by | May 27, 2013 | Democrats, Editor's Blog, NC Politics | 8 comments

Last week, when I said that the North Carolina Democratic Party should be staffed by professionals, some people questioned my definition of political professionals. Over the past two decades, politics has become a career path. Several universities and colleges offer degree programs in political management and other organizations have extensive training programs that teach specific skills.

State parties are political operations that operate under a unique and complex set of state and federal laws. They’ve developed a fairly standard organizational structure with best practices, jobs with very specific duties and areas of expertise and a pay scale. The leadership positions include an executive director, finance director, communications director, political director and field director.

Successful parties have an executive director who oversees the day-to-day operation of the party. This person has strong management skills and a solid understanding of the importance of campaign finance and accountability. This person also understands the relationship between  state parties and national organizations like the DSCC, DCCC, DNC, DGA and progressive interest groups. An executive director has served in management positions in top-of-the-ticket races or highly competitive Congressional campaigns, or in leadership positions with national or statewide party organizations.

Finance directors are responsible for setting up and overseeing the fundraising operations. They’re familiar fundraising software like NGP and know the state and federal finance laws. They understand how to leverage relationships and have the judgement to know which donors need a meeting and which can be reached with a phone call. Their experience likely includes working in a finance shop of a top-tier campaign or for one the institutional political organizations, like caucuses or progressive interest groups. Most have been through finance training programs offered by the Democratic Party, EMILY’s list or other allied organizations.

The communications shop is responsible for message development and discipline. The communications director or press secretary is the first line of contact with media. They issue press releases, oversee press conferences, provide rapid response and have working relationships with the state’s political reporters. They are also responsible for keeping county and local party organizations in the loop by providing talking points and press clippings. Finally, they are responsible for the online communications program, setting up social networking and email programs, often in coordination with the finance team.

Communications directors for a state party would have worked several elections cycles culminating with experience as a press secretary or communications director on high profile campaigns or in one of the national or statewide political organizations. Sometimes, experienced political reporters transition into communications jobs and bring with them their own relationships with political press corps.

Political directors are responsible for the relationships between the state party and county parties, local elected officials, allied organizations and party activists. Quite often, they field complaints, referee disputes and serve as a point of contact for politicians and political leaders. Political directors need to know the landscape of the state and have relationships based on trust. While experience on campaigns or in political organizations is necessary, humility and a calm, reassuring demeanor will make the political director more successful.

Traditionally, field operations have been set up during election years and financed by national party operations. However, since Obama ’08, North Carolina has had an on-going field program. These operations are extremely expensive because of the manpower required to make them successful. Whether a field operation is established now or later should really be a function of the budget.

A state field director is responsible for setting up the voter contact operations including registration drives and GOTV. He or she has strong background data management, analysis and targeting and an in depth understanding of the power of the VAN–because it’s all about the numbers. The successful field director has moved up the ladder from door-knocking and phone banking to progressively responsible management positions over several election cycles.

In addition to the leadership team, state parties have administrative and support staff that play vital roles. They are a great place to get experience and begin careers. However, the leadership of the party should come from people with specific training and significant, relevant experience in their area of expertise.

In modern politics, the state party provides the permanent campaign for the elected officials who are busy governing instead of campaigning. Their structure is very similar to that of a competitive U. S. Senate or gubernatorial campaign.They provide rapid response and amplify the themes coming out of the legislature, Congress and Council of State. Their goal is to protect Democrats in office while creating an environment to elect more, including giving county parties and affiliated organizations the tools, training and support to succeed.


  1. wafranklin

    Goodness, I just stumbled into Amen Corner. What Chris Telesca was trying to tell you is that you do not sign things over to the “Pros from Dover” and relax. That is what happened to the NCDP for the past five to seven years. We wound up with a bunch of consultants who called themselves experts running the show, and badly – it was a characteristic “absentee landlord” situation and the “pros” stole us blind, and did led us down the down path to where we are now.

    Thomas, that was such a beautiful description, perchance you got it from a textbook from some college selling “political stuff”. You might be a self appointed pundit but I figure you are not too good in campaigning, and your analysis is vacuous.

    First, the amount of money entering politics from the corporate sector has increased by several orders magnitude (means “a lot”) in just 25 years. The number of gold diggers chasing that money is phenomenal, and brought with it a collection of miserably educated fools posing as consultants and campaign managers. There are good ones, but it has been our misfortune to have gotten some real pips who could do nothing, except leach on the party. Then the NC Democrats in 2010 lost the punchbowl as they lost the legislature. So, the money went to the other side. Oh, woe is me, I cannot pay my pros, all of whom think they are owed a living by NCDP. Well, as Telesca pointed out, the party belongs to the people not to the numerous grasping poseurs who despise the “little people”, who should just send money and sit quietly until time to phone and canvass. While there may be a few decent (I did not say good or competent) consultants, we sure do have a bunch of bush league folks, some of whom have set out to wreck NCDP.

