The first, second and third priority of any county party is to build an organization that can turn out Democrats to the polls to get Democratic candidates elected up and down the ballot. The Polk County Democrats failed miserably at that mission on Saturday. In fact, they likely damaged Democrats’ chances in November.
For that and many other reasons, it is time for new leadership in the Polk County Democrats. To start that process, Tom Henderson should step aside from his longtime role as chair of the party.
Over 1,000 people attended the Polk County Democrats convention at Valley High School in West Des Moines. They suffered through a disaster of an experience, where the Rules Committee Chair infuriated both sides with a lack of judgment, communication and transparency. A failure of leadership from the county party to take control of the situation allowed it to spiral out of control. The communication breakdowns and delays due to poorly carried out procedures from the county party fueled anger and suspicion from both Hillary Clinton’s and Bernie Sanders’ groups.
Let’s be absolutely clear of the consequences: fewer people in Polk County will vote for Democrats in November and potential volunteers will never return to work on local races or help out with the local party. Time that could be spent registering voters, activating new volunteers or persuading swing voters in Polk County now must be spent repairing frayed friendships.
If this was the first such incidence of failure, it might be understandable and forgivable. But it’s unfortunately simply the latest in a series of all-too-predictable examples where the party has come up short.
Last month multiple problems plagued precincts all over Polk County on caucus night, from poorly-prepared temporary chairs to massive overcrowding to running out of registration forms to outstanding precinct results that were some of the last in the state to be recorded.
Some rushed to the defense of those who ran it, saying they were simply volunteers who did their best under difficult circumstances. In many cases that was true, but it’s absolutely undeniable that the end result was a chaotic and frustrating scene for many first-time voters excited about their candidate. And the excuse-making may have only reassured the leadership that things actually were alright, leading to the convention disaster.
But you didn’t even have to wait until caucus night or the convention to know the Polk County Democrats are an underperforming organization that feels like they’ve been coasting on autopilot for years.
Take their Fall fundraiser last October that featured Martin O’Malley as their keynote speaker. Barely 200 people attended that annual dinner in the largest county in the state with one of the Democrats’ presidential candidates headlining it. Counties a fraction the size of Polk turn out much larger crowds than that. Hell, the Scott County Republicans had 700 for a fundraising dinner early last year.
Perhaps so few turned out for the Fall fundraiser after sitting through the excruciatingly-dull Spring fundraiser, which featured no less than eight videos as part of the program, none of which seemed very pertinent.
Go out to almost any Polk County Democrats function and you’ll see the same people, time after time. It’s good that they have a core group, but they have failed to significantly expand their active membership, despite a relatively stable leadership that had years to implement potential long-term strategies to do so.
Part of that is due to their meetings being dreadfully boring. I was interested in getting more involved with my local party a few years ago, but gave up after just two meetings. Countless friends and political acquaintances have similar stories.
Speaking with many Polk County activists over the last few days, nearly all feel there’s a real lack of direction and purpose within the party. There’s been few new ways of thinking about how to organize the county, turn out votes or get new people involved. The neighborhood organizations that sprung up in recent years have been a nice addition, but even there you run into many of the exact same activists – and some of it almost seems like a way to organize more fun events around the staid procedural meetings of the county operation.
Still, let’s make it clear: the folks involved in this process, including those running the convention, are well-intentioned, good people who devote countless hours of their spare time. There’s many great, committed activists who volunteer with and hold positions within the Polk County Democrats. And some of the infrastructure and relationships are there in the party to be successful. I’ve personally seen them be very helpful on a special election in 2012. But there’s a dearth of leadership to point them in the right direction and the body as a whole doesn’t appear to be moving forward to something greater.
And on Saturday they went backward.
The convention debacle was particularly disappointing since the whole point of having a caucus is that it’s a party-building exercise. And there was an opportunity. The vast majority of people who attended the county convention were at one for the first time. Imagine how strong the party would be if that marked the start of hundreds of new activists becoming engaged to work on local campaigns and develop a connection to their local party. Instead, there’s a good chance some of them won’t even vote for the Democrats in November (many have already said so on social media).
That’s simply unacceptable for the county party representing the 108,197 registered Democrats in Iowa’s largest metro. And it can’t continue.
This is Polk County and the Des Moines metro. There is no shortage of talented, ambitious, intelligent and enthusiastic people, including many younger ones, who could step up and provide a new vision for the party. There is absolutely no reason the Polk County Democrats shouldn’t be the best-organized, well-run county party in the entire state. Democrats across Iowa depend on it, in fact.
There is a small window of opportunity that still exists to salvage much of the new enthusiasm that came out of the 2016 Iowa Caucus. If the new Sanders and Clinton supporters realize the county party took the failures seriously, are committed to transparency moving forward, and still want to welcome them in with open arms, many may yet forgive and join up. But so little trust exists right now that it’s unlikely that can happen without some major changes in party leadership.
Already some corrections are being made. Starting Line hears Jeff Goetz, the much-maligned Rules Committee Chair from the convention, has indicated that he will step down from his position.
Tom Henderson should do the right thing as well and resign as the chair of the Polk County Democrats. Many people like Henderson personally, he’s well-respected in the local press and Democrats are extremely grateful for the many years he’s devoted to the county party. But it’s time to move on.
Hopefully the party can not only select a new leader, but also regain a sense of focus and direction. The stakes are much too high this election year to accept anything less from what should be the most important county party in the state.
by Pat Rynard