When a patient is on life support, loved ones are often forced to decide if there's any hope for recovery. The same applies with the Alabama Democratic Party. What's gone wrong? Is it worth saving? If so, what's the cure? Today, we wrap up our series on the recent history of the ADP and tangentially, the AEA.
Symptom #1: Out of Touch & Insular Party Leadership
The political landscape in Alabama didn't change because of the ADP leadership, but they've done little or nothing to bring the party back from the brink. How can it be that the party has suffered massive losses at every level of state and local government, but nobody in leadership lost their job? Paul Hubbert, remember, left voluntarily so that he could more openly support Republican candidates. The State Democratic Executive Committee is currently structured to preserve the power of individual leaders, not as an open, transparent governing body.
Don't believe it? Just attend the next SDEC meeting and watch the spectacle as Nancy Worley & Joe Reed use the politics of raw power and poor parliamentary procedure to humiliate opponents and table/block votes on motions. The August 2014 meeting is a perfect example:
Over the past few years, I've watched as Roberts Rules of Order were twisted beyond recognition, motions ruled out of order simply because the ADP leadership didn't want to discuss them (example 1, example 2), and seen the leadership display a simultaneous slavish devotion to the letter of some of the by-laws – and a distinct disdain for some of the more inconvenient portions. For instance, the party by-laws say that this meeting has to take place between August 1 & August 15. Saturday is the 16th.
In the case of the August meeting, past performance on the part of the SDEC did indeed predict future results.
Traditionally, the first order of business during an SDEC meeting is to fill vacancies, and the party at the time had 56 vacancies for elected positions. Dr. Joe Reed informed the committee that he and the minority caucus had filled an additional 55 vacancies at its meeting prior to the SDEC meeting. How those vacancies are determined is anybody's guess.
Many prospective members attended, hoping to fill an open slot in their district. Most went home angry and disappointed – for no good reason other than Reed/Worley knew they could gum up the works and have a little fun:
In previous meetings, the chair went through the list district by district asking for nominations. Yesterday however, Chairwoman Worley recognized Dr. Joe Reed first and he made a motion to fill just 7 of the 58 open positions (he already had the names available to read aloud) and “hold over” the remaining vacancies.
Repeatedly, Worley made reference to the committee's “long agenda” and taking some shortcuts “in the interest of time,” but what many attendees saw was an effort to restrict committee membership for no good reason. Although members repeatedly asked WHY Dr. Reed made the motion to change the standard meeting procedure, he declined to speak on the matter again.
If they were indeed trying to “save time,” let's just say that strategy didn't work and caused a huge amount of ill will on the committee for no good reason. The committee spent nearly an hour fighting over this when the actual elections for all the slots could have been done in half that time. Not only that, it embarrassed the members who had worked to recruit new committee members and wasted the time of those hopefuls who had attended the meeting, but who were somehow left off Dr. Reed's list – the one that only a few knew in advance that he was making.
What was the big secret? If there's a good reason to change meeting procedures, the dish. Don't give some lame excuse about being “pressed for time,” because people were perfectly happy to take the time to fill open positions. The silence from party leadership only fed suspicion and created ill-will.
Remember in Part One, we noted that historically Alabama Democrats are better at fighting each other than fighting Republicans. That's a perfect description of the State Democratic Executive Committee. The party has a failed, but entrenched, leadership that doesn't feel the need to justify its actions – or even deign to explain them – to the membership.
The Cure: The party all but burned to the ground in the 2010 elections and the GOP drove a bulldozer through the remains in 2014. And yet the same crew is still in charge of the party, sitting huddled over the sad embers that remain. As long as the ADP's leadership style is “rule by autocrats,” the only possible outcome is failure. We won't grow the party until we grow our contributor and voter base. That's just not possible with the current leadership.
Symptom #2 – Lack of Financial Transparency
In the years that I've attended SDEC meetings, I have yet to hear the party treasurer give a report to the membership. In fact, the treasurer rarely even attends meetings and seems to pay little or no attention to his duties. For instance, qualifying checks for the 2014 primary election were due by the close of business on February 7, 2014. Yet the February FCPA report from the SDEC shows NO INCOME AT ALL during that month, and the “amended” form shows $1102 in contributions. The SDEC didn't report the qualifying fee income it received in February 2014 until the April 2014 report – and some candidate & SDEC membership qualifying checks weren't cashed until May. Look at the details in the reports and you see that some of those months-old checks bounced and subsequent reports don't show the money being redeposited or recovered.
This was less than a year after party chair Nancy Worley made her “broke, broke, broke” comments. Maybe the Treasurer just never bothered to cash contribution checks….
