The election is over. My mind is slowly coming out of its frozen, numb state. I’m beginning to do some deep soul searching as to what happened on Tuesday. While many are mourning over Trump’s election, my tears have been for the State of Wisconsin. Dems did not pick up any seats, in fact we lost some. Russ, our progressive leader, lost to a do-nothing candidate. I lost to an even worse do-nothing candidate. How could this have happened?
I declared my candidacy for Representative to Wisconsin’s 32nd Assembly District in December of 2015. We knew we needed time to build our reputation and get the word out about our campaign and our message of bi-partisan reform. From the very beginning I found myself fighting with the state party and the local, county party over resources, access to the VAN and training. I finally realized none would be coming and I honestly think that’s what saved my sanity through the next 10 months.
We formed a grassroots movement made up of fabulous letter writers, activists and volunteers willing to knock doors and make phone calls and people willing to make videos for us and design websites, flyers and banners. We held listening sessions starting in February. We attended community events and fundraisers. We knocked doors every weekend and even during the week, all while I worked 40+ hours farming and teaching at Michael Fields Agricultural Institute. During the last 2 months we upped our game. Wednesday and Friday we held signs and waved at busy intersections throughout the district as people were coming home. Thurs, Sat and Sun we knocked doors to build relationships and let our neighbors know we were going to be there, right by their side, until things improved. Whenever I got a few minutes I worked on my call list of targeted possible Trump Supporters. You see, we knew the stats and reality. Dems can’t win in these districts by only getting out the Dem vote. WI isn’t the 5th worst gerrymandered state in history because of unwillingness to vote. It’s the 5th worst because they (the GOP) did a damn fine job making sure they would never lose a seat.
Even with all of this, I lost. The silver lining is we did do better than both Hillary and Russ in our district so we know we are on to something. This year the anti-establishment craze was so strong, no one even remotely connected to it was safe. My sin was I had a “D” behind my name. Hillary Clinton has 30+ years of ties to Washington and government. While in most years that would be seen as an impressive resume, this year it was the cement shoes that sunk us all. Of course hindsight is 20/20, but some of us have been saying this from the beginning.
I know this will ruffle some feathers, but I don’t blame the people who voted for Trump. I blame the DNC and the DPW. I especially blame the DPW because we all knew how much we needed to pick up some seats in both the Assembly and Senate. There was no mention or support for Assembly or Senate races in the Monday Messages, or the weekly Chair’s Report. Nothing! At the county level, things are so disorganized and short staffed the parties just stood back and let the coordinated campaign take over. Somehow with their fancy “science” and numbers they (The Coordinated Campaign – CC) was able to convince local people, who know the breakdown of D vs R, that it’s ok to just target Dems because, “When people turn out, Dems win!” YAY!!!! Except that didn’t happen. Not only did that not happen, but somehow the GOP got the majority of new voters to come out and vote against someone, instead of for someone, for the first time in a long time.
There were not voter registration drives in my area. There were no listening sessions or town halls to try to spread a message of empowerment and togetherness. Hell, we didn’t even try to talk to people on “the other side” because it was seen as “a waste of time.” A waste of time??? A waste of time to try and pitch your side? To try and see where they are coming from and give them a better option? I was pretty much blown over when I got that response from my local CC organizer. That’s the day I stopped coming into the county office and decided I was officially 100% independent of the party and their support.
Where exactly does the blame lie? I don’t know. I’ll be honest; I don’t know how this whole party thing works. I was naive enough to think if you put yourself out there and sacrificed a year of your life Dems would support you as best as they could. Turns out you have to be in the “inner circle” or a “sure thing” in order to get support and that’s really sad. I honestly don’t know what we could have done differently. We worked our butts off and my opponent literally did nothing.
That’s been the hardest pill to swallow. The fact that an incumbent can have a reputation for not attending district meetings, not responding to citizens’ concerns, and then not even attempt to campaign and still be elected by 20+ points. The reputation of the Democratic Party is so tarnished in the rural areas that a good candidate with an amazing team can’t even have a shot at winning. Where do we go from here?
1) Stronger County Parties In my experience, county party boards last for a few years, get burnt out and then everyone quits. There are so few volunteers or members the same handful of people gets stuck doing everything. When they do quit there’s no records or continuity so the whole county has to start over. This is the same for candidates who try to run. No notes on where to leave signs, who’s willing to organize, make calls, knock doors, etc. Even though I declared in December of last year, it really wasn’t until July/August that we finally got things semi-figured out and organized. That’s a lot of wasted time.
The state party needs to re-allocate their budget. All counties should be able to apply for grants and assistance to keep an office open all year, every year. Parties and party members should get involved in the community on off years by volunteering, helping with community fundraisers or holiday meals, you name it. The more active the party is with their community the more support and resources they get from the state. We need our neighbors to see we value them every day, not just 2 months every 4 years.
2) More resources for training and outreach We need a new message. We need big ideas and we need the courage to stand behind them. This is going to take a whole new approach to messaging, outreach, and basic community building. We need our neighbors to know we are just like them. We, too, want a brighter future for our kids, roads that don’t send our cars to the shop for alignment problems, better paying jobs.
We need monthly workshops on communicating with other viewpoints, on messaging and organizing. We need committees for aspiring writers who can channel their pain and anger into letters to the editor or opinion pieces. We need small subgroups to keep people involved, engage and active. I don’t know about other areas but we go from 200 members in an election year to 80 members a year later. This has to stop. We have to keep our members and continue to grow our county parties, especially with younger blood! (Sorry, not sorry!)
3) Whole New Approach to Elections We cannot continue to pander to people for their vote. We need to start building relationships, lasting relationships. Not just to get through the presidential elections. We also need to change our focus from top of the ticket to bottom of the ticket! We need the majority of resources going to local and state races. The presidential candidates can raise their own money and can pay for their own volunteers. We are going to keep ours!
We live in this state. We don’t get to move back to some other area once the election is lost. Start investing in Wisconsin! Start emphasizing the importance of local candidates, assembly candidates, senate candidates. These are the people who are responsible for the majority of legislation that affects our daily lives. Once we turn the focus to local elections and make people understand how important they are, we don’t have to worry about low voter turnout in mid-term years. Every year is important!
This might be a good place to start, but the important thing is we start. If the state party won’t listen, we do it ourselves. What happened on Tuesday can never happen again! Democrats either need to become the Party of We, the People, or we need to replace them with a party who will. I have to say at this point I’m fine with both options. I’m done talking and thinking and “let’s see-ing.” I want change and I want it now.