Recently, I visualized the argument against a candidate for FDP chair in the following exchange:
Insider_01: Hey, let’s attack that one candidate for chair as not capable because he lost his own campaign!
Insider_02: Do any of the others have records of winning any races or running a similar organization?
Insider_01: Of course not, but facts don’t matter!
Insider_02: And it doesn’t bother you suggesting that a candidate campaign and a statewide party organization are at all similar? Because they totally are not.
Insider_01: What now? I’m good at negative campaigning, it’s all I’ve ever learned.
This trope pushes one of the core failings among Democratic candidates and campaigns, and reminds us that one of the key sources driving that failed philosophy is the party establishment itself. This attack reinforces the notion that candidates run their own campaigns. That part of being a candidate is knowing how to run a campaign, and managing it themselves. This brings me to an old proverb from a very wise…oh, it was me? Yeah:
“A candidate who manages his own campaign has a fool for a campaign manager.”
(Technically it’s rooted in an old saying about lawyers who defend themselves in court.)
The role of candidate is an immense task, whether you are running for State House or US Senate. The skills that make a good candidate are not the same skills that make a good legislator/chief executive (Gov/POTUS/Mayor), and they are certainly not the same as the skills that make a good campaign manager. There is some overlap among the three, and some skills can be assets in the other roles, but the roles themselves are fairly distinct and each presents immense challenges. This isn’t to say that a candidate shouldn’t play a central role in defining what their campaign will look like, but that is done through providing vision and values, passion and inspiration…they provide input, which professionals should translate into a plan and day-to-day management thereof.
Once the campaign actually begins, the candidate should have a trusted manager to keep them apprised of progress, and to judge when they should and should not be seeking additional input from the candidate. Beyond that, their job is to be the candidate. To follow the schedule set by the campaign, make the asks (of time, treasure, or talent), and continue to be the primary inspiration for staff, volunteers, and supporters. None of this is easy, and doing it for many weeks, months, or sometimes more than a year can be brutal on ones body and soul. The staff, whether it is one person or one thousand, is there to enable the candidate to focus on being the candidate, and to do all of the things that can be done without the candidate to make the campaign successful.
In addition to the candidate not being the campaign manager, there are a few other people that shouldn’t be their campaign manager: their spouse, their close relative, their best friend, or anyone else that isn’t an experience professional that understands campaigns and elections. The number of contested campaigns run by spouses that were successful can be counted on one hand. It doesn’t work, even if the spouse is an expert on campaigns and elections, they always fall into communication problems with the candidate. They either share too much, sucking the candidate into things they shouldn’t be involved in, or they share too little, making the candidate feel disconnected from the campaign, even sometimes a haphazard mix of the two. More on the role of spouses in campaigns can be found here.
Candidates often choose a close relative, best friend, or other non-campaign professional on an old trope about the best person to run your campaign being the person you trust the most and knows you best. It’s just nonsense. Having such people serve as advisers to inform the campaign manager is helpful, but to suggest someone who knows nothing about campaign and elections should run your campaign is just ridiculous. Like any other industry or arena, there are skills, knowledge, and lessons that only experience can teach. Beyond that, there is an emotional component that can apply enormous pressure to make bad decisions in political campaigns. Campaigns get incredibly personal, incredibly intrusive into the lives of the candidates and their families, this often prompts irrational or defensive decisions that in the end can be fatal for the campaign while doing nothing to comfort the family or candidate.
There is another component of this exchange that is important to understand. Candidate campaigns and political (or charitable) organizations are not similar. Success in one does not suggest guaranteed success in the other. Raising money for a candidate campaign is in many ways harder, but it’s also different and success in that system doesn’t always translate to success raising money for an organization. Raising money for an organization, particularly one with an existing brand, is based on very different things than a candidate campaign. Often you have more ways to show tangible progress, you have a longer record to work from, and donors tend to be more committed than they are with candidate campaigns. In many ways this is the difference between being a fan of a college sports team (particularly if you are an alumnus) and being a fan of a player on that team. The players come and go, but dedicated support to the team is forever. That support may wax and wane, depending on the success of the program, but it it is incredibly hard to destroy completely.
Building a candidate campaign is a short-term narrow scope adventure, a party organization is a broad scope adventure that never ends. Through mismanagement we can turn party organizations into short-term minded endeavors, to their detriment, but they should be long-term efforts. Leading a party organization means building long-term infrastructure that is in place to give those short-term candidate campaigns a leg up, being an incubator for talent, and a quality control agent. All of this requires trust and bi-directional engagement, something many of our state parties and our national party organization are short on these days.
Regarding the Florida Democratic Party, this led me to the ultimate conclusion that without radical reform of the rules based on the politics of power preservation, we cannot make any forward progress of significance. There is no argument that the weighted vote system is good or just, only that it is easier. Democracy isn’t often easy, we have to be strong enough to make it work. We must have a one person, one vote, proportional system of governing our state party. To that end, I created this petition, which I encourage you to sign. It calls on the candidate for state chair to prioritize rules reform ending the politics of power preservation and giving us a midterm special election for state chair under those new rules. Two of the candidates have already signed it, Dwight Bullard and Leah Carius. The push back I have received from other candidates and state committee persons is one or both of the following: A) We can’t win if we support this kind of reform now, we need big counties to vote for us to be chair and they won’t support this kind of reform, and B) The two year term is unacceptable, we agree with the concept of the reform, but handcuffing us to a two year term would make it impossible to get anything done.
A — Are you kidding me? You want to be a leader, but you think the pathway to success is being dishonest about your intentions while seeking the office? The only way this change is going to happen is if a leader steps up and makes it clear that the rules as they exist are detrimental to the well being of the party and must be changed. You are either lying to reform advocates, or lying to the big county power hoarders. Trying being honest, deliver the transparency and inspiration we so desperately need. If you cannot win over those power hoarders now, what makes you think there is any chance you will accomplish it before the Governor’s election becomes the only thing anyone is willing to talk about? If this change isn’t made soon, that Governor’s race is a certain loss for the Florida Democratic party, as many black, brown, and other progressive voters will find somewhere else to put their faith.
B — This is a common Democratic Establishment move, to acknowledge there is a problem, but to be unwilling to demonstrate our values when the opportunity exists to correct that problem. You cannot restore trust if you are unwilling to demonstrate our values, to give back power when you have the opportunity to do so. When you acknowledge that rules as they exist are corrupt, you cannot honestly also suggest that your power is legitimate. Therefore a special election under the new rules is essential to restoring trust, to restoring the integrity of the party.
We need a leader. An inspirational voice that has the courage to take on the worst parts of our system and the recognition that to regain trust for the party, they must have trust in our members.
Sign the petition now. Call the candidates for chair. Call your state committee persons and tell them how you feel.
Mario Piscatella (@mpiscatella) is a longtime progressive Democratic strategist, campaign professional, and activist. He has worked in more than a dozen states on countless campaigns fighting for progressive values.