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Advice for Sussex Dems from a Former RD Chair

When you take on a leadership role in an organization, you generally become attached to it, hoping for its continued success, even after you step down. That is how I feel about the Sussex County Democrats, having served as chair of the 14RD Committee for 4 years, and sitting on the County executive committee because of that role.

Consequently, I’ve been asking myself these questions: Democrats had a registration advantage in Sussex County in 2014 (49,865 v. 49,615) and only a slight disadvantage in 2016 (57,522 v. 59,907), so why can’t Democrats get elected in Sussex? Why did every single Democrat lose in 2014 and 2016, except for the one Trump supporters love? Is the County just hopeless, best written off as a lost cause?

I know the leadership and committee people in Sussex County really want to win and worked really hard during both election cycles. Is there anything that could have been done differently? What changes, if any, could be made in how the party operates, as we elect new leadership for 2017-2020?

Clearly the solution to the Democrats’ inability to win in Sussex cannot be to run more Dems who don’t support the party platform. If that is the solution, then why bother? And while I do believe many Trump supporters can be brought to the Democratic side with an economic justice agenda – evidenced by how many were considering both Trump and Sanders – we should not appeal to them in a way that violates our own principles.

In 2014 only 42.66% of Sussex Democrats voted in the election. The Speaker blames the candidates for this enthusiasm gap. He told Delaware Grapevine: “Democrats lost, because the turnout was so low. Let’s face it, we did not have the most exciting of candidates, not that you wanted to get off your couch and vote for.” Were Sen. Chris Coons, Congressman John Carney, and AG Matt Denn unexciting and to blame for their own losses?

Oh, I guess Pete means the local candidates, people like myself, Marie Mayor, and Paulette Rappa. If there are more exciting candidates to be had – and there may well be – I do hope the party can find them.

Personally, I would not say that it’s anyone’s fault that all the Democratic candidates lost in 2014 and 2016, however, it is my contention that the insularity of the local party undermines its ability to reach out to potential supporters and get Democrats elected. And while I do not concede that the losing candidates were unexciting, a less insular party might be able to attract a wider array of people willing to step forward and run for office.

This post, while critical, is not written for the purpose of placing blame for the sake of placing blame, but rather seeks to point out the ways in which the Sussex Democrats and the 14RD have not been welcoming or inclusive. My hope is that under new leadership the party will get back on the right path.

Consider, if you will, the ways in which the local party has worked to keep people out.

Meetings for County Members Were Cancelled

When the new Chair took office in 2013, he discontinued the county-wide monthly membership meetings. The party now holds only a monthly executive committee meeting that operates with a tight business agenda. While it’s true that the monthly meetings were sparsely attended, the remedy could have been to make them more interesting and visible. Instead, we have a meeting for party insiders, even if it’s technically open to observers.

“Big Tent” Approach Abandoned

It’s important to allow everyone to be heard and for all perspectives to be considered. While I myself have a strong commitment to progressive politics that does not mean I think others should be silenced. In fact, being progressive requires respect for everyone and an engagement with issues.

When I stepped down as 14RD committee chair in early 2015, the new chair told the committee that he wanted a “big tent” approach, inclusive of multiple viewpoints. He took that stand partly because the committee, at that time, was embroiled in a conflict over death penalty repeal. That is to say, the committee had just issued a public statement, calling on our representative, the Speaker, to support repeal. To be clear, the committee itself was not divided on this issue. Indeed, it voted with only one dissenter to issue the public statement. The conflict arose because the Speaker got really mad, which caused a few people on the committee to start backpedaling, claiming they didn’t know what the statement they voted for said!

In the wake of that conflict, the committee had some really vigorous conversations about the meaning of democratic self-government. I spoke for the importance of accountability – our representatives are accountable to the people, and when they reapply for their jobs every two years, it is our role to evaluate their job performance and judge whether they are representing our will. Consequently, we need to let our representative know our views.

The County Chair’s side said that we have to support our representative no matter what, even if we disagree with him on the issues, because he is a Dem. Consequently, we should never issue public statements that criticize him. The County Chair said we shouldn’t go public because we have “access” to him privately.

My side didn’t want “access”; we wanted influence. Many of us had already spoken to the Speaker privately many times.

We had a great, if heated, debate, and one of my friends on the committee reported feeling invigorated. “Conversations like that are what I was hoping for when I joined this committee,” she commented.

Sadly, the big tent approach was not to continue, and I was personally subjected to mistreatment and verbal abuse for disagreeing with the Speaker on a number of issues. While I am generally a glutton for punishment, at some point, it’s not worth the aggravation, so Mikki and I resigned in October 2015, and continued our work building progressive community outside the party.

The Party Should Not Take Sides in a Primary: Let the Voters Decide!

After we resigned, the County Chair with the support of the RD chair orchestrated a committee endorsement of our incumbent representative – so much for the “big tent.” The County Chair pushed this even though he knew the committee was divided – and despite the RD’s longstanding policy of not endorsing in the primary.

When I recently brought this latter point up to someone still on the committee, she explained the non-endorsement policy was not a legal document. Of course not! It’s just the longstanding consensus of the committee, and the policy should not have been discarded without a discussion of the ramifications. Did everyone realize that a non-endorsed candidate would be denied access to Votebuilder, barred from even speaking at an RD meeting, ignored when candidates are introduced at an event, and generally treated as invisible? Does it really make sense to endorse the incumbent before anyone files against him? Talk about collapsing the big tent!

The policy of not taking sides in a primary, where Democrats are divided, was designed to avoid a split in the party. And disregarding the policy did in fact cause a split; all the progressive members ended up resigning from the committee.

And for what? The endorsement didn’t help the incumbent (especially since it was bafflingly publicized in January when many district voters are in Florida); he didn’t need it to win. But it did inspire someone to run against him in the primary.

Popular Community Events Discontinued

Most people don’t want to sit through a boring business meeting or spend their time doing party-building work, but that doesn’t mean they are not strong Dems. When Mikki and I were still on the committee, we wanted to reach out to strong Dems in the community and get them on a list so that we could mobilize them at election time. Our idea was to convene a town hall meeting on a topic that would be controversial among Dems and that had both national and local relevance.

The events were a huge success. The first one on convening a constitutional convention to overturn Citizens United drew over 70 people. The second on high stakes testing drew almost as many. Most participants had never attended a Sussex Democrats event before. Continuing the public forums could have brought more people into the party, which is probably why they were discontinued as soon as we resigned.

Bernie Sanders Campaign: A Missed Opportunity

The Sussex Dems also missed a huge opportunity to reach out to new members when the Bernie Sanders campaign came to Sussex. Mikki and I attended their kick-off event at Grottos on Route 1, and there were hundreds of people there, many of whom had never gotten involved with Sussex Dems. Yet no one from Sussex leadership attended to take names or pass out cards – not the County Chair and not a single RD Chair. We found that stunning.

The Democratic Caucus That Nobody Knows About

Finally, how many of you are aware that on January 5, 2017, the 14RD will be electing a new committee? I assume that it must have been publicized somewhere – State Party rules require 30-days’ notice – but I haven’t seen it. It is not in the Cape Gazette online or on the Committee’s Facebook page, which actually says “Delaware’s 14th RD Democratic Committee does not have any upcoming events.” I found out about it from @DelSussex on Twitter – an account that has a total of one follower, which would be me!

Consequently, on January 5th the small cabal of party insiders that currently sits on the 14RD committee can reelect themselves and their friends to be part of a county party that can’t get Democrats elected.

Is insularity the reason why Democrats keep losing in Sussex? Maybe, maybe not. But it doesn’t help.

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