what you could think of Democrats by watching [Republican] ads is all you're going to think of us unless we show up and make our case in person."

A young man stood up and asked what he could do to help the party, other than give money, which he didn't have. Dean bobbed on his feet, delighted with the question, because it allowed him to show off his best side -- the side that grew a presidential candidacy from a small Vermont operation with seven employees into a national campaign with 600,000 supporters.

"The number one thing you can do is run for office."

[Class giggles]

"I'm absolutely serious. I am not kidding."

The class grew quiet. Here was Dean as a Johnny Appleseed, sowing civics in the young. While Democrats have conceded parts of the country considered hostile, Republicans have left no office untested, he pointed out. The result is that Dems have no farm system, no ability to find young political talent in red states and groom it.

Run, he urged the students. Run for county road commissioner. Run for city council. "If you don't have people running for offices like county commissioner, who do you think is going to run for Congress a generation from now?

"You may not win the first time," he said, "or the second time or the third time . . . If you lose, so what? It's worth the investment if we can have somebody there who gives the message, who's articulate and thoughtful, and respectful of the voters, because they'll get a better impression of Democrats than they would otherwise if there was no opposition whatsoever. That's the great failure, one of the great failures, of the party. Because we were in power for so long, we didn't think we had to appeal to places like that. Well, we do. And we will."

On this, Howard Dean speaks for me. In fact, he's got it so dead right, I could just as well leave this alone and never think twice about adding another word. But why leave it at just that?

The selling points for a full slate of candidates is precisely as Dean spells out - you carry the message of your party, win or lose. You show up at the Chamber of Commerce meetings, the Kiwanis meetings, the Optimist Club meetings. You hit every church with a Civics Sunday service possible. You make the case of your own candidacy as well as for the Democratic Party. That alone expands the reach of the Democratic Party to more places than we're presently hitting. And if the Democratic Party is afraid to be heard and seen in any possible location, it's time to close shop. We're the party that best reflects the diversity of opinion - so use it or lose it. In 2004, 40% of Harris County voters did not even have a State Rep nominee from our side to even consider. One of the candidates we did have on the ballot could not be found by anyone. A few of the others thought simply putting their names on the ballot was enough. In one notable case, that of Charlotte Coffelt, the race was so uphill that we never had a shot. But Coffelt's 29% still represents an effort at stanching her party's bloodflow in one of the most Republican areas of the county. The 2% improvement over the top of the ticket that she saw can serve as the groundswell that leads to other candidates getting 2, 3, 4, or more percent better than top-of-the-ticket Dems. After all, if those voters will consider one Democrat this time around, there's a shot that they'll consider more the next time around.

Upon reading through a few obits of former Senator Gaylord Nelson, the originator of Earth Day, I stumbled across another take on the need to contest all elections ... this coming from the successful side of doing so:

He was governor of Wisconsin from 1959 to 1963 and a U.S. senator from 1963 to 1981. He was one of those happy warrior types who exulted in beating his enemies into submission and then getting roaring drunk with them afterward.

When he was elected governor, Wisconsin had been in Republican hands since 1932 - and that was back when governors served two-year terms so the Republicans had won lots of elections.

That didn't stop him; the fact that almost everyone thought he was going to lose didn't stop him.

Today, almost a half-century later, it is common to remember Nelson mostly in terms of his triumphs, namely, as the founder of Earth Day. He did build a sound reputation as an environmentalist.

But, that's not what built his party; what built Gaylord Nelson's party was, in large part, the zestful enthusiasm he and his colleagues displayed when taking on entrenched Republicans against overwhelming odds.

All of this, of course, is to simply say that the road to recovery does not involve seclusion, quietude, and fighting the fewest battles possible. The only way to turn things around - as Nelson and my own political hero William Proxmire did in Wisconsin - is to run. Proxmire's case is illustrative in connecting to Dean's assertion that you may not win - and that's ok. Proxmire ran for Governor three times before winning a Senate seat in 1957. His losses were such a point of debate that when asked about them during the 57 campaign, he made a virtue of it, suggesting that everyone who had never lost in life could vote for his opponent. An oral history with Philleo Nash, an assistant to President Truman, offers an even better illustration of the long-term nature of rebuilding:

NASH: Senator McCarthy drank himself to death and died in the spring, about this time of year, later April or early May of 1957. And I was vacationing in Puerto Rico at that time attending the first -- not the first -- attending the second Casals Festival with my daughter and I was on the terrace of La Fortaleza, the Governor's palace in Puerto Rico, at a party following one of the concerts, when I received an urgent phone call and it was the Democratic Party secretary in Madison, Wisconsin informing me that Joe McCarthy had died. So, I left my daughter in Puerto Rico and rushed back to Madison the next morning to get started on the campaign to re-elect a successor because, at that time under Wisconsin law, the Governor was not obliged to call a special election. He did not have the power to appoint, but he could leave the seat vacant. And we first used the party machinery to conduct a major propaganda drive to back him into a corner in which he would have to call a special election even though he was very likely to lose it, because we had been working up to that election for a good many years, about ten.

HESS: Were you successful in that?

NASH: Yes, we did induce the Governor to call a special election, and we then embarked upon a campaign to find the strongest candidate. The political beliefs of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin had been inherited from the La Follette progressives and they are contrary to party endorsement. And this was the point where Senator Proxmire and I came apart. In an effort to unite the party behind him as the strongest leader, I set about what we called "operation soundingboard" in which we held a series of rallies around the state in which each person was permitted to come forward and say who he thought would be the strongest candidate.

Now, Senator Proxmire did two things. He first denounced that as an effort to have endorsement without having endorsement, and second, to accuse me of trying to find somebody else instead of him. Now the fact of the matter is that, while I had no great love for him, I didn't have any doubt that he was the strongest candidate, but the party leaders did not favor him because he had been defeated three times for Governor and they didn't want to run a three-time loser and "operation soundingboard" did in fact demonstrate his strength with the rank and file of the Democrats throughout the state. I raised money for him with good results. We couldn't afford a regular poll, and I just had come into my hands the other day a set of the amateur polls that were conducted by the Young Democrats, which I'm going to put into the files of the Library. And you will see that by this amateur poll at a total cost of $100 for the entire effort, we were able to forecast correctly Senator Proxmire's victory in the special election of 1947, August 27th, well over a month in advance.

Ten years of solid work in a formerly predominant Republican state and the damn broke loose so hard that it wasn't until the 80s that Wisconsin reverted back to a swing state. It may or may not take 10 years to see the same for Texas. It could take 16 months for all we know. But it won't start moving till we start challenging.

Luck, they say, is the intersection of hard work and opportunity. Without the hard work, opportunity goes unmet. Kuff has already introduced us to one candidate looking to do a little hard work between now and election day, 2006 - Janette Sexton. Anyone and everyone in the Pasadena-area, 144th District would be well-advised to get involved and start getting involved in that race. Those outside of the 144th should get involved as well. Check around your neighborhood's political lineup and run this test I once put to a friend: Who's your Congressman? Who's your State Senator? Who's your State Rep? Who's your Justice of the Peace? If you keep going down the line and continually get the names of Republican officeholders, it's time to start realizing that it may be you who is the leading voice for your party in your neighborhood. If that's the case, then make it official and run for something.

Posted by Greg Wythe on July 04, 2005 to Election 2006 | TrackBack