Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Essay: Who Will Lead Us?

There is a lot of talking and maneuvering going on across the state now about who will be the next chair of the Louisiana Democratic Party (LDP).

It’s all interesting but most of it misses the point because the focus started on the candidates for the job instead of the tasks at hand.

The person best suited to lead the LDP can’t be identified without first identifying what those tasks are. Here’s what they are — and what those tasks will demand of our next party leader — from where I sit.

Three Essential Tasks

The next LDP chair faces three essential tasks in the coming year, all of which will demand immediate attention. They are, in order: 1) rebuild and re-unify the party; 2) serve as the leader of the opposition party in this state; and 3) win elections.

1) Rebuilding & Re-unifying the Party

Despite the fact that this is a presidential election year and there are three open congressional seats up for grabs across the state, the primary job of next LDP chair is to rebuild a party apparatus that has atrophied at the state level and all but disappeared at the local level.

Why? Because a strong party apparatus is the foundation upon which successful campaigns are built.

Louisiana’s open primary system enabled Democrats to forget the lesson. The party primary system has been restored in federal elections, opening the door — and creating the need — for strong party organizations.

The success of Republican candidates across Louisiana in recent years has been built on an active party base that produces volunteers and dollars to support the party’s candidates in all kinds of races. These are the people whose first question is not "Can you win?" but is instead "How can i help?"

If Democrats are going to get back in the habit of winning elections, we need to focus our efforts on rebuilding the party’s infrastructure in our state. Democrats need to get back into the habit of asking first how they can help. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) understands this and, under the leadership of Howard Dean, has spent considerable money trying to help parties at the state level kick-start and/or advance that work.

Building an effective party means making it open to party activists — partisans — not just those who can write big checks.

A consistent story emerges when you talk to Democrats across Louisiana. It is this: that “the party” turned down their efforts to help; their calls were not returned; they were never contacted to help in campaigns. “The party” acted like what it has really become, a closed club of insiders who the party like it’s a private preserve.

The party leadership continues to treat party activists like we’re a nuisance when, in fact, we are the backbone of the party. The path to success for this party will require party leaders who will work to bridge the gap between the grassroots and the suits, between blacks and whites, and between the progressives and the rednecks.

We all call ourselves Democrats for a reason. The next party leader needs to engage the party faithful in a broad-ranging conversation about why we are all Democrats in order to identify the common ground that unites us under the banner of this party.

Democrats are hungry to know each other. The state party should convene a regular series of regional meetings, conducting campaign workshops in the day for activists and fund-raisers in the evening. The grassroots activists should be included in those fund-raisers and the check-writers should be invited to the workshops. Democrats need to get to know each other and the party is the vehicle needed to do that.

Every Democrat should have a seat at the table. No faction should be excluded.

No small reason for the mess this party is in goes to the matter of race.

In some ways, African American Democrats in Louisiana find themselves being used as fundamentalist Christians are recognizing that Republicans at the national level have used them.

White Democratic leaders in Louisiana have been happy to have African American support and votes but have not been willing to return the favor for African American Democrats when they challenged white Republicans in district and statewide races.

The party needs to elect leaders who break with that past; who send a message that this party is committed to unleashing the potential of our party and our state by tearing down the barriers that separate us.

The best way to ensure that our party is united would be for the leadership of the DLP to reflect its constituents. At least 46 percent of Louisiana voters registered as Democrats are African American; a greater percentage than that provide the votes that elect Democratic candidates. The leadership of the party should reflect the diversity of the party. Either the chair or the executive director should be an African American and/or a woman.

2) Serve as the Leader of the Opposition Party

Effective January 14, the LDP became the opposition party in Louisiana politics. Democrats will not be obstructionists, but the duty falls to our party to help people distinguish between the Jindal/Republican fairy tale and reality. That work should have already started.

There are immediate openings for Democrats to expose Republican hypocrisy on ethics reform, starting with the refusal of the Jindal administration and its Republican allies to tackle campaign finance reform.

During his campaign for governor, Jindal made “ending pay to play” and removing “even the hint of corruption” part of his mantra. Yet, his blue ribbon ethics transition panel ignored the most direct form of pay to play in Louisiana politics — direct contributions from companies either working or seeking to do business with government. Jindal’s own campaign garnered significant sums of money directly from corporations.

Republicans benefited from the ability and willingness of people who lead companies to write checks to back their candidacies. Corporate campaign contributions fail both the Jindal promise to end “pay to play” and the “hint of corruption” standard that he pitched voters during the campaign.

There is also the matter of the heavy contributions from nursing home owners that went both to the Jindal campaign and the political action committee operated by now-Speaker Jim Tucker. Were there any policy discussions that took place in connection with those contributions? There are big state policy issues that affect nursing homes. They were certainly in the Jindal and Republican camps. What is the connection between that money and those policies? Only the LDP has the standing to raise those issues.

Jindal’s campaign also benefited greatly from the bundling of LLC contributions that pushed the boundaries of legality on campaign contribution caps. Again, more than a hint of corruption here, but no Jindal administration action will be forthcoming on this.

