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Former VA Dem Party Political Director Clark Mercer: How Can Democratic Committees and the DNC be Revamped?

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Great stuff – and very timely/relevant, given the DNC elections this weekend – from Lt. Governor Northam’s Chief of Staff (and former Democratic Party of Virginia Political Director, Alexandria Democratic Committee Chair, etc.) Clark Mercer. Shared with his permission; bolding added by me for emphasis.  Personally, I’d add more on using modern communications technology (e.g., live stream meetings? record everything so that people can watch when they want to/have time to? encourage/train people to use social media effectively?), but this is a great list right here…check it out and please add your comments!

Part 1: A long post.. my two cents on the DNC elections, for what they are worth- put in a bit different context. Systems and organizations/the way we interact have changed drastically over the last couple of decades. See Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. The beating heart of the DNC (or RNC) are their local committees, units, whatever one calls them. And any organization predicated on a monthly meeting format- be that a Democratic or Republican committee, NAACP, Masons, Moose Lodge, etc. whatever, have been dying accelerated deaths over the past years unless the way they do business has changed.

You don’t need to join a secret fraternity to give back and volunteer in your community. Likewise, you don’t need to join a local political committee to learn who is running for office, how to meet that candidate, how to give money and get engaged to volunteer. That wasn’t the case decades ago when the Masons, NAACP, committees thrived– you had to show up to a monthly meeting to figure these things out. That is no more. Having new members or volunteers sit through roll calls, secretary reports, and arguing over the treasurer’s report about how you will spend $50 will render these organizations defunct.

We are at a moment in time with our doors being beat down by folks wanting to volunteer. They want to do something. Meetings have to be structured to give members something meaningful to learn and to do. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, and if members aren’t engaged, they won’t come back– folks are too busy with work, families, etc.

Now, back to the DNC. The decline in the committee structure and relevance grows exponentially as you go from local committees up to state parties to the national party. Whoever runs the party has to articulate a way to crack the code and get the folks on the ground the resources they need to succeed. Frankly, it has been my biggest disappointment of the past eight years that making a revamped DNC was not a priority. There are no two ways around that, and there were very obvious ways to make this happen (hint hint, OFA).

I haven’t followed the DNC chair elections closely enough to say whether anyone “gets it”, but I have heard and read enough from Adam Parkhomenko , Yasmine Taeb, and Susan Swecker to know that they do.

I could continue this post for quite some time with specific prescriptions for what can be done to revamp the Party structure, though perhaps that will be for another time.

Part 2: How can committees and the DNC be revamped. Here are a few ideas of the top of my head:

1. Committees in heavily Democratic areas need new leadership every 4-6 years. Where we have deep benches, we need to make room for new players to get playing time. From committee chairs to precinct captains, it is not an affront to anyone who has been serving for a long time, but you aren’t injecting new ideas and leadership if you aren’t getting new leaders on board. And I cannot understand why membership at local committees is capped– it’s literally forcing folks to go outside the committee structure to be engaged.

2. In a sense, all committees are not equal and should have specific, tailored targets to hit, and resources given to hit them. If you are in a heavily blue area, winning an election is not enough- it’s about turnout. If you are in a deep red area, you could be doing quite well if you are improving by putting local folks on boards, commissions, winning at the local level, and improving the margins of defeat. We have let some committees in very blue areas go unchallenged for years because the locality goes blue so everyone assumes they are doing their jobs, and not giving enough credit to committees in tough areas that are making big improvements that go unnoticed (I’d suggest that after ’16 this assumption and way of dong business should be challenged, esp. when you look at performance in some key states…). I would argue we have some committees in red areas doing a better job than those in blue areas but we don’t have any metrics or measurable tools to use to demonstrate this (or if we do we don’t share them). DNC needs to give state parties specific goals and targets (like I could use a cool word for this- a dashboard!) and local committees need to be given the same goals by their state party.

