I spent the better part of yesterday–a beautiful, spring day–stuffed in a high school auditorium attending the Wake County Democratic Party Convention. I missed both of my boys’ soccer games and a third grade basketball game. As a newly minted precinct officer and delegate, this was my first such convention in Wake County. Amid the crowd, the speeches, and the thin film of order, there was much cause for hope and enthusiasm. And, as is true with most old, dusty institutions, there is also great opportunity for modernization, inclusion and growth.
A hope and change girl, I’ll start with cause for optimism. President Obama, in his farewell address, called for Americans to answer our current political situation by getting involved in local politics. In this same vein, one of his senior advisors, David Axelrod, similarly opined that Democrats may have over-focused on national and presidential politics at the expense of grassroots activism and a focus on local government.
I wonder, sometimes, whether the Democratic Party has contributed to [a decline in local politics] by making the president and the federal government the fulcrum of so much, and suggesting that we can solve these problems from the top down,” said Axelrod during a panel discussion at the University of Chicago (quoted by The Atlantic). “Democrats have ceded a lot of statehouses and legislatures.
Learning from the organizational efficacy of the Tea Party, the progressive group Indivisible is leveraging social media to build a network devoted to focusing on grassroots Democratic politics. Stronger North Carolina, one of hundreds of Indivisible groups organized after the Trump election (and one that I help lead), has likewise encouraged our members to get to work at the precinct level. All of this is to say that if you’re a progressive horrified by Trump and looking for something to do, you’ve likely heard the message to get involved in your local Democratic party.
At least 800 Wake County Democrats got the memo. This record number of interested progressives got themselves elected to precinct positions and attended yesterday’s convention, a record number for an event that is, generously, somewhat boring. When the chair asked the crowd how many were first timers, over half of those in attendance raised their hands. I have to say, that was a hopeful sight to behold. I got all tingly.
The people-watching was excellent. The room over-flowed with people aged 6 to 96. The crowd was white, African American, Latino, Indian American and Arab American. Attire ranged from the ubiquitous unfashionably, baggy suit of the Southern gentleman to the ripped jeans and sarcastic t-shirts of the younger crowd. There were hipsters and farmers, bankers, lawyers and retired folks. Given some of the speeches, it’s a safe bet to say there was a preacher or two. My Stronger North Carolina compatriots and I wore our branded gear.
It was perhaps this diversity that was the most hope inspiring. Standing in line waiting to get in, it was clear that this is a Big Tent party. The speeches were mostly rousing, red meat affairs, light on tactics but perfect for a group that feels embattled.
The slate of elected officers is as diverse as the crowd. The new county chair is a woman. Vice chairs abound. The leaders are, like the party, African American, Latino and white, male and female. Most of the group is under 50-ish. This is not your father’s Democratic Party. All of this was exciting and affirming. This is one of the main reasons I am a Democrat.
That said, opportunities to further energize these newcomers were missed. For example, although I love some Roberts Rules of Order, I am a lawyer and that makes me weird. Those new to the experience found the arcane rules and those who spent time making points of order, points of information and calling the question completely baffling and frustrating. An hour was spent adopting the rules for the convention. Of course, I understand why this was necessary. However, 15 minutes spent explaining the process to those naive to it would have gone a long way in maintaining patience and goodwill.
Also, we did a lot of voting. If you didn’t read the website ahead of time, you might not have any idea what you were voting on. Again, just a few minutes explaining the roles and responsibilities would have really helped. Yes, it is an old, established process, but these Democrats are themselves new to it. We need to focus on doing everything we can to make them feel welcome.
An obvious opportunity to improve was the failure to give those who attended something to do. The most common thing I’ve heard from people since the election is “What can I do?” Although I don’t think the answer to this is limited to party politics, the party missed some pretty low hanging fruit in this regard. For example, why not let people sign up for training on how to canvass and register voters? A handful of iPads in the back of the room and–whammo–sign ups.
Where were the sign up sheets for clubs and affiliated groups like the Young Democrats, Wake County Fighting Dems, Wake Democratic Mens Club, Wake County African American Caucus, LGTBQ Dems, etc? I’m just gonna say, I’m a sucker for a sign up sheet.
Fundraising. Yes, I know that this is historically done at the precinct level. But why not direct everyone to the Wake County Democratic Party website and ask them to donate $10? You raise $8,000.00 in five minutes. Ask people to sign up for monthly donations. Tell them how to give donations as the perfect gift for the liberal in their life. Nothing gets out the vote like a good budget.
The social game. Why not direct people to social media outlets like the Facebook page and Twitter feeds for updates? And the AV. Ugh. I am over 40 (just barely, ok) and I was in the back of the room. My friend ended up loaning me her glasses so that I could read the full page of text that was put up on a screen on stage. Come on. This is 2017 and appearances matter. 400 words on a page in Courier or Times New Roman font is not cutting it. I rarely advocate for PowerPoint, preferring Prezi or AdobeSpark, but even PowerPoint would have been an improvement over Word.
Which brings me to branding. It is absolutely necessary. Also, almost everyone in the room who qualifies as a Gen-Xer or a Millennial expects branding–logos, consistent typeface, mission and vision statements. There was a completely absence of branding. I know there were communications and marketing people in that room chomping at the bit to fix this. We need to find them and use them.
Almost all of what I’m talking about could be rolled out on a convention App. And judging by the folks I saw in the room, someone in there could build it. People my age and below just sort of expect it. A good digital game is now table stakes. If we want to move young people, we have to meet them where they are are and where they are is on their smartphones.
That said, it was, all in all, a great day. A hopeful day. The good news is that people showed up and those people looked like America. They want someone to give them a job–this was a room in need of a To Do List. If we want to change politics at the local level and make an impact in the 2018 midterms we need to focus not just on policy but on communications and marketing. We need a cohesive, branded strategy that includes digital and print media. I have no doubt that we have the volunteer talent to do it. I suppose my questions is how do we move a 100+ year old organization that thrives on arcane procedure into the age of smartphones, social media and the image conscious youth? Let me know what you think.