It is the great lament of the Charlottesville Democrats — as well it ought to be — that minority involvement in the party is far from representational of the city’s population. Many methods of determining the source of this problem have been suggested, though few of them have been attempted. A glance around most any party gathering will provide the answer.
The trouble isn’t that the party is too white. The trouble is that it’s too white-collar baby-boomer-and-up middle-class college-educated white. Our blind eye to membership demographics other than race has made it impossible to determine what our real recruitment problem is, and thus all solutions attempted have failed to fix the diversity problem.
The reason that the party looks like it does is because that generation that took control of the party decades ago has been running it ever since. The generation’s now-middle-aged children have gotten involved, too, but the social core has remained the same. It is this group that, without a hint of malice, has continued to serve as the leaders of the party, operating it via the same social channels by which they might arrange a dinner party. Consequently, newcomers to the party are inherently outsiders, not due to the fault of anybody involved, but merely because they are, in fact, outsiders to this social group.
Getting new people involved in the party will mean shedding the old social network and welcoming newcomers for their perspective, fresh energy, and willingness to help. This could be accomplished via a short-term push to intentionally get dozens of new people involved (regardless of their socioeconomic background), or by a efforts by each individual within the party to be conscious of their own behavior towards outsiders and modifying that behavior appropriately. No matter what specific acts are taken, the most necessary change is an overall shift in attitude and atmosphere — we must all be genuinely pleased to see somebody new at a meeting, recognizing that they bring with them the hope for a larger, stronger, more diverse Democratic party.
No Party is an Island
The Charlottesville Democratic Party does not exist as an island, and we cannot continue to act as if it does. The state party does not serve as an adequate network for the purpose of connecting Democrats across the state, and we must perform our own outreach.
As Sen. Creigh Deeds or Del. Mitch Van Yahres will surely attest, it is essential that more Democrats be elected statewide in November. It’s likely that Sen. Deeds and Del. Van Yahres will run without serious opposition. Consequently, this election should be seen as an opportunity for party-building, both within the city and without.
We must work with the Albemarle party to build the 57th House of Delegates District. We must work with parties in surrounding counties, using the 25th Senate District as the excuse. We must work with parties clear to the North Carolina border, using the 5th U.S. Congressional District as the excuse. We must do this because we share common problems, we share resources, we share elected officials, and we have resources that we ought to be sharing. For example, growth and sprawl affect us all, yet Albemarle bears the burden dealing with it. Charlottesville, the source of this growth, must be a part of this discussion, and we as a party must ensure that this happens.
Synchronize Election Precinct Usage
There are two goals to any nomination process: to nominate the a candidate that best represents the citizenry, and to nominate a candidate that can win. To accomplish the first goal, we nominate candidates based on votes weighted by precinct, under the assumption that this will provide us with a candidate that wins based on the desires of the most diverse geographic (and, hopefully, socioeconomic) cross-section of Charlottesville. Unfortunately, our use of this system is preventing us from accomplishing the second goal: nominating candidates that can win. When we select a candidate based on a precinct system, and then hold a general election where the precincts do not matter, we introduce a fatal weakness into the process.
A savvy opposing party could select a candidate that is extremely popular among the upper-class residents of the Recreation precinct, knowing full well that getting these individuals to turn out and vote will not prove difficult. We could select our nominee based on our precinct system, producing a candidate that is liked by a broad cross-section of the city, but not necessarily by a majority of the voters. Consequently, the opposing party could chalk up an easy victory in the face of our fairer-but-weaker candidate.
There are two available solutions to this problem. The first is to change the Democratic nomination conventions and end the practice of weighting votes by precinct, thus matching the current process for the final election. The second is to change the final election process to weight votes by precinct, matching the current process for the Democratic nomination process. Either one would suffice; doing neither is folly.
Much of the operations of the Charlottesville Democratic Party are unintentionally secretive. This is a consequence of the social network that connects much of the party leadership: meetings often occur informally, rules are not always followed, our processes are ill-defined. In order to gain the understanding, trust, and aid of party newcomers, it is important that the mechanics of the party be clear.
Stop Running Campaigns
As evidenced by the 2002 City Council elections, there has developed an assumption among some that the party will run campaigns for nominees running for public office in the city. Worse yet, we actually run those campaigns. Worse still, it has recently come to be assumed that the party chair will therefore assume the role of campaign manager. This is a mistake. Anybody running for an office must be capable of doing so on their own two feet, either literally, or with their own campaign team. (Although, hopefully, they would cooperate with fellow nominees and run joint campaigns, where appropriate.) This assures that those who seek the nomination will be people who are capable of getting elected, and will not require that the party scramble to convince members that the candidate in question merits working for. Instead, the party should take on the role of cheerleader, of a communications conduit, of fundraising base, of provider of voter lists, and of provider of potential volunteers. This simplified role doesn’t just make more sense, but it’s also one that we’re capable of fulfilling; it’s a promise that we can keep. To attempt to play a larger role in a campaign is trouble.
