Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Once more, irregular contributor Open Source Dem provides a POV on the local sturm und drang around the call for heads to roll in the wake of the 2010 Demacolypse. FTR I strongly support the continuing service of Gerry Birnberg, Willie Belle Boone, and Belinda Castro as the Harris County Democratic Party's leadership team. And I am all in on the resignations of Boyd Richie and Tim Kaine as party chairs state and national. Herewith, with my grammatical and punctuational edits, my valued friend OSD (who has earlier circulated this message under the headline "First the plan, then the man ... or woman") ...


Carl Whitmarsh’s call for mass resignation and replacement of the Harris County Democratic Party leadership is well-timed.

One of many problems with our party’s legal structure, and even more so of its arcane history in this and other ex-Confederate states, is that we choose the state and county chair late in what is actually a 4-year election cycle. This is profoundly dysfunctional. We should elect our party chair in a county convention held early in odd-numbered years following the Governor’s election in the preceding year. That would be next year.

During this election cycle -- 2006-10 -- Gerry Birnberg acted more like the field director for a local chapter of the DCCC. And Boyd Richie functioned as a cheerleader for the Texas Trust. So at the end of the day we had a “Normal Election” even though normally we lose. This featured three independently funded but nominally “coordinated” campaigns in Harris County.

Try and find the accountability in that: The plural of coordinated is uncoordinated.

The least said about seat-warmers on the Texas delegation to the DNC, the better. The county and state executive committees did nothing but fawn in public and gripe in private. We do not really have a coherent caucus, committee, and convention system of party governance in Texas; we have a little of this and that accumulated since 1874.

That is scarcely Gerry’s fault.

This then is what elected party officials like myself voted for, almost always unanimously, usually unwittingly, in one time-wasting committee meeting after another. And this was what Gerry was re-elected in 2008 and 2010 to do.

1. Over the 2006-10 cycle, the Texas delegation to the DNC opposed Howard Dean, supported John Edwards and Hillary Clinton, and, in the case of Sue Lovell, opposed Democrats in and for municipal office. Gerry ignored all of that and made better use of his time.

2. Gerry did much better than Boyd: Our county chairman emphasized countywide mobilization rather than conventional targeting. Harris County only lost two House seats. Boyd lost 19 more seats, even after sacrificing the statewide to the district races. Gerry said what he was going to do and did it as best he could. It was not enough and not what I would have done, but he did it honorably and honestly. I was proud to be as supportive as I could be.

3. Gerry was at least as successful as Darlene Ewing in Dallas, whom he is regularly compared to unfavorably. In fact if you drew one of those small, square counties somewhere down here, you would find that voters in that hypothetical little county within our 25th-largest state of the Union (the State of Harris) did as well as or better than voters in Dallas County.

4. Gerry has been the finest steward of this party in my lifetime: he has strengthened its finances, built racial solidarity, and improved the stature of our party in legal and election matters. The contrast between this proficiently managed county party and the next biggest one in Bexar County could not be more stark.

5. He has been amazingly patient and relentlessly attentive to his responsible and constructive critics, not least me.

But Gerry, like any lawyer in the party chair, has engaged in transactional politics.

He has never had the strategy, plan, tactics, logistics, or operational art to wage “politics as war”, to challenge the GOP at all echelons of government and politics, and to defeat them in detail. But who has?

At the very least Gerry has been not just fair-minded but clear-headed. He recognized the victories of 2008 as “Halley’s Comet” and tried to mobilize both our base and surge vote. It almost worked for Ellen Cohen, where the three uncoordinated campaigns (Matt Angle + Robert Jones, Bill White + Steve Mostyn, and Dave Matthiessen + Gerry Birnberg) all meshed in one unique district (HD-134). Still, a plan –- a coincidence, really –- that can only almost work under nearly ideal conditions is not much of a plan. So too, a state party that barely succeeds in one county (Travis) is a pathetic joke. The results of 2010 are the failure of an entire political establishment, though not of one man. This is Twilight for Jim Crow.

And even those circumstances will likely be blown away in 2011; redistricting and the likely collapse of the “conduit” funding model of campaign finance following Citizens United ends the state and county party’s attempt to overcome the consequences of the 1994 realignment of voters and radicalization of the GOP. Now the success of a jumped-up Tea Party in Harris County, home of the most powerful and influential right-wing county party in all the Red States, will excite political hustlers and depress political loyalists across the spectrum.