But nobody on the SDEC would know that because the committee is routinely kept in the dark about financial matters. No written financial reports are sent to SDEC members (although the by-laws require it) and SDEC member efforts to get more detailed information during meetings get quickly shut down by the chair. At the October 2013 meeting, there was no treasurer's report because chair Nancy Worley said she wasn't able to open email attachments.
The best members can do is look at the party's dispiriting FCPA filings.
- Contributions in August 2014: $3350
- Contributions in September 2014: $0
- Contributons in October 2014: $0
How is that even possible? How can the SDEC membership just sit quietly while the party leadership does, well… almost nothing?
The ban on PAC to PAC transfers highlighted the deficiencies in ADP fundraising that big-money contributions had glossed over for years. The party had been dependent on big donors willing to write five and six-figure checks. Compared to those big machers, individual recurring contributions of $10, $25, & $50 just didn't seem important. It took time and effort to cultivate a small donor base – and the party leadership just wasn't interested.
This hurt the party in two ways:
- When the big money went away, there was absolutely nothing to replace it. Former chair Mark Kennedy (who took office in 2011) joked that he was just about out on the street selling pencils to pay the utility bill each month. Kennedy began setting up a small-donor base with monthly contributions, but that fell apart after he was forced out.
- The rank and file didn't feel recognized or needed. Big money donors ruled the party, got the best tables at the JJ dinners, had the ear of the leadership, and individual Democrats were really shut out of the conversation. That hurt grassroots party-building and fundraising: there weren't even any updated in-house fundraising lists available for the party to solicit donations when it finally had to turn to individual donors.
- Grow the party's small and medium-size donor base. But that's not going to happen without new, more inclusive leadership.
- Take online contributions. For heaven's sake, this is so incredibly simple, yet it's apparently too complex for a party whose chair can't open email attachments. The last fundraising letter from the ADP required the donor to fill out a form and mail it in. The Donate Now link on the ADP Web site is broken. The party has an ActBlue page for its federal account and has collected a whopping $55 dollars (that's not a misprint).
- Be upfront about where the money is going and find a competent state party treasurer who can attend meetings, provide a written report to the committee, and file correct FCPA forms.
Symptom #3: Disorganized Grassroots
Things are bad at the top, and only slightly better at the county level. Some county committees are well-organized and active, but they're the minority. Too many county committees are “committees in name only” that rarely meet, have little local visibility, and are unwelcoming to new members. In 2014, some Democratic county committees didn't even open a headquarters. How the heck can we look like a serious political party and recruit local candidates if the local committees can't even keep an office open for 2-3 months?
We often have people comment here on the blog or on the LIA Facebook page that they want to get involved at the local level but can't. Either the county chair is MIA or newcomers to the committee who want to become active get the brush-off.
Former party chair Mark Kennedy tried to address the grassroots problem during his tumultuous term, and he got along well with county committees. The SDEC executive board was another creature entirely. It was hostile to Kennedy's plan to open a field office in every Congressional district to help local county committees with fundraising, organizing, and candidate recruitment. The party leadership didn't seem to think that was nearly as important as doubling the party's travel budget so that DNC members could travel to national party events in style:
Not only did the Executive Board order Kennedy to undo the agreements with the banks, it also voted to double the party's travel budget – from $15,000 to $30,000 — at a meeting March 29 after some board members complained that the budget was not enough to pay for their travel. At the time Bradley Davidson, the party's executive director, said that most state party organizations require party officials to pay their own travel expenses.
Kennedy admits to being troubled by the move.
“…We have limited resources and we are facing a financial crisis,” said Kennedy. “It just makes no sense to double the travel budget so that some board members can travel on the party's dime while we don't have the resources we need to begin the job of growing a party that must grow if it is to survive.”
The county committees are the lifeblood of the party – or they should be. They're on the front lines in their community; many are active in numerous religious and civic organizations and in an ideal position to use these connections to recruit candidates. A good county chair is key as well: it's a hard, unpaid position and my hat is off to anyone willing to take on the often-thankless job. The SDEC should realize that: county chairs are the experts on their communities and the party's success depends on them.
Yet an effort to give each county chair an automatic seat on the SDEC was summarily shut down. As usual, the measure died without even a vote. Watch the video & read the commentary from the meeting. This was the same meeting where Nancy Worley scolded the membership for criticizing the party in public and “taking to the Internet” to air the party's dirty laundry. She said it needed to stop. Too bad I've never taken direction well.
- New leadership. Yes, so many problems could be solved by new leaders – but only if those leaders are more interested in a vibrant, growing party than in personal aggrandizement. We've had enough political retreads cycling through leadership positions. Without new blood, the party won't be able to stop the bleeding.
- Give county each county chair a vote on the SDEC. They're the leaders in their communities and the local spokespeople for the Democratic Party.
- Recruit new SDEC and county committee members. Start by following the by-laws that state if a member misses a certain number of meetings in a row, they're removed from the committee. We need people on these committees who are there to work, not get a checkmark on their resume.
