When you are on the outside of a political organization, it is often easy to view putting the effort in to get involved as overwhelming and not worth your time. Going to the movies, supporting a local business, protesting at the state house or even catching up on sleep probably seem pretty good in comparison to making a local meeting of fellow Democratic party members, which often turns into a meeting about why Republicans are bad, no matter where you are in the country.
I completely understand. However, if you think your county, state or national party is not working the way you want it to, or getting the results you think it should, the only way to make those changes is to get involved. So, we’re starting from a point of you being a complete outsider, and I’m going to outline the three strategies depending on what role and influence you want to have within the party.
I am leaving two goals out of this writing. Over the last year, we have spent time covering what it means to be a candidate and run a good campaign. Next week, we’ll cover what makes a good precinct person. So, this week, we’re going to discuss how you can put yourself in a place to help make decisions for your local, state, and national party.
These steps combine; in general, if you want to be successful at the next rung, you have to have done some of the steps below it. With that in mind, let’s start.
Building influence with your local county party.
Maybe you are a precinct person. Maybe not. While that certainly has impact, for the purpose of this writing, we are going to assume you are not a precinct person (yet), and you would like to begin having more input in the way your county party functions.
The key rule for every level of involvement is the same: show up. Show up to county party meetings, functions, and events. People who show up are the ones who are first in line to get somewhere in the party. Do not expect to show up on a first meeting and suddenly become a member of the party executive board, unless your county organization is VERY weak or nonexistent.
Information is your strong suit, and thanks to the internet, most of it is at your fingertips. Offices like precinct person, county chair, vice chair and treasurer are public record, available through your county clerk’s office in all fifty states. Do a bit of homework about how your county party is structured. Who is the chair, vice chair, the precinct person in your area. If there isn’t a precinct person in your area—true for many of us—you have a way in, attend THREE meetings and then ask your county party chair to be appointed as a precinct person.
If you ask to be appointed the first time you have ever met your county party chair or vice chair, they will likely be very suspicious of you, and it will slow you down significantly on becoming involved. Remember those secret rules? This is a big one. County and local parties need to feel as though they actually know you a bit before they are willing to just appoint you as a precinct person.
IF you are uninterested in doing that, and there is no one in your precinct as a precinct captain/leader/person, it is a public office defined by state law. You can file to run for this office, normally in the primaries every two years, for a minimal fee. If you are the only person on the ballot, you will win the election and you are a precinct person. Note: if you are the only precinct person in your whole county, which can happen depending on how red your state is, you now have the right to organize a county party, which will be recognized by your state party.
Now that you have some standing in the county party by being either a precinct person or at least someone they recognize, it is time to find out where you want to go. If you are in a very small county party, this may be as far as you go for a bit. If you are in a large county, there are plenty of options, including executive board, leadership teams, and the like. But how do you go from being a simple precinct person or just a person who shows up to filling one of those roles? What steps are effective and what steps don’t work?
And this is where we start to talk about the kind of allies that matter. The Democratic party is built on coalitions. While the Republican party is broadly built on a unifying message, the Democratic party is a coalition of causes and likely always will be. As a result, if you are in a large county, you will find several organizations that have weight on your local Democratic party.
They can be:
- County or state caucuses (based on race, gender, LGBT, business owners, disability, veterans, etc.)
- Outside advocacy groups, like: NAACP, Planned Parenthood, ACLU, Equality organizations, etc.
- Inside advocacy groups, like: local chapters of Nationally Federated Democratic Women, Black Leadership Councils.
You’ve done your three local meetings to become appointed OR you ran for a precinct person. You’ve taken the first step, but now you want to find a way to move up the ladder. Realize, a lot of the advocacy groups contain the same members who are part of your state and local leadership teams. Seeing you participate in any of these groups gives you a much better chance to interact one on one with the kind of people who can provide you the relationships needed that can get you to where you want to go in the party.
Building relationships is simple, and the first step is: SHOW UP. The second step is also simple: Be a decent person. Don’t try to take over meetings, don’t bulldoze those present, don’t demand they follow your lead. Instead, actually listen to the things they are concerned about, and keep track of it. I normally keep audio notes or a little notebook to keep track of the meetings I go to and the questions that get raised. Earlier in the week I talked about how to make the world better, tomorrow? Well, this is that moment. Many people in their state or county party participate because they are concerned or unhappy about something. The individuals who attend these meetings want to express their viewpoint and sometimes find solutions. If you are interested in moving onto the next step, we’re going to talk about how to accomplish that. But even if you are just content with seeking a role in your county party, the fact that you listened and heard someone out regarding their issue? That is the kind of thing a lot of people need to feel appreciated. Here is the other secret: if you are actually a decent person, you can go far, quick.
Building these relationships isn’t just about a jockeying for your position in the party; it is also about building friendships that you need to last, long term. One of the real negatives of the online world is that it has stripped many adults of the ability to make new friends. I don’t mean Facebook friends you kind of know, I mean real people in the real world who you know and like. You’re going to find a lot of people in a political organization who can become longtime friends you can hold onto. It is one of the best reasons to become involved, and it is the reason why so many stay involved their entire life.
Okay, you have some position in the county, but you want a role in the state party. What next?
Now that some individuals know you at the county level, there are a few different ways to have influence in your state party. While donating a lot of money can certainly get you some influence quickly, it is not the route I want to focus on today. So, let’s talk about the different goals of having influence in a state party:
- State Committee Member
- State Caucus Leadership & Representatives
- State Executive Committee Member
- State Leadership Team
If you’ve gained standing in your county following some of the steps above, one of the easiest ways to get influence in your state party is to ask to be included on the state committee. The state committee in the Democratic party is the voting body that approves state party issues. These issues include voting for state leadership, bylaws and state platforms. Depending on your state rules, your appointment to the state committee is normally handled at the congressional district level, with each congressional district getting so many representatives. In some states, all slots are full. In other states, there may be opportunities for you to serve.
Let’s say, however, that in your state, all state committee slots are taken. Before you think this shuts you out of involvement in your state party method, you still have another way to get involved and on the state committee. Democratic party settings provide each caucus of good standing within a state position on the state committee, and leadership of those caucuses often have a slot on state executive committees. Thanks to your local work at making friends in local advocacy groups, you may work to become the named representative of any caucus within the state party. Even if you are not named their representative to a state committee, you working within a caucus of the state party also gives you direct influence. State caucus functions provide you a louder voice to directly convey items into the state discussion of platform, bylaws, and outreach. So, if you can’t get on the state committee, but you can become a strong member of a caucus or a district leadership, you're half way.
State Executive Committee—if your goal is to become one of the people who is involved in shaping the way the state looks at things and moves forward, then kudos to you and your interest in being involved! All of those steps we covered before? Apply those. And now, you have to think about a mini-run for office. Becoming a member of the state executive committee normally requires an internal party run for office. You will be running to become the chair or vice chair of a caucus within your party or the chair or vice chair of a congressional district in your party.
These races require you to have completed some and preferably most of the steps above. Hopefully you have to have made friends, be seen as someone who wants to actually do the work, and be continuously active in the organization you want to lead. If you plan on going from an outsider to a state executive committee leader, give yourself time to make the connections you need to achieve this goal. NOTE: if you are a young person, one of the caucuses that does get to sit on the executive team is the Young Democrats, this organization is built for someone with good social networking skills to rise up and take a role within the party and have long-term standing. If you are a young person, PLEASE take advantage of that opportunity.
Let’s Go National!
State Leadership Team. Your state leadership team is composed of this group: state chair, state vice-chair, state treasurer, and Democratic National Committee members. In some states, leadership teams include: secretary, fundraising, outreach, multiple vice-chairs, and more, depending on the size of the state political party. These individuals have not just standing in their state party, but in most cases some standing within the national party.
If your end goal is to have that kind of impact, how can you get there? Well, there are two completely different methods to get this result, outside of running and winning political office.
Method 1: State Office Leadership elections
If you wish to have a role in the state leadership and you want to do it through state committee elections, realize you are going to have to dedicate a lot of time, resources and effort to make sure people know you. Not just people in your county, but people statewide. State leadership races are often based entirely on name ID. State committee members aren’t able to follow every item that occurs outside of their city or county. If they don’t know anything about you, they are unlikely to vote for you. If you wish to become a member of state leadership, realize that you will have to work for it; it is a position of honor among a lot of Democratic party members. They bestow these positions on people who they think best represent the party. No matter where in the country you are, it is often easier to win these positions as an older person, not because they are older, but because they have developed a long track record within the party to build name ID and trust.
In large states, breaking into state leadership is incredibly difficult. It will take you years. In red states, though, the same rules about becoming a significant member of the county party apply to state party: show up, make friends, and you are on your way.
Method 2: National Committee
Democratic National Committee men and women are elected in most states under the state delegate selection plan. While voted on by members of the state committee, the role is different. In many states, this election is held at the same time you select at large delegates for the national convention. In several states this year, outsider voices (Bernie supporters) were able to get their slates of National Committee members elected this summer. This alternate method is a different kind of campaign; it is about making a direct pitch to the state party members about your participation in the national party and what role you think you can play.
It is possible, as several Bernie advocates proved this summer, to go from complete outsider to National Committee member in one swoop; more likely this year than others.
The bigger the role you want to have in a county, state or national party, the more time you have to be prepared to devote to it. Atrophy kills parties. If you plan on running for an office within your party, whether it is county, state or national, you need to make a commitment to stay involved and improve the position you hold. The quickest way to lose friends and make enemies within the party is to seek a position and let the position you are in fall apart. Don’t try and serve a role in the party that you can’t devote the time and energy to in order to make it what you want.
The Democratic party is also about interpersonal relationships. You undoubtably will come across more than a few people you can’t get along with. Grin. Bear it. Be nice. There are times I personally struggle with this one, but it is important. Try, every day, to be friendly when possible. If you need to confront bad ideas, confront the bad idea, not the person.
Next Week: I’ve Become A Precinct Person, What Am I Supposed To Do Now?
Nuts & Bolts: Building Democratic Campaigns
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