3. Resolutions- need to be tied to action. If a committee wants to pass a resolution, what is their plan for communicating it and working to see it be a reality? Too often resolutions are passed and nothing more is done- that is a bad use of time. Resolutions should be limited (w/ the exception of emergency ones and memorial resolutions) to a defined number of meetings a year with a requirement that an action plan be included with them. People join committees for different reasons and the majority of folks don’t join to debate resolutions- but often times significant time is given every month to them, with the same select few being engaged with them, with the rest of the members detached and uninterested. They have a role, but it’s one of many, for a committee- and they have to have an action plan behind them.

4. Committees need to understand their roles/ where there are clear spaces they can make the most impact. Too often, committees want to be all things to all campaigns. The bigger the campaign, the more likely they will have staff and resources; the smaller the campaign, the less likely they will know what is going on. Committees (and campaigns!) need to learn how to complement one another in more effective ways. The state party isn’t going to run the presidential election, not going to happen. The presidential campaigns (and other larger ones) need to respect and plug into the local infrastructure and not reinvent the wheel. But, where I am going with this is local elections. That is where local and state committees need to step up and focus. School board, city council, water and soil conservation districts, and the tough House of Delegates and Senate districts- those are the races the state parties need to focus on and win. We’ve been wiped out at the local and statehouse level over the last 8 years— and that is where we find the bench for the bigger races.

5. Large campaigns need to have a more genuine respect for local stakeholders. Too often across the spectrum in politics, the world is black and white. Local committees and state parties are great and the be all, end all, or they are worthless- that is the feedback you get depending on who you ask. The truth is always somewhere in the middle. Some committees are doing great, some are not, so that’s why they all need support. And it is incredibly frustrating to see parallel efforts in localities with committees working to perform a function, and a campaign come in and do the same, separately. Once that campaign ends, the program they have developed and all the knowledge gained with it, moves on. We have to do a better job creating synergy AND realizing that campaigns can’t be expected to build a local committee for that locality. A lot of this comes down to attitudes and respect.

6. If you don’t need a meeting, don’t hold one. Have a committee host a phone bank, knock doors, or work at a soup kitchen. It drives people crazy to have a meeting “for the sake of having one because we have to have one every month”. Just because it’s a tradition, doesn’t mean it’s good or makes sense.

7. Break your meetings up with action items. At the DNC this weekend, how cool would it be if the states were challenged to see who could put the most calls into the special senate election in Delaware- what’s more, what if members were forced during the agenda to go to breakout rooms and make calls? Lots of ways to do this from letters, note cards, care packages for our soldiers, but make sure every member can point to something actionable they did at your meetings.

8. Caucuses- could write a book on this. Not enough to have a Black Caucus or a Veterans Caucus in name only. Caucuses are where we could be making huuuuge gains if we focused more on membership recruitment and action items. At least at the state level, we don’t enforce our own by-laws to make sure the caucuses are growing and have action plans. Or resources to achieve them. Every year candidates need the same things- roster of small business owners, veterans, etc. across the state- the caucuses are the institutional knowledge for this and not given nearly enough attention.

9. Professional training and longevity at the state parties and DNC. Staff typically aren’t paid well, there is little to any professional development, and it’s a rotating carousel of staff. You can’t build anything meaningful unless you hire good staff and keep them for longer periods of time. See #8— it’s staff’s job to make sure caucuses are doing their jobs; there is little incentive for a caucus or committee chair to listen to a staffer when it’s clear that staffer will be gone likely within a year.

10. To #9, committee leadership has to back their staff up. Staff can’t get committee structures fundamentally changed if they don’t have leadership’s support.

11. To #10, leaders at the DNC and in state parties (and local ones) are typically risk averse to take on real change if that person also has political ambitions to get elected. After all, you don’t want to tick off the party leadership that you’ll need to help you win a caucus, convention, or primary…. am I right? So, while there are always exceptions to the rule, you need chairs willing to shake things up and not being elected or having elected ambitions can be helpful in doing so.

12. All candidates w/ a D next to their names should have assistance from the Party- and that assistance should be well defined. Website, template for a mailer, a call sheet template and tutorial on how to raise money, etc. There are some basics all our Delegate, local, Senate candidates should receive. Re: money and contributions– the caucuses and party need to be honest and upfront about how campaigns are funded and what a campaign should expect to be getting and from whom- no candidate should get into a race with the expectation a big check is coming from some larger entity of the party if that’s not a thing that will happen. That’s fine, by the way, but candidates at a minimum should get some package of resources and clarity about what they are getting into.