There is also the matter of the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office sharing its database management company with the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority (LCRM) during the election. What was the nature of the work that GCR & Associates was performing for the Secretary of State and what was the nature of the work it was performing for the LCRM? Was the Secretary of State’s database turned into an arm of the Republican statewide campaign in 2007? This matter goes to the heart of free and fair elections.

Ethics reform was a major rallying cry for those who led the Jindal campaign and its satellite operations (like the BluePrint). Democrats are in position to either push Jindal towards real reform or reveal the pitch to have been a scam. This is a task for the next leader of the Louisiana Democratic Party.

The LDP charter calls for the party to engage in research, the kind of which could turn these items into major issues for Democrats as we begin the four-year long effort to strip away the myth of Jindal and Republican competence and honesty. That work will require a commitment and thoroughness that appears beyond the capacity of the current leadership of the party.

3) Winning Elections

There will be no fewer than three open seats in the Louisiana Congressional delegation this year. Democrats need to be organized and motivated to help Democrats challenge and win in every one of those races. The best way to provide help is to revitalize the local party infrastructure, helping parish executive committees reconstitute themselves where needed and function more efficiently where they already exist.

Convening Democrats across the state could make a difference in these races and could speed the process of re-energizing the party at the local level. In races where multiple Democrats qualify to run, the party should ensure that each Democratic candidate has access to all the tools at the state party’s disposal, including databases of voters, volunteers and contributors.

If the party is strong at the parish level, it can help candidates for congress as well as help to re-elect our Democratic U.S. Senator.

The old days of leaving the business of organizing campaigns solely to candidates died with the death of the open primary system in federal elections. Success in 2008 will require that Democrats return to building campaigns — and the party — from the ground up.

Running strong campaigns in the congressional races on tap for this year is one way of ensuring that the national Democratic ticket not only campaigns in Louisiana, but also spends money in Louisiana right through November. The last Democratic presidential campaign to spend money in Louisiana late into the campaign was Bill Clinton’s 1996 campaign. He carried Louisiana and won re-election.

In the intervening years, the national party abandoned our state and left the field to the Republican message.

That is one big reason why Louisiana has appeared to be a Republican state: Democrats have left a message vacuum, which they filled. Energizing the state and local party, fielding strong campaigns for Congress, running a strong re-election campaign for Senator Landrieu, these are the elements that will bring the national party back into Louisiana and Louisiana back into the fold as a Democratic state.

Who Will Lead Us?

The race for chair of the LDP is not solely about Chris Whittington or the Landrieus. It is about the future of the party for which we all proclaim our loyalty and allegiance. Still, since Whittington is the incumbent and appears committed to trying to keep his job, his record in the job is pertinent to the discussion.

Under Whittington’s watch the party lost the following state offices: governor, secretary of state, commissioner of agriculture and forestry, and commissioner of insurance.

The party also lost the leadership of the House of Representatives.

It failed to build up infrastructure at the party level, despite receiving funding and support from the Democratic National Committee for precisely that work.

The party did raise money but it squandered it on ill-conceived advertising that discredited the party in the eyes of many voters.

It stiffed party activists at all levels, in all regions of the state.

There is no other word to characterize this but failure. It can’t be called leadership.

Despite this record, there are people on the current executive committee of the LDP working frantically to make the case that Whittington should retain his post. In my view, they are confusing their personal interests with the well being of the party. They hope that by helping Whittington keep his job, they can keep their positions. That is legitimate only if you are willing to totally discount the fate of the party.

I know some of these people. They are better Democrats than that. They should stop those efforts now. Whittington’s record speaks for itself. It is indefensible.

The selection of the next chair and executive director will send a message to the party faithful and the general public about who we are as a party and where we are headed. The re-election of Chris Whittington will say that Louisiana Democrats are content with being ineffective failures.

If Not Chris Whittington, Then Who?

It should be clear that the next leader should not come out of the Landrieu camp. Tying the party to the campaign of the highest ranking Democrat on the ticket and ignoring party building is how we got in this mess. Besides, the Landrieus have not been able to find a candidate who can defeat Whittington and their opposition to him has had the unfortunate effect of galvanizing support for him.

So, a framework of sort emerges. First, it can’t be Whittington because the party can’t get the fresh start it needs if it is led by the person responsible for the colossal failures of the recent past. Second, it can’t be a Landrieu person. Third, grassroots activists don’t have the numbers to elect one of our own as chair. We can, however, help decide who that next leader will be (which is a big step up from where we’ve been over the past four years!).

Chris Whittington can do the party a great service by not seeking re-election as chair, but identifying someone from the trial lawyers camp as a possible replacement.

Any and all candidates should be required to publicly declare themselves no later than February 15 — one month before the Democratic State Central Committee (DSCC) meeting where the new leadership will be elected. And, they should be required to provide detailed plans for how they will work to restore the party’s political fortunes.

The Landrieus, who don’t appear to have the votes to defeat Whittington need to quit talking about wanting to help rebuild the party and actually come sit down at the table with the rest of us who have been proclaiming the need for this work for years. You’re either in or you’re out, but come to the table on the same terms as everyone else. Everyone gets a seat and everyone gets a say.

Louisiana Democrats have a real opportunity to jump-start the rebirth of our party right now. But, that can only happen if everyone is willing to put aside their delusions of grandeur, roll up their sleeves, and get to the work at hand.

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