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.