13. Don’t be standoffish and hesitant to partner with other groups- there are lots of allied groups and new organizations popping up that are natural partners for our committees. Too often they are seen as threats as they are building their own memberships- but we are not seeing the forest for the trees- if our goals generally align, don’t be nervous to partner and maximize efforts.

14. Committees in deep blue areas need to get out of their blue districts and go help knock doors and call voters in purple and red districts. Some of this is happening organically, and it’s great, but needs to be more of a priority. And it wouldn’t be a bad idea for folks to be more willing- and encouraged- to move into purple districts and flip some of these districts.

15. Membership….members in good standing… ok, that needs to be evaluated differently beyond showing up to the regular monthly meeting. Credit for showing up to phone banks, door knocking, etc. needs to be credited just as is showing up to the monthly meeting. In some committees, you can get kicked out if you miss a certain number of meetings, while at the same time you could be knocking doors everyday for the candidates in your area- credit should be given for doing stuff (that’s a technical term btw).

At any rate, some random thoughts on how to revamp our committees.

  • Sandi Saunders

    Very well said and spot on IMO!

  • Chris Ambrose

    I agree with #1. Committees should be constantly recruiting the next generation of leadership. The people in leadership positions should change every several years. Chairs should also know how to run effective meetings. A boring meeting chases people away. I also agree that partnering with other groups is really important, especially in the current environment.

    • Is there anything Clark said that you disagree with? I think this is spot on all the way down the list.

      • Chris Ambrose

        There is nothing I disagree completely with, but as an editorial comment, the reason there are membership caps in committees is that to be on the committee requires an election to a finite number of seats. The idea is that people should compete in an election and the strongest activists are elected to the committee. If you have elections, there need to be a finite number of seats to run for. There are disadvantages to that since only a finite number can get elected, but anyone who wants to help can still volunteer or be an associate member and the fact is that any hard working volunteer will almost always win the election.

        The idea is for the committee to be a vanguard of volunteer leaders. There are some who believe anyone should be able to join regardless of their commitment to the cause, and that is a fine argument, but my feeling is that the party is not the same as a Democratic club. People need to realize that the reason they join the committee is to help elect Democrats, not to socialize about policy. The one legitimate complaint about such a system might be that insiders may win because they know everybody even if they are not heavy lifters. But I really think that is rare. Only occasionally are their contested seats anyway, and it is not unusual for a newbie who has been recognized as a great volunteer, to beat dead wood.

        • Interesting…

          • notjohnsmosby

            Those are words from a guy has helped run FCDC into the ground. Take
            them for what they’re worth. There’s a reason fundraising is way down
            with Chris running the Finance show. Posts like this shed a light on
            the reasons why. The whole “you have to prove yourself to join our gang” attitude backs up one of the key points Clark made.

  • Elaine Owens

    I was on the state central committee when Clark was political director. I was sad to see him move on but he’s a great asset to Ralph Northam. That list is spot on. I especially like the idea of providing people reasons to participate more in a committee. Do community work together, meet for coffee in small groups with similar interests, make the local committee more than a monthly meeting with the same agenda. The idea of partnering with other groups is an excellent one, also.

  • barbaralee12

    Local committes are not doing anything to reach out to members.

    • Edward N Virginia

      I got a mailing from the County Party: was that ‘reaching out’? But, as this article notes mostly we are too busy with many other duties of life (work, family, community) to be adding meetings for the sake of meetings. Our very local sub-group of the County Party has had its own tabling at local events and in local spaces during the hot weeks before Election Day and held some ‘meet and greets’ to meet candidates, solicit volunteers, ask for money. And all of that seemed appropriate and effective reaching out. I am very appreciative of how much time and expense all that took to do. It makes me feel ‘glad’ about the local few. What I think would be helpful that is missing are local, and very local, means to gather people – not just Party people – to learn about issues and to discuss our values regarding solutions. For example, why not – NOT in the heat of campaigning – have a series inviting any and all to discuss an important local topic and to identity our values and experiences with those values. Those could be ways to ‘reach out’ truly – out beyond the Party familiars, and out into the lives of a-political people, non-voters, etc … all of whom we must cultivate to BECOME VOTERS, and then to become reliable Democratic voters?

