New Year, New Party
Twice in the last month I’ve been consulted by local activist friends about the upcoming Democratic “re-org” (party office elections held in February of odd-numbered years), to see whether or not they should run for a position and ask for some insight on how it all works. You might be wondering yourself, if this vaguely defined “organizing” practice is right for you. Let me just say up front, it almost definitely is.
With few exceptions -- none of which would apply to someone thoughtful enough to ask around, or read a blog about it -- the answer is yes. Do you value democracy? Do you think the party that bears its name can and should do better? JOIN US.
If you need a primer on why more people, especially millennials and zoomers, need to get over our collective distaste for joining things and just be Democrats already (I promise, it won’t hurt you), I can do that next week. If you're one of those with a whole speech about how you "cannot possibly, in good conscience, associate with an organization that [insert problem here]," trust me, I know. We in the trenches know better than anyone that the party has problems, including things you won't see from the outside. No organization will ever be pure enough if that's what you require to associate with anyone. This is messy work and no one who does it has clean hands. For now, let’s just say that the Democratic party is currently the only vessel that can fill this particular role: electing non-fascist folks to public office and buying us enough democracy to prevent slipping into right wing authoritarianism, so that we can build something better.
Yes, it is that serious. And no, Trump being out of the picture will not make the threat go away. One of the biggest risks with him was always the temptation to view his rise to power as an aberration in an otherwise reasonable conservative party. That is not the case. A destructive presidency like this was a long time coming and many of its players are still in the game. The contemporary GOP is an anti-system organization that is actively attempting to abolish the administrative state and move the country into feudalism under single-party rule. If you're bummed about the lack of choices in a two-party system, I guarantee you that single-party rule will have you pining for the days when there were at least elections. This isn't a game. You can't just opt out.
So. Specific procedures vary from state to state, but for most readers’ benefit, I’m referring to the upcoming re-org for the El Paso County Democratic Party. If you're outside of Colorado, you can find your state party here, and they should have a list of county parties so you can find yours. You'll notice that official party organizations go by county and not by city. This is to ensure thorough reach. It's easy to forget this if you live in a major metro area, but many Americans live in unincorporated space, with no municipal government, whereas counties are subdivisions of state government, so we're all in some county or another.
Side note: be a little wary, actually, of "Democratic" organizations that are named for a city or town, rather than a whole county. That's more likely a club of Democrats, which is all well and good, but only official Democratic party organizations conduct party business. Official parties are also legally required to report their finances, just like any candidate or committee that raises money for political purposes, which may not be the case with an unofficial group. There have been numerous attempts to curb unauthorized use of Democratic Party branding, especially for rogue organizations that are at odds with their duly elected official party leadership, but that's a story for another day. Go through the proper channels and find your official county party, that's the important part.
Let's start with what the local and state party organizations are NOT. You’ve probably heard of the DNC, for instance. It’s quite fashionable to have an extremely negative opinion of the Democratic National Committee, often while imagining that the party follows a corporate structure and that the DNC “runs the entire party.” They don’t. There are many valid issues to raise with that committee, but do please know that the bulk of its members are elected from "beneath," so to speak, not from on high (for lack of better prepositions), and that the power starts in your community, not with the chair of the DNC. We all need to start with what is within reach of us. The higher level change is several steps out. Myself, I serve on the El Paso County Central Committee, our County Executive Committee, and the Colorado State Central Committee. Let’s break those down:
County Central Committee: the fine tendrils of the Democratic Party’s grassroots. County Central Committees are made up of precinct organizers (also sometimes called “precinct committee people” or “precinct captains”), which is the smallest unit of organizing. Being a P.O. means building relationships with Democrats and potential Dem voters within your precinct, helping out candidates for local and state office, and promoting the Democratic ticket as part of a coordinated campaign in Federal years (if you find that your county party is not doing anything like this, that needs to change). If you don't know what precinct you're in, it's okay; most people don't. It's listed on your voter registration, which is easy to look up. Out-of-state readers, check your Secretary of State website. They probably have something similar.
Precinct organizers are elected to two-year terms at caucus, tend to serve as chair of their caucus as well, and also vote on some issues of local interest such as whether or not the party will endorse ballot initiatives. You'll usually need to attend one or two meetings a year. The election process may be up in the air in coming years as Colorado moves away from the caucus model. In the meantime, there are a number of vacancies in El Paso County, which can be filled by chair appointment for the remainder of the term, so if you're looking to get involved, you don't necessarily need to wait until 2022! In February of odd-numbered years, this committee also votes at re-org on the County Executive Committee, as well its county's share of State Central and State Executive Committee members.
County Executive Committee: district-level and and at-large organizers, as well as county party officials (chair, vice-chairs, treasurer, and secretary). In theory, this can be a very large group of district officials with a deep bench in each district: a chair, two vice-chairs, a treasurer, secretary, and a platform committee member, for each State House, State Senate, and County Commission district in the county. It can end up being an awful lot in a big county! While we make an effort to elect organizers for every district, the House District Chairs are this organization's bread and butter. Couple of reasons for that: (1) State House Reps are elected every two years, while the others are on alternating four-year terms, so the need for candidate support is more consistent, and (2) El Paso County contains eight State House districts, four State Senate districts, and five County Commission districts, so naturally each HD is smaller, usually 30-35 precincts. For instance, on paper I am a vice chair for Senate District 10, but my primary position is as chair for House District 16. And finally, I also serve on the…
State Central Committee: the state level version of the County Central Committee. We elect the state Executive Committee and vote on platform items and party rules and bylaws. The state party also runs a lot of issue-specific initiatives, some of which are far more active than others, but nonetheless require approval by the State Central Committee. I put a lot more of my energy into the county level organizing, so I’m going to circle back to that.
I’ve been reading Jane McAlevey’s incredible work on community organizing, No Shortcuts. I heard her on a podcast over the summer and quickly realized she was speaking my language, and that of many good friends and colleagues, all of us coming to terms with the fact that we cannot advertise and mobilize our way to the country we want to live in. We want to go far, and together, yes? That means we need to dig in for some deep organizing, relationship building, and elevating the power of ordinary folks. The elite theory of power will never accommodate the kind of organization we need to reclaim our workplaces, our homes, our communities, and our governments. The root of these problems is where the change needs to occur. That is, fundamentally altering the balance of power so that ordinary folks have it to claim what is theirs: the product of their own labor, their dignity, and their natural right to self-determination. If average folks do not claim what is ours, then nothing really changes, regardless of which party holds majority power.
This light scolding is directed at myself as well, by the way. I’m as tempted as anyone to deliver a few zingers on Twitter and call it a day, but I know that’s not the work that needs to be done. It's tempting, almost seductive, to latch on to some fast-acting idea, much like a get rich quick scheme or a weight loss pill, but there's a reason those fail. Remember what Shelley Long tells Tom Hanks in "The Money Pit" about the house that was too good to be true, like the "short line" at the DMV: "I got in the short line once. It was for farm vehicles."
Here's your challenge for 2021, dear readers: join me in the long line, and we'll have some adventures along the way. Reply to this blog or shoot me an email if you want to be kept in the loop about re-org in February or have one of the conversations I cited at the start of this post. Think of me as the foil opposite of one of those mean girls in a reality TV show: I am absolutely here to make friends.
I'll catch you on the flip side, and may you and yours have a healthy and happy New Year!