It is imperative that we as Democrats on the local level change our mind-set and begin concentrating more on discussing and sharing with our constituents where we stand on back yard items. City and county government is not only where we find our bench for future legislators and congressional representatives, but also — to use the words of University of South Florida Professor Susan McManus — “Historically, most of the great ideas about new policies have always come from the bottom up. The state and local governments have always been the labatories of democracy.”
He is right that local government politicians tend to be among the first to run for state and national level politics… at least those not named Bush, Kennedy, or Clinton. Here in the Bay area, the local Republican party has had better success at getting candidates elected to local office.
Critics of the system will talk about how gerrymandering has made so many seats as a virtual lock for one party or another. I disagree with that statement. To be sure, a handful of seats across the state are safe for one party or the other, but others could go either way depending on the candidates.
State house seats in the area can be quite competitive when they open again. District 57 (South Tampa, Town N Country, Westchase) is currently held by Republican Faye Culp – a moderate Republican who is very popular in her district. A Democrat will have a hard time beating her, but that is not because of gerrymandering. When the seat opens in 2010, it is within the realm of possibility for the Democrats to take this seat. The same holds true for District 48 (Carrollwood, Lutz, Citrus Park) held by Republican Kevin Ambler, District 60 (New Tampa, Lutz, Temple Terrace) held by Republican Ed Homan. When they leave due to term limits in 2012 the districts will be re-drawn. The right Democrat could win either seat. I would even venture to say that the right Republican could win District 58 (West Tampa, Town N Country).
There is one major problem with this concept: the ‘right’ person for the district is all too often not right for their party. Too often, party leaders – and the groups that help fund elections – prefer their candidates to be ideologues who hold fast to a specific set of principles. While we may hear that one or the other party wants to be a “big tent party,” where differences of opinion can exist, the opposite is really true.
What happens when a Republican Senator votes against the class-size and voucher amendments? The establishment recruits and funds a Republican candidate to oppose him. What happens when a Republican votes against a tort reform effort? The business community offers money to any Republican that will run against him. What happens when a Democrat supports vouchers? The education lobby looks for another candidate in that seat.
There is a flip side to this as well. Let’s say there’s a solid Democrat who is very pro-business. The business community groups will not help elect that Democrat, out of fear that the Republican leaders would shut them out of the public policy development process. If they fund a Democrat, Republicans will see that as opposing their candidate and act accordingly.
President Bush used a phrase that seems to be appropriate when describing special interest groups: “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.”
This kind absolute partisanship has prompted many leaders to form their own groups: Its My Party Too organized by moderate Republicans, the Blue Dog Coalition of Democrats in Congress. Without organizing and finding strength in numbers, pragmatic members of either party who vote against their party or special interest leaders would be alone on a limb.
So, I agree with Robert that the best way to build a party is to work hard to get candidates elected at the state and local levels. However, I would add that all too often, the parties themselves provide a block to doing that.
This year has the potential for a large swing back toward the Democratic party. Do they have the right candidates? Will they have the funds needed to run a viable campaign? Only time will really tell.