Guest post from Sean Bagniewski
There’s a Chinese parable about a king whose army was defeated and whose kingdom was taken by a warring neighbor. Legend has it that he was imprisoned and forced into labor. Upon his release, he slept on a bed of sticks every night to remember how badly he hated losing and to reinforce how much he wanted to get his kingdom back. After ten years of preparations, he did and he took the territory of his former rival.
After the 2016 elections, Iowa Democrats have no U.S. Senator, only one member of Congress, and only two statewide elected officials. Our majorities in the Statehouse are decimated. We have lost Terrace Hill. The open season on collective bargaining, the planned dismantling of Des Moines Water Works, the attack on Planned Parenthood, and the stomping on local minimum wages provide plenty of beds of plenty of sticks for Iowa Democrats to sleep on. We don’t have ten years. We have less than two before the next midterms.
The more we can turn out the vote in Polk County, the easier it is for Iowa Democrats to work to increase our margins in swing districts. The more fundraising and organizing we can do in our Capitol County, the more resources that can be dedicated to toss-up and even longshot races elsewhere in the state. Polk County is not the center of Iowa politics, but what we do here can have a powerful impact on the rest of our state.
So what can we do better? A lot. And that’s true for every county party. The responsibility falls on all of us. We need to develop a sharper message with sharper elbows. Almost every Republican elected official in the age of Trump is enabling his agenda. Even if we might like a County Supervisor, we must have a Democrat running for every office in Polk County. We must give those candidates the support they need to win. Part of that is helping them to get their message out and to connect them with volunteers. Part of it is also fundraising. We need to step up our fundraising efforts for both large and small donations to do all the things we want to do.
We’re blessed to have neighborhood groups sprouting up throughout the county to start a lot of this work. They are our backbone. It’s my privilege to serve as the president of the Northwest Des Moines Democrats in the area formerly (and really always) known as Obamadale. We had our first official meeting in December with 40 attendees. We had 100 in January. We had 125 in February. We need these groups in every inch of Polk County. Several of us are working with organizers to start up the Grimes Democrats and the West Side Democrats. I’m sure we can find more. When they start out, we need to help them out with the basics: how to create bylaws, how to raise money, how to publicize events.
County and neighborhood meetings throughout the state are often the first window for many people checking out politics for the first time. Some meetings are good and some are not. We’re lucky in Polk County to have Democrats from around the state here during the legislative session and, because of our caucuses, nationwide Democrats here on a near-monthly basis. Welcoming them to present at our meetings is a privilege not every county has. They’re a great incentive to keep people coming to meetings and to fill up the non-business time that often defaults into the same debates between members that seem to have been roiling for decades. If you can get people to keep coming back, you might even find a candidate for a suburb that we thought was unwinnable before.
Communication can’t be overstated. The Facebook groups for county parties statewide often mirrored the contentious nature of the 2016 election. A lot of good people who supported all three candidates left our pages and our email lists and haven’t come back. We need to welcome them back. It will be the best way to advertise the events where our Republican friends will be in attendance and to offer sample questions for those attendees who might have a last minute brain freeze when called on. We can also use it to make our annual events even bigger and, most importantly, to promote the marches and demonstrations that will be some of our lifeblood going forward.
We mentioned the Polk County group at our off-year caucus and there was an audible groan. Speaking of which, the off-year caucuses were a great success. Hundreds of people throughout the county, instead of a handful after a county meeting, is an amazing thing. The agenda provided to everyone that explained everything that was going to happen that night was a major improvement. It would have been incredibly helpful at the county conventions where many, including myself, had never attended a convention before.
To do this, we need to remember that we Democrats are a family. We will fight like a family. When I ran for the Des Moines City Council, Kimberley Boggus was a campaign manager for my opponent. We became close friends a few years later to help turn out Obamadale. We’ve had plenty of disagreements since. She was O’Malley. I was Clinton. She was Hogg. I was Judge. She was Eadon. I was Gronstal. It doesn’t matter. We both lost some of those and had to lick our wounds. We’re still close friends. If we can do it, everyone else can.
Finally, we need to be open to change. Elections aren’t won the same way they were forty or thirty or even five years ago. The Polk County Democrats need to be on Instagram and Snapchat. We need to have positions for people to serve as alternates on the Central Committee. We need to be able to organize last minute events at the drop of a hat. We need to be able to push ourselves out of our comfort zones and embrace the thousands of new voters reaching out to our party for the first time ever. Sometimes we’ll fail, but we’ve been here before. As the late great Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said, “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
For our kids and our parents and our friends and all of those after us, let’s do it.
by Sean Bagniewski