Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Once to Every Chair and Party Comes the Moment to Decide

Barring total revolution instigated by an energetic but unorganized cadre of newly-elected grassroots leaders known as precinct committee people, who would have to be abetted by a heretofore demotivated and enervated hodgepodge of old guard precinct people, Stuart Garson will be elected tonight, possibly by acclamation, to a four year term as chair of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party.

This will be a good thing for the Party in many ways. First, it ends the Jimmy Dimora era without the made-for-television spectacle of federal agents hauling away the sitting party chief at dawn in pajamas and handcuffs. If this happens in the next seven months he will be described as County Commissioner and former Democratic Party chief. One word can make a big difference in both fact and image.

Second, it speaks to a new era of cooperation between the county and state Democratic organizations. Fact is, the stench of corruption cooked up by a few bad actors and ignored by too many others created a political Imperial Avenue that downstate Democrats avoided like the plague it was. They didn’t know who to talk to up here, or even who was in charge. They certainly had no confidence in who they could safely add to the state ticket. Lee Fisher is on the state ticket only because he went after it and could not be denied.

So CuyDems have avoided the worst-case scenario and can begin to brace themselves for whatever future shock may accompany the ex-party officials known in polite company, bar and barroom circles as Public Official No. 1 and Public Official No. 2.

But the party’s issues are far from resolved. It is easy to conflate official corruption and party problems. The voting public sees the Party as corrupt because its lead officials allegedly committed crimes while in public office. Dimora’s replacement as party chief by an ethical and highly-regarded attorney will eliminate the fact of questionable ethics at party HQ. It does not resolve either the electorate’s perception of how the Party operates or the more fundamental problems that enabled the see-no-evil atmosphere that made Dimora politically invincible.

Garson comes into office with the support of all major party officials. He brings with him a mindset of getting good people to run for office and supporting them in their campaigns. He is acclaimed as a fundraiser and possibly a superior tactician. He can articulate a vision for a better city, county, and region. But he is not a big-picture guy in the sense that he sees the same picture as the electorate.

I speak here of the electorate that rejected the status quo in virtually every quarter by astounding margins. No matter that the landslide vote for Issue 6 was the beneficiary of backroom dealing, GOP chicanery, tons of cash, and some of the most unbalanced journalism since the yellow days of Randolph Hearst a century ago. Cuyahoga voters emphatically said no to the old ways of doing business. "Anything but this!" was the overwhelming public sentiment.

Now what they get in January may be no more to their liking. It will depend in large measure upon what the Democrats offer up and how they are perceived to have done it.

This is Garson’s challenge and possibly his Achilles heel. He must find a way to re-arm a party whose campaign apparatus is far weaker than he realizes. And he must quickly learn how to deal with an environment in which transparency, emotional intelligence and consensus-building are increasingly as vital in an era of independent early voting as “boots on the ground”.

If Garson wants to create a user-friendly county Democratic Party that attracts voters who don’t bleed blue, he will open up the Party to new ideas not after this campaign is over, but simultaneously, starting tonight. He will re-energize the disaffected, encourage the disaffected, and invite in the reformers whose collective energy could propel party candidates to local, county and state success this November. He will do this not by his words, but by his actions. And there will be no better time to start than tonight.

The endorsement calendar and process the Democrats normally follow has fallen victim to larger forces, primarily the abomination of an election schedule that combines a June 24 filing deadline, a September 7 primary and early voting that begins in August. The endorsement process is furthered muddied this year by the Dems quadrennial election of new precinct people who won’t by law be fully organized until nearly September.

The fact that a retiring Executive Committee is scheduled to do the endorsements instead of their successors is Machiavellian only to the extent that GOP strategists secured the September primary date while the Democrats were asleep.

A political party has the right and sometimes the duty to endorse candidates who choose to run under its banner, and to do so at an early enough stage to allow preferred candidates the benefit of the endorsed status they presumably worked for and earned.

But these are perilous and unusual times, politically and otherwise. If Garson were to recommend to the Executive Committee that it support a no-endorsement process in this unprecedented time of transition, and then back his play with an inclusive cabinet comprising new and rising leaders such as Mark Griffin, and an unimpeachable commitment to party reform, he would go a long way towards establishing his credibility with both the rank-and-file who had little choice but to ratify him, and with the independents who will be watching with hawk-like intensity to see if it’s S.O.S., different day.

I wrote last fall that reforming the Democratic Party was more important than reforming the county government [here]. Stuart Garson has the opportunity to prove us all wrong or all right.


Anonymous said...

Lots of food for thought here, Richard. I agree that electing Garson will be a positive step toward erasing some of the taint that clings to the Cuyahoga Democratic Party. My biggest concern is that Garson seems too focused on winning in November, without realizing that both the Democratic base and voters are demoralized and not ready to be boots on the ground or a presence in the voting booth. He — or someone — must also focus on giving those people a reason to participate other than "Republicans suck." Give them something to believe in.

I hope one of the first things the party does after electing new officers (and isn't it interesting that there's been little talk of who the rest of the slate might be) is look at ways to change how it functions — amend its bylaws even — to invite wider participation. For instance, I have noticed many counties have several vice chairs representing different groups. Why does Cuyahoga have only one? Should the chairs of groups like Stonewall Democrats, the Cuyahoga Democratic Women's Caucus, and the Cuyahoga County Young Democrats be made an official part of county leadership? These are things I hope they take a look at.

I won't even go into the county elections here because it gives me a headache. You're right; the whole thing is a Machiavellian, probably Republican (but we don't know because it's secret) plot. And it seems more and more each day that there's reason to fear that the cure is worse than the disease.

Richard said...

I think your observation about multiple co-chairs is great! It moves away from the hierarchical model and into a flatter leadership structure. One concern in this regard would be avoided the rigid identity politics practiced here and elsewhere, e.g., the chair is white so the [first] vice chair should be black.

Brenda Malone said...

Very nice read! On point.

Brenda Malone said...
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