Democrats have been left adrift without national leadership. National representatives are neutered to muster anything in the way of opposition. Republicans, on the other hand, have been emboldened by their continued successes. Charlottesville Democrats are as desirous of leadership as any other Democrats, and we must fill this leadership vacuum by picking up where our state and national parties have left off. We must each become leaders, with our party leading the charge, speaking out against the series of injustices that the Republicans have inflicted on the American people on a federal level and Virginians on a state level. The party must have a role as leaders of Charlottesville, as a visible and unmistakable force of change and good, as the organization that is behind every positive event, movement, and change.
Faced with a lack of leadership, people will look just about anywhere to find some. We must compel them once again look to us, and find it here. Otherwise, they will look elsewhere, and they will find it there, and we will surely suffer the same fate as the DNC and, increasingly, the state party: irrelevance.
Lead From Within
On a state and national level, the members of a party that have been elected to the highest public offices serve as unofficial party leaders, regardless of whether they hold positions within the party. This is not something that we are doing on a city level. Four out of five members of City Council are Democrats, but they seldom serve as strong leaders within the party. That’s not to say that they don’t participate, because they certainly do. Rare is the party meeting at which at least a pair of City Councilors are not in attendance. But they generally participate in party matters in the manner of citizens, and not as the venerated elected officials and important Democrats that they are. Anybody seeking an example of how this ought to be done need look no farther than Delegate Mitch Van Yahres who, when the House is in session, provides unabashedly Democrat-centric weekly constituent newsletters, requesting input and assistance from his fellow Democrats whenever necessary. Consequently, when he asserts that the party must take a new tack, party members frequently follow his lead. If our elected leaders take on leadership roles, this will not only serve to strengthen the party through visible affiliation with the party, but it will also enable them to better call upon the resources of the members of the party.
Currently, our state and federal representation is dominated by Republicans. Although the source of this problem is a complex one, the dearth of Democrats is in no small part due to the shortage of Democratic candidates that are capable of unseating Republicans. It must be our task to train people to become leaders, encourage leaders to lead, and to provide a support structure that will enable these individuals to work their way up the political ladder to lead the Democratic charge on both state and national levels. We must nurture, train, groom, and appoint, always with an eye to the future.
A simple, formalized approach to this would quite likely prove to be the best solution. Using a larger geographic area, such as the Thomas Jefferson Planning District, a program in the style of the University of Virginia’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership could have strong effects on the political landscape of central Virginia in just a few short years.
Sometimes, incubating will mean running a losing race, knowing from day one that it’s a losing race. Sometimes it will mean running losing races year after year. Every time that we do this, every time that we put all that we are into running a good campaign, we get a little stronger, and we get a little closer to winning races at every level.
Getting new people involved in the party isn’t just a matter of getting them on the city committee, or to lick envelopes for a candidate. Like the Elks Club or Boy Scouts, there has to be ongoing incentives to show up and keep showing up. This means doing something other than holding quarterly meetings and trying to recruit people for phone banks. Precincts should throw block parties. We should have an annual community picnic. We should hold frequent low-cost-of-admission fund raisers or simple gatherings. Getting involved shouldn’t be a commitment to dreary tasks and initiation into a mysterious social network. It must be fun.
Have a Purpose
Every political party exists for a reason. There is something that makes its members want to join that party, something that makes it different than the other options available. To that end, both the Democratic National Committee and the Virginia Democratic Party have mission statements to define the common beliefs that are shared by their members, and to provide them with goals such that the party exists for a purpose. Charlottesville Democrats have no stated mission, no specified common beliefs, no specified shared goals. Without a mission statement and a platform, a political party isn’t a political party; it’s a tea party.
Liberal splinter group Democrats for Change has enjoyed successes for in recent City Council elections, to the frustration and puzzlement of many party faithful. It might come as a surprise to some that the reason for Democrats for Change’s success is very simple: it is an organization with a purpose. Prior to every election, they establish an extensive platform listing a series of goals that they want candidates for the nomination to agree to work to fulfill. Everybody who shows up for the series of energetic meetings has a voice, and everybody provides input, out of which emerges a specific list of candidate requirements and a bold plan for the future of Charlottesville. The Charlottesville Democratic Party, on the other hand, rarely asks for input from anybody, rarely holds debates, requires no endorsement of beliefs (other than “upholding the principles of the Democratic Party,” whatever that means), no adherence to a platform and no suggestion of agenda. The choice between the two groups is akin to a choice between beef Wellington and a cup of steam. The real mystery is why anybody would partake of the steam and claim it to be superior to the beef.
Some argue that a platform is divisive. They’re right, it is: it divides the Democrats from the not-Democrats. It’s how we know that we’re Democrats, and how we can know that we’re serving a purpose in this world other than holding meetings, appointing one another to offices and handing out awards to each other.
So let’s be divisive, let’s be controversial, let’s be loud, let’s be daring. Just be something.