Thursday, December 22, 2011

Representative Democracy in America Is Changing -- for the Better?

When I was a youngster and lived with my family in Cypress Hills, in the borough of Brooklyn, NYC, I often dropped by the local Democratic club. These clubs had buildings where they met and conducted their business and they were the citizen’s gateway to the government.  Every Friday if you dropped in you could see and talk to the Congressman Eugene Keogh, the last to wear a straw hat.

If you wanted to see your state representatives they were there also as was the party district leader around whom the clubs organized.  In the days before Baker v. Carr (one man one vote) districts were often geographically based, e.g. one representative per county or a state senate district consisting of three state house districts.  With the Supreme Court rulings that electoral districts that served to elect representatives to legislative bodies had to be equal in population (with a wider discrepancy allowed the smaller the districts were) counties and neighborhoods became less important to the concept of district representation.

Because the Courts have refused to rule that political based partisan gerrymandering is contrary to the federal constitution we have suffered under forty years of ever increasing politically motivated redistricting – with computers making partisan calculations even more precise and using population equality to hide behind.

The nature of representative democracy in America has changed. In the 19th century district representation played a great role but districts themselves not so much. Congressmen were people who went to Washington to act on the nation’s problems, state legislators went to state capitals to do the same on state matters.  For local representation, that one could go to for assistance with problems, one went either to the local county officials or in the cities to the aldermen (precursors of the Councilmen who were a combination of elected officials and party officials).

In the 20th century the nature of representatives duties and compensation changed. From annual state elections we went to two and four year terms. From rotation in office for Congressional nominations (the norm by which a party gave its nomination to state representatives who waited their turn) we went to incumbents and even incumbent families “owning” Congressional seats.  These federal and state legislators also took on the role of constituent servants. They opened offices in the districts and assisted with red tape problems; at first all problems and then eventually a hierarchy of helping only with the problems that related to bureaucracies at the level of government they served in.

As the nation continues to increase from its’ nearly 4 million in 1790 to its’  312 million now - the nature of representative democracy has again changed.  Rather than bemoaning it and yearning for the good old days- that trust me weren’t that good - we should understand and accept and use the changes. When the nation started the founding fathers wanted one representative per 30,000 persons – now it’s one per 705,000 (precise number may vary by state).

Districts today have become masses of election precincts combined for the purpose of electing a Congressman or a state legislator.  Often that elected official is the only thing the people of the district have in common with municipalities and postal areas and shopping zones divided.  These legislators should be looked at as representatives and the citizenry should use the social networking and the Internet and the 24/7 news media to follow what their representatives due in Washington D.C. or the state capital and judge them accordingly.

Local municipal government and councilmen and party officials should again be handling citizen constituent. Representatives should represent.  With the demise of earmarks and the public outrage at the insider trading antics of federal representatives we may see a new Congress where members vote and speak and are judged accordingly.  Again with the use of social networking, online petitioning, and the availability of information about the legislative branches activities district lines will become even less relevant.  If we impose federal Congressional term limits (both Houses) and, if we ever get a handle on the money that is poisoning our politics (we need open public funding not backdoor public funding by the contributions of corporations that take federal money) we might see a return to real Representative Democracy in America.

22, Dec. 2011

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

How Democrats Can Win in Delco

For twenty-one years I’ve been a Democratic activist in Delaware County PA.  First as chairman of the Radnor Township Democratic Committee (1990-4); then as Chairman of the Delaware County Democratic Party (1994-2010) and now as chairman of the SouthEast Delaware Co. Dem. Committee. (2007- now).  During those years I’ve organized and coordinated and in forty-two election cycles (primaries and generals).  Democrats have lost most of those (except for carrying the county for President and twice for Congress (Joe Sestak) and a few state legislators.  In odd numbered years when municipal and school district contests comprise the ballot Democrats in Delaware County tend to lose the majority of those they contest.  There are some municipalities that are solidly Democrat and Republicans can’t win.  There are few that are truly competitive where either party could win but most are solidly and often uncontestedly Republican.