Looking ahead, it is time to reiterate that we need transformational politics.

Some think of that as movement politics. That would be the Tea Party, actually. They are a now-forgotten movement reminiscent of something called the Liberty League back in the early 30’s. But we do not need a left-wing parody of them. Emulation of the GOP or adoption of the mock-socialism they impose on us is not a moral or practical way to compete with the GOP today.

In my view, we need strategic party-building –- not movement politics -- that will raise the political participation rate and ballot discipline within the center-left Democratic majority we know Harris County already has.

I would characterize that thematically as “patriotic-populist” rather than “left-wing progressive” or “ cringing liberal” party. In all events, it would be very different from the faux-conservatism or jingo-populism of the right or far-right.

We need a robustly diverse party based on a few genuinely liberal and conservative principles –- nothing new -- that can provide voters with a “hard center” they can trust and believe in come November 2012.

That is actually all the strategy we need to articulate right now. Building a county party that can support re-election of President Obama and benefit from a disciplined national campaign will not be sufficient for the President, though. The Democratic Party of Greater Austin cannot turn Texas blue any more than can a few local chapters of the DCCC. Still, support for the President is necessary for us here.

I am confident that it will raise our spirits again. But I am no less sure the national campaign in 2012 will not trickle down resources here. We are on our own here in Harris County. We have not boot-strapped our way into power like the other political party here. We have nearly blustered our way into oblivion.

The plan should be to replace paid media with authenticated social media and earned local media at the municipal level of both civic and political formation, mobilization, deliberation, discipline, and action. This is better, faster, and cheaper than what commission-based consultants have been squandering money on.

The strategy and plan will take a different business model for the county party than just leveraging corporate funding and large donations for express advocacy with small donations from suckers for losing campaigns.

Gerry tried as hard at that as anyone possibly could. But we never did and never will do that as well as the GOP.

There is an alternative business model. That is good, because the state and county parties are essentially bankrupt today.

I am sure Gerry is conscientiously trying to find a responsible receiver for the HCDP.

He probably does not want to keep losing or dealing with the pettiness of a broken-down patronage chain -- what our party has degenerated into despite his best efforts. If others can find the man or woman to articulate a more forward-looking strategy and practical plan than we have ever articulated or implemented, I will try to support them any way I can. So too, I imagine, will Gerry. He has come a long way from 1994, and we are all better off for his stewardship of this fine, old party.

Now is the time to salvage what we can and to build what we have never had: a responsible, majority governing party in Harris County: patriotic and popular, hence practical politically and progressive economically. That is not a matter of just complying with state and federal law, negotiating collusively for marginally better outcomes for people disdained or pitied as a pro bono clientele rather than as sovereign citizens –- the “Atticus Finch” syndrome.

Please: let’s get out of this damn Grisham novel we are in. Harris County is the 25th largest state of the Union and Houston is one of the most important cities in the world. We have a future.

Now we need a plan.

1 comment:

Tracy Clinton said...

A friend forwarded this post to me. I found it to be a compelling read.

I reside and am active in Dallas County, so many of the details do not pertain to our situation. However, the overarching observations do, and some of the specific recommendations echo similarly what some of us have been talking about since shortly after the 2008 elections.

With the now-more-likely dissolution of the Texas Trust, and the donor caste in a state of profound existential reflection, it's time to consider some structural changes to how the Democratic Party operates. Dallas County has been experimenting with its playbook with this general election. The work and the experimenting is not over, though.

It may not necessarily mean wholesale leadership changes, but it just might - and you're not the only one that finds the current county/state chair election timeline hostile to dynamic responses to an often dynamic political environment. It's a hell of a thing to ask people to run for or consider new leadership options when the chair election date is already after when we should have begun our general election gameplan. It favors more than a little a "stay the course" choice, barring the disclosure of financial or moral impropriety.

Thanks for adding to the conversation that should be going on right now, and for adding to it in a mature fashion. It's not all gloomy news out there for Texas Democrats. It doesn't make me happy, though, that a fair number of folks seem content to wait for demographic trends to do all the heavy lifting towards building a better society.