Greg Werkheiser: Thoughts on the DPVA Chair Job


    When the story broke about Dickie Cranwell resigning as DPVA chair, AP reporter Bob Lewis identified Brian Moran and two other people under consideration by party leaders for the position.  One was Mike Signer and the other was Greg Werkheiser.  We’ve heard from Mike and from newly announced candidate Peter Rousselot – who I have strongly endorsed – on what a new party chair should aim to accomplish, but we haven’t heard from Greg, so I asked him to share his thoughts.  As most of you know, Greg’s been active in Virginia politics for about eighteen years. He graduated from William and Mary and UVa Law, wrote speeches for Mark Warner and Hillary and Bill Clinton, founded the bipartisan youth programs of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, ran two hard-fought campaigns for the House of Delegates against Dave Albo, and most recently has been leading efforts to make Virginia a destination for social innovation. With that, here’s Greg’s response to my invitation:

    Lowell, I’ve enjoyed reading the thoughts of my friends Brian, Mike and Peter–and so many others-on what is needed in new leadership of the Democratic Party of Virginia.  It’s kind of you to ask me to share some thoughts, but let me make clear at the outset that I am not seeking the chairmanship of the DPVA.  Whatever I write after this sentence should be understood as a product of my sincere hopes for our party and not as a platform of any kind.  Indeed, when our names appeared in the AP coverage as “under consideration”, I reached out to Mike Signer, who was my roommate fourteen years ago when we were both young(er) staffers on Mark Warner first Senate campaign.  I told Mike that he would be a great party chair but only if he had in the intervening years learned how to pick up and wash his odiferous socks.  To his credit, Mike admitted that I would be a superior chair, but only because I have superior hair.    

    For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on message, money, infrastructure and professionalism.

    Define what it means to be a Virginia Democrat, then say it again, and again…  Northern Virginians can sooner arrive by car in New England than they can in Southwest Virginia.  Perhaps it is deference to that geopolitical diversity that causes our party’s leaders to hesitate to define for the world just what it means to be a Virginia Democrat.  But we know that there are unifying principles and values that are the common blood running through our veins.  We want effective government that creates opportunity to all people who are willing to work hard; we are an advocate for the middle class, etc.  We have the ability to pithily and effectively define ourselves in an age of modern communications and to repeat that message with such stubborn consistency that it can be understood and appreciated more powerfully than that of the Republican Party (no taxes, unfettered markets, social restrictions, rinse, repeat).  We must empower some of our most skilled public speakers and writers (and not just party staff) to spread that message to every Virginian and in forums in which the party is rarely represented (more on this last part later).

    Paint the picture of the Virginia we can achieve  Our next chair should be able to rouse the passions of everyday Virginians by painting a vivid and positive picture of what Virginia will be like when Democratic ideas are translated into policy.  This should not be a vision that relies exclusively for its strength on contrast to the weakness or meanness or downright craziness of Republican ideas (although those are fair game).  Nor should it be tied closely to the cult of personality or aspirations of a particular candidate; rather, it should be a vision that causes all Virginians to lift their sights to a more prosperous, free and welcoming Commonwealth.  When our neighbors can actually see themselves in the picture we paint, electoral successes will follow.  From a practical perspective, it would great if our next chair was a rock-star at the microphone.

    Model 21st Century Strategies:  The new chairperson should preside over a communications strategy characterized by consistency of message, breadth of distribution, rapidity of response, and dynamism of distribution-social media – social media – social media.  Every local committee should have a web portal that reflects well our statewide message and models our sophistication as organization, but also can be easily localized to reflect the grassroots nature of our operation.  Because NoVa is within the beltway and thus attracts the attention of national political media, and because certain statewide Republican office-holders espouse positions that are such cat-nip for national coverage, we should leverage the message of Virginia Democrats onto the national scene.  In so doing, we can attract interest and support from beyond our borders to our battleground efforts.  When Rachel Maddow is looking for a guest to opine about the latest flat-earth claim from one of the Republicans, we should tell a story that speaks to Democrats in Virginia and beyond.  

