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Looking forward: Harris County Democrats

Seeing this article about the resignation of Harris County Democratic Party Chair Sue Schecter reminds me that I never did follow up on this post, which pointed to this article about the many things that the local party did wrong last year. I will now rectify that oversight, so if this sort of thing bores you, feel free to come back later.

Now then. There are three things that I think a party chair should be focusing on: Raising money, organizing, and crafting a message. All three are bread-and-butter tactics, and the Harris County GOP kicks our butt at each of them. The political machine built by conservative activist Steven Hotze is fearsome to behold and wildly successful. And there’s no reason why the Democrats can’t be better at it.

There’s no inherent party advantage to these things. The GOP may be able to raise more money, but I sometimes feel that the Democrats don’t really try all that hard. I’ve voted in every Democratic primary since 1992, yet I can’t recall ever being solicited by the local party to attend fundraisers or rallies. How hard is is to crosscheck my name against the property tax rolls and figure out that I’m the kind of prospect that the Dems should be eager to recruit? There’s no excuse for this.

For this reason, I’m already leaning towards Dalia Stokes, organizer of the River Oaks Area Democratic Women (ROADWomen), as the next chair. I think the whole county party has to be rebuilt, and I think someone who’s already built an organizaton is the best person for the job.

As for the message, we’ve certainly learned that We’re Just Like Republicans sucks as a campaign slogan. I don’t expect that to happen again, and just maybe the pain of that lesson will drive our efforts next time. I would suggest that there is a page in the local GOP playbook that we can steal, though. The local GOP has a pretty strong brand identity. When you see an ad for a Republican candidate, you will almost certainly hear a few key words: “Conservative values”, “fiscal restraint”, “low taxes”, and so on. I think they have a template somewhere and build their ads based on it. It’s effective – you know exactly what you’re getting with these guys. The Democrats lack such an identity, and I think it hurts them. If I were Democratic chair, I’d spend some time studying these ads and come up with a few key words of our own, words that would contrast us with them in a positive way, and encourage candidates to use them.

I would work on expanding the party base, both with voter drives and GOTV efforts, and also by making sure the message I craft will be reasonably appealing to non-Democrats. I don’t mean trying to peel away GOP voters – remember that painful lesson from last year? – I mean working to make our message broad and universal. I laid out a few such themes in the immediate aftermath of the election.

I would reach out to every already-existing progressive group, as these people are the party’s core. I would want them to feel like they are an integral part of our future success. We need them and we need to make them feel like they’re fully invested in us. I’d reach across county lines to groups in Fort Bend and Montgomery. We should share strategies and mailing lists where appropriate, and we should work together in races that cross county lines.

Finally, I would hire a couple of savvy web and database techs, and have them get to work on a web page and mail server that will have a steady flow of new information and will be used for our outreach projects. Again, there’s no excuse for not having the best tools at your disposal.

That’s what I’d do. I’d like to know what the three candidates plan to do. I’m going to try to find their email addresses and ask them, and if I hear back I’ll let you know what they say.

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3 Comments

  1. Greg Wythe says:

    You left out the singular most difficult task facing any party chair … recruiting. That job got a zillion times harder after 2002 and 2004 could see a veritable pass given to Republicans in the state. From the standpoint of competitiveness of ideas, that’s a shame and I hope someone comes in and proves me wrong.

    Ironically, I tend to lean towards Stokes for that very reason.

  2. I feel that if the other issues are properly addressed, recruiting will follow. After this year, there’s got to be some proof that a party chair can deliver some votes. That’s what I’m aiming at, and I believe that potential recruits can and will be sold on those efforts.

  3. Don says:

    I agree with essentially all that you’ve said here.

    Let me add that its been my thought that Democrats could also be doing more to win “hearts and minds” during the off-year, non-election cycle. Perhaps this goes to the heart of your “branding” commentary. Its always been my observation that Democrats are much more of an election-driven party than the GOP. That is, there’s a flurry of activity leading up to an election and then the gang goes home for 2 years. Republicans on the other hand are more of a 7-days-a-week operation constantly shaping opinions and positioning themselves. Consequently, when election time rolls around, there’s little “branding” for them to do — thats already well-established. Election campaigns become more about name recognition/party affiliation/ticket management than anything else. Its about using artillery and then the infantry.

    I’ve tried to get involved and do some volunteer work with the Harris County Dems. I have to say that I found the organization to be very unimpressive (although certainly committed) — particularly in light of the local GOP juggernaut. Its not surprising that we struggle to compete.

    Hopefully the leadership change will bring in some new ideas and a fresh approach.