    Second, with all the internal thrash in NCDP by the “pros from Dover”, not once has there been a broadly based effort to understand the dynamics behind the spurious win in 2008 and the actual losses in 2010 and 2012 to find out what happened. When that is raised, the
    “pros” scoff and scorn and say, but “you don’t understand”! I been around long enough that when some idiot tells me I do not understand, the next words will all be lies and lies.
    So now, politics has become like the stock market, a game for suckers, a casino where the house has the odds and needs inputs from the suckers. And just as with the financial industry which attracted the smartest kids on the block, so the money in politics has drawn some very clever and bright people, people who know the price of everything as the play political gypsy and the value of nothing.

    Third, I have heard no discussions of what the other side did and why they did it. Ask me, I have followed Pope for 20 years – I know what he did, what he believes and what he engineered. But without the help of an arrogant out of touch party through 2004, he would not have succeeded as well. Pope is smart and rich, and he operates on his beliefs, all of which are conservative and libertarian claptrap, to which we are now all subject by the laws his minions passed and Deputy Asst Gov McCory signed and is signing.

    I have 50 years in government and business. When someone want to put the pros in charge, I fight back. I have seen too many fraudulent consultants (McKinsey, Bain,
    etc.) who came in, stole my work and sold it back to my boss. Happens daily, hourly.
    The people I see in Democratic politics in NC are fundamentally good people, poorly led by a bunch of “pros” who really hate and despise them. This is an opportunity to change that and get control of the Party back into the hands of active Democrats.

    So Thomas, scorn us as you will. Perhaps we will luck out and find some folks who are in this for the good of the people and not the dollar, or overweening influence. And all you nice ladies who are so happy with Thomas’ propositions should really look carefully at this bag of rocks you are being sold.

  2. Betsy Muse

    Great post, Thomas. Thank you.

  3. Nancy G. Rorie

    Thank for the post, Thomas. It was very informative.

  4. Chris Telesca

    I must take issue with your post – especially this part:

    “However, the leadership of the party should come from people with specific training and significant, relevant experience in their area of expertise.”

    Don’t you mean “the professional party staffers should come from people with specific training and significant, relevant experience in their area of expertise”?

    The leadership of the Party is the officers who are elected through the democratic process of elections from the precinct level on up. We elect party leaders who at some level will hire professional and administrative staff that are capable of getting the job done. Or at least that is stated in the NCDP Plan of Organization.

    But who supervises the professional and administrative staff? Who provides that oversight? It should be the same elected party leadership. Because it’s a serious mistake to let a staff work without supervision or oversight.

    That is the main reason why we have a military that is commanded by officers who usually have either gone through a military academy or ROTC training. But even the highest level general or admiral has under the direction/control/oversight/supervision of elected civilians. The Secretary of Defense is appointed by the President, but the President is elected by the People.

    Sorry – I don’t want to live in a society without civilian oversight of the military – nor where the professionals think they run the Party and can do without oversight of the elected officers of the Party. We’ve already seen that the current frat-house mentality at the NCDP has caused many problems over the years. Letting the so-called professionals do things with no oversight or supervision is a bad idea.

    • Sagar Sane


      I think you’re missing the point Thomas is making.

      He’s calling for experienced staffers to be hired in specific positions within the party infrastructure based on their respective areas of expertise.

      That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be someone overseeing those folks — it just means the elected party officials need to bring in the most talented staffers available and work with them to jointly lead our party.

      And I think you are wrong to say leadership must come only from on corner of the party. An ED, caucus director, finance director or field director would certainly have to show significant leadership abilities in order to even have a chance of being successful in this environment. NCDP has of course had a number of excellent staffers in past cycles who have exhibited strong leadership skills and who have worked with party leaders to put our candidates in a position to win.

      I do share your frustration with some of what has been going on at NCDP, but pitting activists against political professionals won’t help us one bit. And though it might play well with some members of the SEC, this type of talk does very little to address the long-term structural problems NCDP faces. And in the short-term, I think it makes it harder for folks that are currently employed at the party to get things done.

      • nancy g. rorie

        Well stated.

      • Dustin Ingalls


      • Betsy Muse

        Excellent response, thank you!

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