    Speak the Language of (Social) Entrepreneurship:  For the last five years I’ve been working to promote in Virginia an environment that is more conducive to social innovation -roughly defined as harnessing traditional business strategies to achieve sustainable solutions to social challenges while also reducing the burden on taxpayers for addressing those challenges.  This work is by its nature nonpartisan, attracting leaders from all ideological perspectives, as well as idealists and pragmatic businesspeople.  But the next DPVA chairperson should understand the emerging field of social innovation, be able to speak its language to public, private and nonprofit sector entrepreneurs alike, and appreciate the power it has to capture the imagination of the electorate who like cutting edge ideas and hate having to pay taxes for traditional solutions that inevitably fall short.  Republicans argue, often disingenuously, that we can pay for everything we need just by cutting government waste.   But there is no question that government can and should consistently improve its efficiency.  When I chaired the Virginia Commission for National and Community Service under Mark Warner, I found that there were two agencies, differently named, doing exactly the same thing on the same hallway.  We made tough choices and people lost their jobs, but the resulting merged organization was more impactful.  Some folks who already speak this language pretty fluently are Mark Warner, Terry McAuliffe, Ward Armstrong and Tom Perriello.  We need many more.

    Be Funny:  Politics-especially in the Commonwealth–is often an unintentionally hilarious endeavor.  The absurd things that candidates and their supporters say or do are sometimes so ridiculous that laughter is the only appropriate response.  But Democrats, in all of our earnest wonkiness, too frequently come off as strident or as taking ourselves too seriously, which distances us from the general public who look upon many policy and process-obsessed passions with incredulity.  A fellow William and Mary grad-Jon Stewart-is the crown-prince of this truth, the power of which was born out in attendance at his recent rally.  Indeed, a primary qualification of our next party chair should be that he or she could appear on the Daily Show without appearing as if they just captained a ship from Planet Humorless.  So let’s find a leader who is genuinely funny and who can help us poke fun at ourselves and our party when necessary, which is at least once a day.

    Treat Major Donors Like Investors, Not ATMs:  Wealthy Democrats are Democrats too, with just as much passion and as many courageous ideas as grassroots leaders.  But the DPVA’s largest donors feel like ATMs.  In my 2009 run for the House of Delegates, we raised more money than any Democratic candidate for that office in history (my apologies, again, to all of my supporters for not being able to overcome the tsunami that swept us statewide).  I had plenty of opportunity to listen to some of our parties’ most generous investors.  One of them described her interactions as follows:  “It’s like I am at cocktail party and the seemingly interested guy is saying all the right things and nodding, but I keep catching him looking down…at my wallet.”  Many of these folks became successful because they are smart, and we should genuinely and regularly seek their counsel just as a smart CEO would do with his major investors.  Doing so is not mutually exclusive with also broadening our contributor base to attract many smaller donors, which others have suggested and with which I strongly agree.  The lack of an individual donation cap in Virginia’s state and local elections has encouraged leaders in both parties to focus disproportionately on large donors, and that needs to change.  A small donation is analogous to a stock purchase.  The donor feels ownership and intense interest in the fortunes of their “company”, and they’re more likely to serve as a volunteer.

    Engage More Presidential Voters in Off-Year Elections:  Turnout amongst young voters and minorities surged in 2008, and we need a message that engages more of these Presidential year voters in both Virginia’s midterm elections and its off-year state elections.  This isn’t a new idea, but we simply haven’t executed in Virginia as some have in other states.  It can be done if we find the right issues that resonate with core Democratic constituencies.  Off-year electorates can be more conservative than Presidential years, but that does not mean they have to stay that way.  For example, Harry Reid escaped almost sure defeat by turning out more Hispanic voters in 2010 than Obama turned out in 2008. He accomplished this by pushing for the Dream Act and continuously highlighting the vicious anti-immigration positions of his opponent.  Every Democratic statewide candidate should put forth policy initiatives that touch the lives of college students and minority voters while drawing a strong contrast with the Republican alternative.

    Raise More Dough:  Running a competitive state party in this day and age requires human and technological resources of the highest caliber.  Those cost money.  The next chair should increase the DPVA budget by at least 30% each year based on a written business plan that makes sense to investors small and large.    

    Identify and Empower Next-Generation Leaders Earlier: I am very proud that the Sorensen Institute’s programs on youth civic engagement that I ran for seven years were and remain unassailably bi-partisan and that hundreds of college and high school grads–R’s, D’s and I’s–are pursuing more informed and civil dialogue about policy in the Commonwealth.  But from a party-building perspective, Democrats should be doing a much better job identifying, networking, educating and engaging informed and thoughtful progressive young people in our efforts.  The YD’s are essential to this strategy, but that’s not the only place it should be happening.  The party’s leadership at all levels needs to be willing to visibly engage and empower younger members earlier.  Every party leader should formalize relationships with several mentees with whom they meet regularly.  While it would certainly send a powerful message for the next chair to be a young(er) person him/herself, that’s not essential to achieving this goal.  Of course, this engagement of younger members will require us to look beyond the immediate demands of the next election cycle, something at which we have proven pretty inept.  But we can do better.

    Identify and Support Viable Candidates in Every Race, and Then Help Them Govern: If we do the things I’ve described above, like define ourselves as a party so consistently that people can recite our elevator speech while they sleep, give people a vision they can believe in, and improve the sophistication and appeal of our communications, it will be much easier to recruit candidates.  We are not there yet, so our standard for candidate recruitment has sadly fallen to something akin to looking for a body with a pulse.  We can and should put ourselves in the position by the end of 2011 so that we are choosing from among multiple qualified aspirants to each seat, and to have identified them early enough in the process to properly equip them for reality awaiting them around the corner.  If we fail to recruit a viable candidate for every seat, we lose out on easy pickup opportunities.  Every year, two to three local GOP candidates self-destruct in some manner.  We need to stand ready for the inevitable Republican gaffe/indictment/racial slur by filling each race with a decent challenger.  A related point: The long-term success of a party is, in my opinion, as closely tied to how we govern as it is to how we campaign.  Our part-time legislature hampers our elected officials’ ability to understand the complexity of the many of the issues on which they have to vote.  The party could improve their effectiveness by bringing in experts on key policy areas to help improve policymaking and supportive political strategy.

    Go to Unexpected Places: As one of the public faces of the Democratic Party of Virginia, the next chair has an opportunity to help the party improve its ideas and send a powerful message by going to places that are not inherently political, but where real challenges were being tackled by everyday Virginians trying to improve our Commonwealth.  For example, he or she could start by touring the plants and headquarters of Virginia’s largest employers and industries to better understand what they do, how they do it, and the obstacles they face to achieving stronger growth.  Lessons learned from these visits could surely inform the party’s approach to public policy formation and advocacy and the mere act of listening, especially to audiences that have not been aligned closely with party constituencies, might serve to break-down misperceptions and build trust for the longer term.

    Engage the Grassroots in Direction-Finding:  The majority of Democrats on whom we rely each election season do not have a formal title with the party, and yet their energy and ideas hold the key to our medium and long-term successes as an organization and a movement.  Inspired leadership is key to unleashing their energy, but more formal efforts should be also made to engage them regularly in dialogue about the future of the party.  There are a number of ways to do this through social media. I think the noise that has arisen around this discussion about the choice of the next party chair is reflective of a larger perception that our everyday Democrats are distant from the mysterious mechanisms of the Party.  No organization as large as our party can be run as a pure democracy, but we can certainly be more skilled at harnessing the input of all of our members.

    Take Official Policy Stances That Reflect Who We Are: There are structural problems with state government on which I believe we could take principled and consensus stances as a party that would help distinguish us from our counterparts.  We need a two-term governorship to solve the problem of institutionalized short-sightedness and lack of long-term accountability, we need to support bipartisan restricting (and not just when we are in the minority), we need even stricter ethics rules and increased transparency in campaign financing, etc.  Building support for accountability and transparency by supporting specific measures should be a hallmark of the DPVA.

    Build a Professional Organization: When considering the qualities we want in future leadership, is it relevant to consider whether they have ever run built and sustained for four years a business/organization of at least the same or greater size, scope and budget of the DPVA?  I think so.  Also, the position of chair is-or more accurately, should be-a full-time endeavor.  However, under the current scenario prospective DPVA chairs are limited to self-funding retirees or part-timers whose day job will reduce their availability and their impact or be a source of conflicts of interest or message.  Why not make the position decently compensated (they’ll have to raise their own salary anyway) and thereby significantly expand the DPVA’s pool of prospective leaders.  Finally, given the scope of the rebuilding needs to be done, I endorse Senator Warner’s criteria that the next chair be someone who is going to make a full commitment to the endeavor and forswears being on a ballot in the next four years.

    Wow, I did not expect to type this much.  Let me close by saying I have known for many years and sincerely like all of the people whose names have been suggested as future party leaders.  I think it’s healthy to have a dialogue about who has what it takes to charge our way back from the brink and into leadership, but I know we’ll close ranks behind a new chair because we’re family and that person will need our help.

    Thanks again for the invite.

    Greg Werkheiser

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