The blog post I wanted to write today was simple and went something like this: Democrats need to quit airing their dirty laundry in public. Party Chair Randy Voller may have made a very stupid comment but nobody would have heard it except the people in the room if not for Twitter. Instead of quietly rebuking him, posts on Twitter and Facebook exposed the continued divisions and sniping within the party.
I still think that’s part of the story, but when Chairman Voller spoke to the press, he exposed deeper, underlying problems within the party. His comments left a reporter bewildered and gave the story more legs instead of putting it to bed. Party wag Frank Eaton nailed it when he pointed out on Twitter, “ ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘no further comment’ are both perfectly acceptable responses to media queries” — a lesson Chairman Voller obviously hasn’t learned.
So, I’m going to the public clothes line myself.
Right now, the Democratic Party doesn’t need a cheerleader or spokesperson. It needs somebody with a strong sense of organizational development and an intense focus on re-building a fundraising infrastructure. The role of the party is not to develop and drive the message. It’s to provide material support to the elected officials and candidates who do.
In recent years, some party activists and functionaries seem to have lost sight of the purpose of the state party. Understanding how we got to this point might help us get back on track. It has deep roots that will take a while to untangle.
In 1994, Democrats across the nation took a severe beating, losing both houses of Congress. In North Carolina, Republicans took control of the state house for the first time in a century and were within two seats of taking the senate. Democrats, both nationally and in North Carolina, responded by professionalizing their political operations.
They set up intensive training programs to prepare staff and established professional party and caucus organizations to monitor resources, establish benchmarks, ensure quality control on campaigns — and oversee the transfers of large sums of money from national to state party organizations.
The system created a new breed of operatives and a new career path. Instead of rising through party ranks, campaign and party staff were trained by political professionals at academies run by the DNC or progressive organizations like NEA, EMILY’s List or, later, Wellstone Action. They became specialized in fields like fundraising, communications and campaign management and they took progressively responsible jobs on campaigns, with party organizations and in consulting firms.
In North Carolina, the new organizational structure worked well. Democrats reclaimed both houses of the legislature with increasing majorities in successive election cycles. The professional staff ran state party headquarters efficiently and effectively. The party Chair largely stayed out of daily operations and served as a liaison to funders and elected officials.
However, throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the party focused the vast majority of its resources on communications. The professional staff often came from other states and had few ties to county parties. The local operatives began to feel ignored. In the past, county parties had raised money and sent it to the state party to sustain operations. Now, money flowed through candidates with professional fundraising operations and, often, directly to caucus programs. The grassroots of the party felt alienated from the party leadership and taken for granted.
By 2004, the sentiment was shared by local activists across the country and Howard Dean’s insurgent campaign used the power of the internet to give voice to their discontent. While Dean’s campaign was unsuccessful, his followers had a new sense of empowerment. They also mastered online organizational tools that the party establishment had not yet adopted.
In North Carolina, these new activists rejected the recently re-elected Governor’s choice for state party chair and elected a champion, Jerry Meek. Meek understood the legitimate concerns of the grassroots but he also understood that the role of the party is to support elected officials and candidates. He successfully worked with both sides, addressing the concerns of the activists while maintaining a working, if strained, relationship with the Governor’s office.
However, Meek’s election opened a new dynamic. Some of the activists who elected him no longer viewed the party as the political arm of the state’s top elected officials. Instead, they saw it as an organization responsible for supporting their political goals, whether those goals were in the best interest of electing statewide democrats or not.
They flexed their muscle in electing David Parker after the 2010 election. When Parker became embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal, those activists came to his aid, rebuking the call of the Governor, Gubernatorial nominee and the entire Council of State for Parker to step down. The episode exposed an “us against them” mentality in which a group of vocal activists accused the “electeds” of “stealing” tax check-off money meant for the counties.
The debacle left the party in the shambles it is today. Donors fled and national organizations began looking for alternative means to support candidates and campaigns. The majority of younger activists are far more loyal to OFA than to the Democratic Party.
Right now, Democrats don’t need a leader who is going to pander to the renegade activists. They need a leader who is going to reel them in, assuage their paranoid fears and put their energy to positive use. At the same time, that leader needs to recruit political professionals to staff the party headquarters and restore the credibility of the party with big donors and national allies.
Chairman Voller needs to hit the reset button. He should understand that State Party Chair is not a stepping stone to higher office. It’s a selfless and thankless position responsible for the political success of other people. If he has any other ideas, he probably should not be there.
Instead of barnstorming the state attacking Republicans, he needs to put together a plan for rebuilding the party and healing, instead of exploiting, the divisions that have emerged in recent years. He should reach out to the people who transformed the party in the 1990s. It’s time to modernize the party again and he can learn from both their successes and mistakes. Most are still here and I’m sure they are willing to help.
Finally, those activists who were so quick to exploit the missteps of Voller should look at what they’ve done. They shifted the focus from the craziness of Republican legislative policies to the dysfunction of the Democratic Party. It was a self-inflicted wound, if a relatively minor one.
Voller needs to step up and the sniping needs to die down. The ultimate goal is to protect the Democrats we have in office and elect a few more. To succeed, we need to retool the party apparatus, recruit new candidates and restore lost credibility. The chair and his critics should set aside their differences to solve those problems. It’s a long road and a lot of hard work.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >