A Better DPVA

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    VA Dems can once again be great. Here’s how we can get there.

    Dave Leichtman is the DPVA Vice-chair for Technology and Communications

    With the news that Delegate Herring is stepping down as DPVA Chair, I believe the time is right for some deep introspection within VA Dems. We had some big wins in 2013, and for that, Del. Herring is to be congratulated. She oversaw an unprecedented level of coordination with the McAuliffe campaign. To her, I say thank you for your service, and best wishes on your future endeavors (specifically a Congressional run in the 8th).

    But now what?

    There’s still a lot that needs to be improved with the State Party. On balance, we won a net of only 1 seat in the House (which we may yet lose), and we just barely held the Senate this month by a mere 9 votes (recount pending).

    This is the perfect time for a complete re-examination of our strategy for the next six years. What better time than now to jump in head first? The 2014 cycle is just getting started; we have only a handful of staff and exiting leadership. We have a not-unreasonable budget and a plan to hire many new staff members as the campaign gets into gear. Some say crisis, I say opportunity!

    Step 1: Find a New Chair

    Well, sure, that’s obvious. The Central Committee will hold a vote for a new Chair on March 15th. But what’s the job of the Chair, and what should we be looking for in a new leader for DPVA?

    Such a person should not only be good at fundraising, but also at hiring and team management. The Chair must not only staff DPVA, but also manage the Steering and Central Committees. We have an amazing reserve of volunteer talent just within DPVA’s political body, and it often goes untapped for lack of direction and oversight.

    The ideal candidate also needs to understand how critical it is to build up DPVA’s staff and physical infrastructure as well as that of our local committees. We cannot win back the House of Delegates in 6 years if we don’t have a long-term plan in place for doing so, and that plan has to involve enabling our local committees and making them successful.

    But foremost this new Chair cannot be “anointed.” In the past, DPVA has had a bad history of being told who our next Chair would be. That’s not said as a knock against any of our past leadership, but a lack of healthy competition and exchange of ideas has certainly diminished the vivacity of our party.

    The statewide elected officials have a vested interest in seeing the Party subjugated to their goals and fundraising strategies. And, in fairness to them, some people might not have a problem with that. Maybe the Governor should be able to choose the Chair. The problem, though, is that a strategy that focuses solely on winning statewide elections is one that results in collateral damage to the Party, the local committees, and their infrastructure. That same strategy that concentrates on driving voter turnout in Northern VA totally ignores the rural constituencies downstate. Doing so makes it nearly impossible to recruit the quality candidates needed to win back the House and to win back the redistricting process in 2020.

    And so we need a Chair who is not simply chosen by the Powers That Be. The new Chair must be selected from among a pool of good candidates by the Central and Steering Committees. That person must understand both the strategic needs of our elected officials and the critical need to build up our local committees. That person must represent our whole Party, not just certain political interests.

    Step 2: Hire Good Staff

    Again, this may seem an obvious statement. We’ve had some excellent staff in the past, and we’ll likely have excellent staff in the future. I don’t believe that hiring has ever been our weak point. However, in order to recruit the best candidates, we must dissolve this bifurcation of our Party infrastructure that occurred over the last two campaigns. We now have an almost completely independent Coordinated Campaign that is free of DPVA’s budgetary oversight and management. Some at the top might say that’s a good thing, that it lets serious campaigners run serious campaigns. But what it really does is to further this split between the Party and the campaigns and elected officials. The new ED must be allowed to run the Party and its campaign infrastructure. The new ED needs to also run the Coordinated Campaign. Only then can we break out of the yearly cycle of staffing up and down, of losing institutional knowledge and talent.

    Which brings me to my next point…

    Step 3: Keep the Staff!

    For a Party that claims to be the standard bearer for labor, you sure wouldn’t know it by the way we treat our staff. Party staff are continuously underpaid and overworked, and then dismissed on a whim because of poor budget planning and “spending to $0” on Election Day.

