Saturday, June 14, 2014

This was going to be the year Democrats won Shelby County. It still is, but it used to be, too.

"In learned helplessness studies, an animal is repeatedly exposed to an aversive stimulus which it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal stops trying to avoid the stimulus and behaves as if it is helpless to change the situation. When opportunities to escape become available, learned helplessness means the animal does not take any action." [Wikipedia]
Right now, there is little reason to think that election night 2014 is going to be any kind of celebration for Shelby County Democrats. So far this election season we've had three arrests, an utter debacle over judicial endorsements, and an angry, racially-charged outburst that comes fresh on the heels of a long, contentious fight over the school system that divided the county largely along racial lines. We also have a chronically absent state senator who is most notable for her own venomous outburst against the state's nurses.

This dismal state of affairs is nothing new. After long years of scandals, indictments, federal investigations, and simple bad behavior, political shame and embarrassment have become as familiar to us as August humidity and Elvis Presley. We've grown used to it. There is a powerful sense in the air that this is just the way things are in Memphis and Shelby County, and that this is the way things are always going to be for the foreseeable future. We are mired in a swamp of political depression. There is, however, a light at the end of this particular tunnel.

When I worked in Steve Cohen's office in Washington, DC, the GOP had just taken control of the House the year previous and I had an opportunity to see what a functioning Democratic Party looks like while under siege. I had a front row seat to Anthony Weiner's resignation, and as an intern I even helped his staff clean out his office. As the congressman's press assistant, I received all House Democratic press releases and talking points and learned the various ways the Minority Leader keeps her members in line and on message. As a member of his staff I got to see firsthand how a truly skilled politician behaves and treats his constituents, and as part of his political team I learned how it is possible to consistently run up the electoral scoreboard in victories that make the word "landslide" seem like an understatement. All of the problems which currently plague the SCDP have a solution, and it is the national party, not the state party, to which we must look for examples.

Shelby County is the largest Democratic stronghold in Tennessee. It is well within our power to become the most dominant force in state politics. We once were, and we will be again. We have to, we don't have any other choice if we want to move forward. Like it or not, Shelby County is attached at the hip to Memphis, and we will never help disadvantaged Memphians rise out of poverty if we can't even get them access to Medicaid, if HOPE scholarships get raided for the governor's pet projects, or if our attempts to reform the school system are undermined at every step. We can't just clean our house, that's not going to be good enough. We have got to elect more Democrats who can lead by example, who can influence their peers on difficult issues, and who will make Democratic voters across the state feel a sense of pride by dint of mere association. This is all within our power to do.

The very first step we can make in that direction is helping Lee Harris in his challenge to Ophelia Ford. That election will likely be decided by fewer than 2,000 votes and Senate District 29 desperately needs better representation in Nashville. This simple, small victory will go a long way toward reforming our image in the state capital and will put forward someone we can be proud of.

The next step should be making the party machinery more useful to candidates and elected officials so that we can all be on the same page and maintain some degree of party discipline. The SCDP should take an official position on every issue within its scope. That does not mean all Shelby County Democrats must take those same positions, but it is immensely important that the party communicates to its members the official party position on all local problems which have a political solution. That leaves room for individual innovation among its elected members while informing those same innovators about how they should maneuver relative to the party.

The county party must develop its own fundraising apparatus. Noble attempts have been made at this in the past, and they must be attempted again. The party needs a carrot. We must also agree upon a credible party leader who can not only speak for the party, but who is enabled to credibly publicly condemn bad behavior among Democrats in the media. The party needs a stick. Ideally this would be someone who does not have any outstanding arrest warrants themselves.

Finally, we need to create a career track for our local Democratic activists. Speaking from long personal experience, politics is both a full-time job and a terrible way to try to make a living. Campaign work is seasonal, and there is no more certain way to certify yourself as "overqualified" for non-political work than to work on campaigns and in Congress. Republicans have ways to take care of their people. We do not. I don't care if we have to start a Democratic landscaping company that rakes the leaves, trims the hedges, and cuts the grass, we need some way for professional Democratic activists to support themselves between elections. This is the pool of people from which we are going to pull our best candidates, party leaders, and campaign staff. Those people need to pay their bills. Liz Rincon and London Lamar can't do it all by themselves. We need more Democrats who are trying to do what they are doing, and we need to support them.

No matter how the county elections turn out, this is not going to be a banner year for Shelby County Democrats. Rather than focusing on the outcome of the elections themselves, let's turn our attention instead to how they are won and lost, and center our efforts on making sure that the process of Democratic victory becomes the status quo in Shelby County.

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