So why do Democrats lose in Delaware County?  The registration in the county when I first became involved in 1990 was just a bit over 25% Democrat; it is now over 43% and only two percentage points or 10,000 voters less than Republican. But Democrats still lose countywide. Why?

First, we usually have few real candidates and we fill out tickets with place holders who party leaders feel are important. We need candidates that want to run, want to serve and will devote in some cases  two years, 24-7, to winning an office which they have ideas to use for specific purposes. I believe that a candidate on the ballot who does not intend to work and doesn’t really care about winning is a drag on a ticket and one is better off without them.   Similarly we are better off running no candidate than one with negatives whose baggage will become the issue in the campaign.

Second, we need to present a clear and simple message on an issue that resonates with voters.  In the midst of this Great Recession the matter of the county foreclosure process is such an issue and was used creatively by a judicial candidate in 2009.  It should have been followed up and pursued in 2011.  Even more the county Democrats need to begin to speak out on controversial subjects that will offend some but will get the attention of voters and in the long run win out. For example, the consolidation of our municipalities as it makes no sense for forty-nine local governments to be doing the same things within the county.  A fair consolidation can be worked out with local Councils that have district representatives (which would actually give people better representation than the current at-large systems that most of our municipalities have) a county police force with local police headquarters and a county wide fire department with local community firehouses;. similarly, regional libraries.  All these could reduce local government costs and lead to a reduction in local property taxes.

Third, we need to stop using the old tired worn-out strategies.  We shouldn’t spend our time trying to get Republicans to votes for us.  Focus on registered Democrats and non-Partisan voters and moderate/independent Republicans will come along. We need a real GOTV plan or a GOOV (Get Out Our Vote) plan doesn’t mean putting people in front of polling places to say hello to those whom the Republican machine drags out but getting one phone caller and one door knocker per precinct to work election day to get our voters out. 

Fourth, at the county wide level, we need to raise serious funds to do mail and name recognition signs and massive lit drops.  You can’t go door to door in over 400 precincts.  But you do have to do the other things.  That includes campaigning at any event even those that the Republican machine over the years has scared candidates away from.  The model here is Sestak2006.  Since he was new to politics in the county, he didn’t know what he couldn’t do, so he did everything that made sense and he won. 

Now let me make clear that too often over these past twenty-one years I have made these mistakes. Once I began to focus on Folcroft I ran candidates sometimes who really didn’t care and did nothing putting the burden on the few who did.  That didn’t work.  When I knew we had a winning message I allowed those who did care to veer off the message and try the old technique of pictures and bio material instead of banging away at the message. In 2009 we raised $20,000 but we didn’t do much door to door and we never honed our message - we increased the Democratic turnout but not by enough. In 2011 the Council candidates did extensive door to door and we stayed on the message Repeal the Boro Income Tax - we won.

Democrats can win in Delaware County.  Sestak, Vitali, Lentz, Davidson  and Spingler have won races that were thought likely not winnable; four of those were against entrenched incumbents. They also followed another model - that of Bob Edgar, the Democratic Congressman from 1976-1986.  He recruited activists who were interested in his campaign either due to his personal charisma or an issue they and he cared about.  They became Edgar people and they fueled the campaigns as did the Sestak volunteers of 2006 and Obama volunteers of 2008.  They coordinated their efforts with the county party structure and therefore in turn with the local committee structure (which during my years as chairman were part of a unitary county party not 49 pieces). By building their own field organizations of volunteers they were not burdened by the “we tried that before and it didn’t work” refrain of too many committee chairs and persons, or the parochial turf envy of local committees and the paranoia of local leaders seeing new volunteers as threats to their party titles.

Democrats with the right message and candidates with a profile that excites voters can win in this last bastion of northeastern suburban Republicanism.  Not because the voters want to exchange the worn out corrupt Republican machine with a Democratic version but rather because the voters are offered something new - an old fashioned concept of a public service oriented candidate whose value and beliefs are more important than party affiliation.

7 Dec. 2011