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The Failure of Franchise Politics

Photo by Jurij Kenda on Unsplash

During my run for Congress in 2020 the first thing I did was try to connect with every county chair in the 29 counties of TX-11. I spoke with several persons who were listed by TDP on its website as county chairs who told me in no uncertain terms that they were not. All of them told me the same thing, they had gotten burned out, had received no support, few volunteers and had told the TDP it needed to find someone new. Yet they were still listed as county chairs on the TDP website. As it turned out, only about half of the 29 counties in TX-11 had a Democratic County Chair during my race. This was not a surprise. It was the same situation when I served as a county chair in the 90s. Things had just gotten worse.

In January 2021 I decided to conduct a little audit of the Texas Democratic Party’s website for the 135 counties west of I-35. I contacted every county chair listed to see if I could confirm if they were still the county chair. Of those135, I was able to confirm that 40 had a Democratic County Chair. That is only 30% of those counties. There are 40 counties listed on the site that had no Democratic County Chair listed at all, another 30%. For the other 55 counties I was not able to confirm whether the person listed as county chair was actually serving as county chair. That is 40% of the counties. Since I was not able to confirm it one way or the other, I considered those as effecitvely having not chair. Which of course means that 95 counties west of I-35 have no, or effectively no, county Democratic Party organization. That is 70% of the Texas counties from Weatherford to El Paso. That is 37% of the 254 counties in Texas — over one third. And this is just for the western part of the state. What would be the result is we did the same for the rest of the state?

I point this out not as a criticism of the loyal Democrats in those counties. The point I want to make is not even about those counties in particular. The problem goes much deeper than that.

It demonstrates a failure of what I call the franchise system of party politics. Think of McDonalds, the most famous franchised restaurant. You go there because you know what you are getting. It is the same everywhere — in Connecticut and Cotulla. The reason it is the same everywhere is McDonald’s mandates it to be that way. If a restaurant deviates from their products, marketing or message, their franchise is revoked and the place is put out of business. Another similarity is that if your county or city does not have the right population size, you can’t get a quarter pounder there even if you wanted one because they won’t let someone have a franchise there.

TDP operates sort of like that, which is why we have all these empty county chair seats. Whether intentional or not, the impression that most Democrats have of the state party is that it is in charge. County parties are created by the TDP, TDP determines where they will have county parties, directs the product their counties are going to sell, dictates the message and the marketing strategy. In other words, the purpose of the county parties is to deliver what the TDP has decided it will let them sell. But political parties are not franchises, and politics doesn’t work that way.

A county chair and her precinct chairs are not under the direction or control of the state party office in Austin. Nor are they at its beck and call. They are duly elected party officials in their own right. County chairs are the head of the Democratic Party in their county. They do not, and should not, wait for orders and instructions from Austin. Our current structural and hierarchical ideas have it completely backwards. County parties do not exist to support the state party. It is the state party that exists to support the county parties, not the other way around. (A job at which, in rural Texas at least, the party has failed miserably and consistently.)

In a healthy political party it is the County and precinct chairs that should be telling the state party how many votes the party could realistically expect to receive from their county, and what assistance they need to do that. The state party should then be working to make that a reality. Where a candidate wants to spend resources is up to the candidate. But the state party does not exist for the candidates. It exists for the county parties, and TDP’s purpose is to develop and maintain the party infrastructure so it will be available to assist its candidates. The county chairs and precinct chairs are the people who know what conditions are like on the ground and what will be able to do in a given election cycle.

Of course in our dysfunctional and unhealthy party, rural county parties rarely have the resources, the people or the time to function that way. We will never have the sort of state-wide strength we need as a party until rural counties have the political infrastructure and support they need. This requires a long term investment in people, money and time over a huge geographic area. The TDP has essentially given up on rural Texas because it is too lazy and does not want to commit the people, resources and time necessary. What county parties, volunteers and campaigns need are the tools and resources to be successful. This involves things like long term data collection and analysis, voter modeling that is accurate and specifically designed for rural counties and districts, a dedicated support network for county parties, marketing and media assistance and a regional advocate for rural Democrats.

With that sort of hard work done in advance, and with such information already prepared and at their finger tips, counties could take the initiative and provide accurate, spot on information and support for district races, county races and even state-wide races. This work will not even take that much money compared to the millions we waste again and again every election in Texas. We do not lack the ability or the means to do this — we lack the will to do it.

What is needed is a full-time commitment to do this over twenty or thirty years, perhaps for the foreseeable future. The party and candidates only pay attention to county parties during election cycles when they want to know what the counties can do for them. The real question TDP and candidates should be asking long before the election is what can they do to build the political infrastructure that is necessary for success. You don’t win elections on election day or election year out here. You win them by starting ten years ago.

That is why I have become convinced that the solution is not to be found within the state party organization, but outside of it. Rural areas must do this ourselves. We must organize. We must raise our own money and with it build our own infrastructure, designed for our own use, deliver it to our counties, candidates and volunteers, maintain it, constantly improve it and and prove its usefulness. That is the thing we can do that will be of most help to the long term prospects of the Texas Democratic Party.

Jon Mark Hogg is a lawyer in San Angelo, Texas a former Democratic County Chair and Candidate for Congress.

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