    Any serious long-term planning needs to involve a strategy to recruit and maintain talented individuals, preferably ones who know and understand Virginia and have a vested interest in seeing the Commonwealth succeed. Currently, we don’t place any value on maintaining institutional knowledge, on staff development, or on retention. Who can blame staff for only sticking around for a cycle or two? We have an opportunity right now to break that vicious circle, and we should do so by raising staff salaries and by long-term budgeting across campaign cycles.

    Step 4: Let the New Chair Select the ED

    Critically (and relevant given today’s announcement), the new Chair needs to be able to hire the new Executive Director. Having an outgoing Chair select the ED may seem the best course given a potentially rushed timeline, but a new Chair may have different goals and strategies that might suggest different hiring. There is also the serious danger that the statewide campaigns and split coordinated simply anoint their own choice, making the job of the incoming Chair that much more difficult.

    Step 5: Run the Party

    One disturbing trend in DPVA over the last 4 years has been the re-branding of the Chair’s position as a figurehead role. The Chair can’t simply be the Chief Fundraiser or Chief Spokesperson for the Party. That person must also be entirely vested in running the Party full-time. The Chair must be CEO to the ED’s COO, as well as being Chair of the Board of Directors (the Steering Committee).

    As such, I recommend that DPVA’S next Chair be a person who can devote their full time to this position. We should have somebody who is either retired, or we should fund the position as a full-time job. At the very least, the Chair should not be an elected official; the job of an elected official is too critically time-consuming, and the focus of the position cannot and should not be as a springboard to future office.

    Step 6: Focus and Win

    For too long, we’ve run the Party as a series of continual one-year campaigns. This has to stop, and it has to stop now. No company could ever be successful if their planning involved only a one-year horizon. Why would we assume differently for DPVA? We must have a six-year plan in place to take back the House of Delegates by 2019, and all entities of our Party must be involved in constructing it. We must build up the Party infrastructure and local committees so that we don’t have to reinvent the Coordinated Campaign every year. We must run the whole Party – all of it – as a single, coordinated entity. The Party’s overall strategy should inform our budget and operations, not a haphazard campaign schedule.

    We have an opportunity now to make our Party better, stronger. Some say it’s heretical to question the Party and how it’s run. I disagree. I firmly believe that only by introspection and evaluation can we hope to become better. And I mean no disrespect to those who might think this critical, but if we’re not looking forward, we’re looking backward.

    Winning back the House of Delegates, controlling redistricting in 2020, and holding onto our current wins is an achievable goal, but only if we move quickly and decisively. Now is the time! Let’s seize the opportunity.

    • Elaine in Roanoke

      Finally, someone in Richmond has had the courage to speak truth to power. For as long as I have been active in the party, the DPVA has teetered-tottered from election to election, never becoming more than a support vehicle for whoever was the most powerful candidate for office, depending on the year. Local committees in far too many parts of the state (including mine) are too weak to find and assist top-notch candidates for office. The so-called coordinated campaigns are indeed “completely independent” of the DPVA.

      The DPVA needs a long-term plan to win back the House of Delegates and hold a majority in the State Senate. It needs a plan to build up the local Democratic parties in rural Virginia. It  does need an executive director and a chair who are not using their positions simply as stepping stones for some other position or office.

      Del Herring, for the first time, did try, along with staff, to give local committees the tools to build their presence in their localities. Now, she is moving on, as has the exec and others. This, indeed, is the time to re-assess just what the DPVA should be. We need the equivalent of Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy, a DPVA one hundred district strategy.

    • kindler

      Not only are you bringing common sense and strategic thinking to your position, but you’re actually speaking directly to the regular folks on a blog — of all places! — rather than pretending that we don’t exist.  

      Please keep it up.  Quite honestly, I don’t think you’ve said a word here that ought to be considered controversial, but you’re starting such an important conversation in an institution not known for open dialogue, contemplation or long-term thinking.  And that’s a big deal.