- Require that each county committee create (at least) a basic Web site with contact information for the county chair, list of committee members, meeting dates, times, & place information. You can do a WordPress site for free and anyone who can use a word processor can use it to create a basic site.
Symptom #4: No Outreach to a New Democratic Coalition
If the county chairs feel left out, that's nothing compared to other members of the emerging national Democratic coalition. According to Reed and Worley, the ADP is the “zebra party.” Forget Reverend Jesse Jackson's “Rainbow Coalition: it's all about black and white in Alabama.
For several years, some SDEC members have tried to bring a “Diversity Amendment” to the floor and each time it gets shot down without a vote. From the February 2014 meeting:
The SDEC voted to table the amendment until th enext meeting, as they have done twice before. Party leadership agreed that the timing of the amendment submission complied with the Party’s bylaws (by email and fax), but the majority of the committee voted to table the amendment over the shouts of the opposition.
The rationale given for tabling the amendment was that members of the committee didn’t receive a copy of the proposed amendment in advance of the meeting, although Party bylaws require distribution of proposed amendments forthwith upon receipt by the Party.
After the amendment was discarded, diversity supporters moved to form a special committee to review the bylaws and to discuss possible avenues to solve the Party’s diversity issue and report back to the SDEC by the next meeting. This too was tabled without debate or an up-or-down vote.
The amendment would broaden participation on the committee and bring the state party in line with national Democratic Party guidelines. The amendment would add more Latino/Hispanic-American, LGBT, disabled, Asian-American, and young voices to the party conversation. Democratic outreach to those growing demographics has been key to Democratic victories nationally & in other states. But in Alabama, our leadership doesn't see any benefit in a bigger pie – unless they get all the extra slices.
The previous October (in 2013), Dr. Reed countered the diversity effort with his own amendment that would have made the committee less diverse and removed about 40% of current SDEC members. He then asked that all amendments be tabled “in the interests of party unity.” (Remember: this was the same meeting where Nancy Worley told people to shut up and quit complaining publicly about the leadership.)
Aside from race, Democratic women can't even get a seat on the Executive board, even though the state Democratic Women's organizations are on the executive boards of every other state Democratic Party in the country:
- Women's Suffrage & the Alabama Democratic Party
- Jim Spearman at the AFDW Dinner
- Nancy Worley Quashes AFDW Amendment
- An Amendment to Give Alabama Women a Seat at the Table
Patricia Todd, one of our most outstanding Democratic legislators, wouldn't have her seat at all if Joe Reed had gotten his way.
The challenge was brought by Ms. Hendricks’s mother-in-law. But it was tacitly supported by Joe L. Reed, a longtime Democratic kingmaker and the party’s vice chairman of minority affairs. Mr. Reed had urged voters to support Ms. Hendricks, and at one point the Alabama Democratic Conference, a black political organization that he is chairman of, gave a check to cover the $3,000 fee needed to bring the challenge in case Ms. Hendricks missed the deadline. He also controlled the subcommittee; three of the five members were drawn from a pool of Mr. Reed’s appointees.
“This is really not about race,” Ms. Todd said in a telephone interview as she traveled to Montgomery for the hearing. “This is about Joe Reed controlling the party and trying to get his way, and he’s just a bully.”
Basically, ADP leaders don't care how small the pond gets as long as they're the biggest fish in it. They're splashing in a wading pool now: next stop is an aquarium.
Well again, there's that “new leadership” thingy. It really does come down to the fact that – like AEA – the ADP has been the victim of leadership missteps and flat-out tone deafness. With no real mechanism to move out the old guard, the best we can do is work around them.
- Rebuild county committees with people ready to roll up their sleeves & get to work.
- Join Democratic clubs & organize new ones. In Madison County, we have a monthly Democratic Men's Club breakfast and a Democratic Women's monthly lunch. The Birmingham area has the Over The Mountain Democrats and Downtown Democrats, along with college and high school Democratic clubs. This isn't confined to urban areas either: the Progressive Women of Northeast Alabama is a great group.
Note: I am not in any way suggesting that any of these groups (or other Democratic clubs) are deliberately subversive! They all were organized and exist because the members want to engage other Democrats and promote the Democratic Party agenda – not to fight with the state party.
That being said, Democratic clubs can help bring in new people who are excited about the issues and the party.
It's no joke that the ADP is a mess that can't even get itself together enough to update its Web site or even issue a press release commenting on the latest GOP culture of corruption news story. The party has serious systemic problems, but that's no reason for Alabama Democrats to give up.
No matter what the state party does or does not do, we can get out and register voters, work for Democratic goals on the local level, and raise money to fund county operations. If our dysfunctional state leadership won't get out of the way, our only option is to go around them and get the job done anyway.
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