When the party Chairman joined us for our fundraiser event in Amarillo in July, he told me that while he knew that I had been critical of the party, after he won his reelection as Chair he wanted to sit down and talk with The 134 PAC about what the party should be doing in rural Texas. That was in July. Tomorrow is Labor Day. We still have not heard from the Chair.
Last week the party announced a media tour to talk about the party platform and issues in "every corner of the state". Every corner of the state did not include The 134. Even if it did, media tours are meaningless. They remind me of Dolph Briscoe doing media stops in San Angelo campaigning for Gary Mauro in the 1990s. I was the County Chair so I had to drive out to the airport to meet him. He would fly in, have the local media meet him at the airport and give a short announcement of his support for Gary for Governor. Ten minutes later he was back on the plane flying to the next stop. It was on the local news for thirty seconds that night. It had no impact on the race. In my opinion all it did was waste time, money and burn aviation fuel.
For the last several years, what I have been advocating we need is a full throated commitment from the party to rebuild the critical political infrastructure we need to compete as Democrats in the entire state. This means we need a renewed focus on developing our party in rural counties. Ads of the candidate with cattle or on a horse, and lip service about the importance of rural Texas right before an election, is not sufficient if the Democratic Party wants to be a serious political player in Texas.
But there is no plan or roadmap of how to do that. Nor does the Party seem to have any intent to even think about possibly starting to think about coming up with a plan. I have been urging we need one and waiting for one, all for nothing. At the risk of showing my ignorance in electoral politics to the world, I have decided the only solution is to present my own roadmap. What I suggest is not really a completed well thought out plan. It is formed from experience and observation of rural politics over the last thirty years. It is intended to be the start of a conversation, not the final word or end result. We have forgotten how to win as Democrats in rural Texas. That trail was lost and forgotten in the 1980s. It is now washed out by repeated flash floods and overgrown. It is gone. What I offer is the first effort to try and feel our way through the mountainous desert terrain so we can repair the trail and mark it so others can follow.
Step 1 - Invest In People And Relationships
Long Term Investment in Rural County Parties
We need a well financed long term program to organize and support county parties in every county in this state. This includes counties that have a county chair, but little to no organization or support. Piecemeal will not suffice. It should be a systematic, organized effort.
Create an effective County Services Department
Organizing parties and having county and precinct chairs is not enough. We must have a well financed, long term focused County Services Department. It must be staffed with professionals experienced in county level party politics, and not volunteers or interns. The ever changing and increasing complexity of political campaigns, election law, fundraising, big data and media presents challenges to local volunteers they cannot keep up with. Yet, the Texas Democratic Party has an organization more reminiscent of the early 20th Century than the 21st when it comes to supporting its county parties.
Step 2 - Establish and Assist with Basic Infrastructure Standards
County Party Offices
There is little point in having a county chair or a county party unless they have a permanent, physical presence in the County. Regular hours at these offices are crucial during election season. With very few exceptions, every county party should have a county office. This will require some grants or other financial support for some counties, especially when they are starting from scratch.
Computers and Equipment
Along with county offices, every county party should have basic standard equipment that every office has-- computers, copiers, county and precinct maps, staplers, wireless internet, phones, scanners, fax machines etc.
Step 3 - Promote Community Involvement and Visibility
Most rural county parties have no presence or visibility. Many residents do not know if there is a Democratic Party in their County. We should be promoting county party involvement in their local community, volunteering with a local non-profit, participating in community events. etc. This does not mean Democrats as individuals, but the local party as the party.
Step 4 - Create Simple to Use Rural Data
Replace or Adapt Van for Rural Use.
The party should either abandon VAN for use by rural county parties and create something different, or adapt van for rural use. VAN is not user friendly, is hard to navigate even for volunteers with experience in using databases and technology and the accuracy and usefulness of the data breaks down in rural areas. The ways of campaigning in rural Texas are vastly different from urban and are often very different from county to county. Any data system must be very user friendly, easy to access and it must be adaptable to the needs of all sorts of environments.
Create accurate and easy to use targeting lists.
What rural counties need for data is a simple way to generate an accurate list of who their Democratic based voters are and of those voters we should be targeted that might vote Democratic in any given election. Much of the data and bells and whistles VAN has are complety unused in rural counties.
Step 5 - Create a County Party Culture of Autonomy and Independent Action
The State of Texas is too large geographically, and too diverse ethnically, culturally and politically for a centralized party system to work. Too often the party seems more worried about making sure the folks in Austin are in control of decisions and campaigning. This means lots of meetings and very little action in the field. This approach inevitably casts local party officials and volunteers as an obstacle rather than a true partner.
We need to change the party culture to one of autonomy for county parties and that encourages independent thinking and action. If a county wants to try something the state party should be in the position of encouraging and supporting those efforts, even if they may fail, and even if it is not the best approach from an Austin point of view. When it comes to rural county parties, the state party should take a supporting role, not a dominating one. The key point is to encourage local Democrats to do something and do for themselves.
This is obviously just a general outline. I plan to tackle these steps in more detail in the coming weeks and months. This is too important for a one sided conversation. I hope you will provide your own thoughts and feedback, good or bad in the comments. This cannot be my plan, or The 134 PAC's plan. It must be the plan for the entire Texas Democratic Party.
Jon Mark Hogg is a San Angelo Lawyer, former Democratic County Chair, former candidate for U.S. Congress and the Co-Founder of the The 134 PAC