      Most important, IMHO, is number six.  The good news is that Terry McAuliffe said he had the same perspective of focusing on long-term party building, when we interviewed him here a few months back.  Granted, he’s going to have a lot of distractions over the next four years, but I encourage you to point to his commitment and build on that.  We can’t expect to win the battles if we don’t have a really good, well-executed plan to win the long war.

    • Ren

      This is exactly the foundation needed to position us to achieve our common goals.  Thank you, Dave, for elucidating what so many of us have been thinking about.

    • to the Democratic House and Senate caucuses should be? Should they be: a) completely separate organizations with different missions, budgets, etc; b) mostly separate but under some sort of common umbrella; c) mostly unified but with some autonomy; d) totally unified; or e) other? Right now, I feel like it’s confusing to many people, who blame the “party” for (let’s say) only picking up 1 seat in the House of Delegates last year, but probably should be directing their frustration elsewhere (towards the House caucus, presumably). Anyway, how do you think all of this ideally SHOULD look, in order to maximize Virginia Democrats’ chances of winning back the House of Delegates, keeping control of the State Senate, winning state-wide elections, building a strong “farm system,” etc? Thanks.

    • pashin

      This post is an excellent start, and I agree with all who are commending Dave for initiating the conversation – and for putting himself on the line as an agent of change in an organization that has historically been resistant.

      These are very reasonable procedural steps, although there are power implications that will be more controversial than they might appear.  

      Underlying these, of course, is something much more revolutionary – an agenda for grassroots empowerment through party building, people-centric investments, and creating an institutional counterweight to existing power bases that reside in campaigns and currently elected officials.

      Within steps 1 and 6, especially, the concrete policy building blocks of this agenda can be intuited, including strengthening local committees (block grants? low-cost VAN access and training?), statewide candidate recruitment (start-up grants? DPVA matching funds? VAN access? skill sharing & mentoring?), etc.

      Concretely, it might be worthwhile for those interested in DPVA reform to try to distill these procedural and policy points into an agreed reform program that could be a framework for action and organizing for the next few years (since this will no doubt be a long-term process).    

    • pontoon

      members who could work with local committees who know the areas, the people in them would go along way to strengthening local committees and the DPVA has a whole.  DPVA is no stronger than its weakest link, and most of rural Virginia is certainly an albatross for DPVA.  Continuing to ignore rural Virginia is a mistake. Outreach into these communities is essential.  We have become a swing state with very close elections, both locally and statewide, magnifying the fact that every vote counts no matter from which locality that vote is cast.  If we are to succeed in taking back the House of Delegates, holding the State Senate, and gaining seats in the House of Representatives, rural Virginia must be a part of the plan.

    • Matt_H

      This kind of a stretch – arguably, you may mean “employees,” but certainly not labor.  No Democrat in recent memory, or the DPV for that matter, has ever sought to reverse the state’s anti-labor “right-to-work” law, and none have ever supported extending collective bargaining rights to public employees (the backbone of the folks who actually run the state – teachers, etc.).  No one should be surprised that DPV workers are not treated fairly, which corresponds with not retaining good workers.  On these two salient points the Dem.s are equally bad (okay, horrible) with the Rep.s.

    • Paradox13VA

      I love this post, and am grateful to read it from someone who actually has a role within the state leadership of the Party. Well done.

      I think it is okay for different organizations to have different goals, as long as those goals are clear and explicit and not buried or hidden.

      For example, I think the role of the DPVA, Congressional District committees and Local committees is to grow and expand the part and our base of grassroots activists, and from there our stable of candidates. It should be the responsibility of these party organizations to contest every race, every year, with candidates that would serve well in that office (which is to say, not “gadfly” candidates).

      Separately, I think the role of the Caucuses is to sustain and expand their membership in their respective chambers. This can, and should, necessarily mean they will not necessarily provide assistance to every candidate every year (that is the job of the Party, not the Caucus).

      Such a division of goals, if done in a collaborative fashion, would allow donors and volunteers to direct their efforts into the philosophy they believe most strongly: A “135 locality philosophy” for Virginia (analogous to the 50 state strategy), or a “focus on where we can win” strategy.

      Just my 0.02.