  • Jamie

    Completely agree, Clark. Thank you for sharing.

  • ContempLawtive

    Yes, yes, yes. Thank you Clark. Too often, Dem committees meet and do nothing, ESPECIALLY in deep blue areas where purity of ideology trumps more important things like voter turnout. (See city of Richmond committee.) Too many committees are run by the same old people who are happy with the same old nothing.

    ALSO, there is too much emphasis, in party choices of candidates, on party loyalty VERSUS demonstration of ability. See, e.g., Dan Gecker vs Emily Francis in Va SD 10. Dan may be a good guy but did not work hard as a candidate, while Emily worked hard–knocked on many doors, went to every event, reached out to voters, which Dan did NOT do–but couldn’t overcome the party machine that endorsed Dan. Now we’ve got a not very smart pretty-boy ALEC-following Republican in a seat we SHOULD have won. And the Richmond committee did nothing to offset the votes in Powhatan. Shameful turnout in Richmond parts of the district.

    The Senate 10 race indicates a HUGE problem Clark didn’t mention: the party continues to discount the efforts of women and minorities, EVEN THOUGH the few gains we’ve made in recent years have been through those efforts. If you are a white man, you should be doing the work of questioning yourself about your implicit biases–ESPECIALLY if you’re talking to, or about, or impacting, a woman or minority candidate. We’re watching, and noticing, and burning, let me tell you. At this point, I don’t care how great a candidate you are: Only women and minority candidates are getting my money. White male candidates, I’ll still vote for you, and knock doors for you. But my hard-earned dollars are going where the party hasn’t stepped up.

    As far as capping membership, I agree–this is an outmoded structure. Have membership be about meaningful involvement, not just showing up, and have more than one kind of membership so more people can be involved. Another problem is too many committees require that members be voters. what about 17-year-olds, felons, & non-citizens? If they’re going to dial phones and knock on doors, they should have a voice in committee decisions even if they can’t vote in primaries. Committees need to figure out how to have dynamic membership categories to allow for this, and let ALL members vote for party leadership and operating decisions even if they can’t vote for candidates.

    And OH, the ridiculousness of party leadership asking local committees to recruit candidates for every race–and then telling the recruits they’ll get no support, or even asking them to stand down so the money can go somewhere else. This doesn’t build our bench.

    My one quibble with Clark’s analysis: OFA was too top-down and too miserly with information. We need TRUE grassroots, bottom up, dynamic structures. One size may not fit all. Refine the party plan so local communities can organize as best fits their needs, while allowing for transparency, mobility, and small-d democracy within organizations.

  • wwfleming

    Regarding “Great stuff – and very timely/relevant, given the DNC elections this weekend”, I have never heard anything over about 10 years from the DPVA or the 2nd Congressional District Chair about any elections at the state or national level or about any state or national meetings. It is as if the DPVA is a closed club and the people in charge work hard to keep anybody else from knowing what’s going on, at least until it is too late. I just looked at the DPVA Events page and it shows a Q1 Steering Committee meeting on March 4, but when you click the “View event details” button there are not except a map. The only other thing is a McEachin event which is apparently another fundraiser.

    Several years ago I gave someone a ride to a state committee meeting and was told later that the 2nd Congressional chair ask my rider what I was don’t there. She made it clear that she did not like the fact that I was even there sitting in the back.

    The comments by Mercer are interesting considering the fact that I don’t recall hearing about him spending time at any Hampton Roads committee meetings.

  • Sue Langley

    I agree with Clark. On the membership issue–FCDC Steering members are working hard to recruit as many as members we can. We have over 1000 members now and continue to grow. I am sure we will pass the cap and that is OK with me. It is a great opportunity for us to bring the new blood and the new ideas. We will not have another opportunity like this.

    • Good to hear, thanks for the great work you do!