Updated: Aug 12
by Cathy Collier, Gillespie County Chair
"I didn’t know there WERE any Democrats in… (fill in your county’s name)"
If you have ever had that remark directed at you, then you are definitely from a rural Texas county. An old friend of mine in Kerr County became so tired of hearing those words that she had t-shirts made with ‘TAMOUTYT’ on the front. On the back, it translated: ‘There are more of us than you think!’ and she then proceeded to list all the social programs and legislation for which Democrats can proudly claim credit.
Yes, there are more of us than you think, but, for those of us in rural counties, it can sometimes feel lonely, and it’s hard to know just where to begin organizing. What follows is not a magic potion or a one-size fits all. In Gillespie County, we had to start somewhere and here are a few of the things we did. I hope you’ll share ideas for small steps and little gains that you may have found successful. Here are some of mine.
1. Find/make a community. Call the Democrats you know –no matter how few --and get them together – maybe over a glass of wine. Talk about what you’d like to do and get some input. Chances are, they know other Democrats that you don’t know – some of whom may have voted in the Democratic Primary (which you could find in VAN), but many who probably voted in the Republican Primary just to have a say in the people who hold county offices (and so may be unknown to you).[Full disclosure: Gillespie County already had a Democratic club, but we wanted to build a party organization and be able to do the activist kinds of things that local clubs don’t do].
Get as many contacts as you can and plan a little wider gathering. Since the local party here in Fredericksburg started out with no money, we started with something we dubbed “Blue Mondays” aimed at women. For the first one I mailed out invitations and invited people to come to my house. For a $10 donation, they could come and have a glass of wine and some nibbles and talk to other women who shared similar views. The $10s began to add up and we began to build a working fund.
And women were hungry to share a political conversation with other women. They not only came and donated, they brought wine and snacks. But this wasn’t just social. As a part of each gathering, we had an informal “meeting” to talk about what our next steps might be and what concerns and suggestions people had. We formed some interest groups to work on those issues and those people got together on their own to talk and come up with ideas for action.
We were able to raise some money and expand our circle. Every time you find out a new Democrat, get all the contact information you can. Start an email list and send out periodic messages. It doesn’t have to be every week and it doesn’t have to be strictly about politics. Share news, upcoming events and – if you want to – opinions about issues. This doesn’t have to be elaborate or difficult and there are a number of different platforms you can use to create a mass email list. I understand that email may be passe in larger communities, but in small towns – and with the age of the population you will probably be in communication with – email is still effective.
Start a Facebook page. I’m not good at that kind of thing but there are a lot of people who are and you will probably be able to find someone to help you out. If nothing else, post on Facebook about any Democratic activities that you are having.
Start a website. Again, I am absolutely no good at this but, in time, we found someone who was willing to take that on. We could still be doing a better job at this, but we’re trying to improve it all the time.
2. Make yourself known – in little ways. In many places, just saying you’re a Democrat can be intimidating. We needed to let people of all persuasions know that Dems were here, so we looked for little non-threatening ways to “normalize” being a Democrat. With our new-found treasury, we invested in a small order of blue reusable grocery bags imprinted with a slogan: “Growing in Gillespie County – Gillespie County Democratic Party”. We gave them away but almost always received a donation as a result. They gave us just a little visibility. You probably have a dozen better ideas.
Eventually, one of our members asked if he could get bumper stickers printed that said, “I live in Fredericksburg and I’m a Democrat” or “I live in Gillespie County and I’m a Democrat”. This might sound strange and some people were reluctant to put them on their car or truck, but a lot of people DID want to use them – so that we’re in our second printing now. The fear was that this would get your car keyed, or your windshield broken. It hasn’t happened so far. In fact, more people than you might imagine will give you a thumbs-up as they pass you on the street or in the parking lot (instead of some other finger combination you might expect)
3. Have events and make it fun. Invite a candidate to come for a meet-and-greet and publicize that event. It doesn’t matter if a lot of people don’t show up. Candidates are very generous about that sort of thing. Take a picture at the event and put it on Facebook, in the paper and/or on your website.
Start something – like a July 4 picnic or a Labor Day picnic. Invite your list of Dems and invite a candidate (or don’t). Make it a day of fellowship and fun. Put out a jar and raise a little money in the process. Let your imagination go wild. We have had crazy things like Dessert-a-thons, art shows, happy hours just to bring people together.
4. Reach out to your community. Be in parades or trade days or farmers’ markets, if you can. Even a small decorated car, a table or a banner helps to establish your presence. Get people certified to be voter registrars and look to register voters at public events or at your local high school. Since voter registrars are non-political, you can usually get permission to make this available to high school seniors. Yes, you may register more Republicans than you do Democrats but this makes voter registration available to people who may have been intimidated before or who just hadn’t thought about registering.
Projects that draw support from the wider community are helpful. During COVID, we had diaper drives and turned what was donated in to our local Needs Council for distribution. We also had a similar effort for winter blankets. You get the idea.
Early on, we had a Cookies for Ukraine project. A local Democratic baker made iced sugar cookies in the shape of the Ukrainian sunflower and the Ukrainian flag. We sold them for $5 apiece (or a donation) and all the money went to a Ukrainian relief agency that one of our people vetted. It is truly amazing in instances like this – or help for the Uvalde community or local firefighter combatting an out-of-control grassfire, for example – how people really want to do something to help, they just don’t know what exactly to do. And, you can publicize this effort. It shows the community that THIS is what Democrats are about.
5. Use your local newspaper and publicize everything. Run ads. Run stories. Write letters. In most small communities, the local newspaper can be a useful tool. Dawson County, for example, has the Lamesa Press-Reporter, a good newspaper that reaches a wide audience in the community. Submit stories about meetings – just about anything that you do – and submit pictures when relevant. They may not use everything you send, but they will use a lot of it.
Usually, in these local newspapers, advertising is reasonably priced. Consider doing ads that go in special editions – like the specials for high school graduation, law enforcement, special town celebrations. Again, you are advertising that you exist, and you are legitimatizing being a Democrat.
Also, if you’re advertising in the paper, they are much more likely to run the stories you submit for a special speaker, a meet-and-greet or a community activity. Your ads don’t have to be works or art. The example I included with this has clip art that came online free of charge. The wording – totally your choice. Take an example or an idea to the advertising people at the newspaper and let them help you with layout and design if you are unsure about doing it on your own. Write letters to the editor. Ask people to help contribute letters. Keep them brief and to the point – not contentious but thoughtful. Predictably, Republicans respond with hyperbolic letters. This approach makes you look calm and reasonable and that makes a difference to moderate Republicans and independents. Plus, for those Democrats that are hiding out there, it makes more likely to contact you and get involved.
If you’re tired of reading, I apologize. My point is that, in Red rural communities, you have to start small. You already know your community and you know what will work and what won’t. Use that knowledge and start to grow your party. I don’t have all the answers and neither do you. But, together, we can share ideas and make all of us stronger.
Cathy Collier is the Gillespie County Democratic Party Chair