Time For New Leadership In The Polk County Democrats

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
Posted 3/15/16

13 Comments on "Time For New Leadership In The Polk County Democrats"

  • also need to get rid of Tamyra Harrison. I think all she does is raise money for the Polk County Democrats so they can pay her. The money spent keeping her employed would be much more useful helping to elect Democrats

    • Tamyra Harrison is a selfless and devoted executive director. She is very much underpaid for all she does. The Polk County Democrats would fall apart without her. She almost single handedly created the high school bi-partisan mock caucuses which were then expanded across the state. Trying to find 177 location for precinct caucuses and caucuses chairs to run them is a daunting task that few could achieve as well as Tamyra. I will defend her until the day I die.

  • I completely, absolutely, and unequivocally DISAGREE w/ you this time, Patrick. Tom Henderson did everything imaginable to appease the noisily discontented Bernie kids as they ignored due process, didn’t bother to even READ the Convention rules, were quick to point fingers and yell “cheat” at the Hillary camp when in fact, they were persistently cheating and flouting the Convention rules and process all day long.
    Tom Henderson showed remarkable restraint, politesse, and good judgment in dealing with their illegal seating of “delegates” and their constant unfounded complaints.
    Tom Henderson is a MODEL of how a good County Chairperson should behave in the midst of chaos created by a HUGE group of unruly, angry, accusative, inexperienced, and self-righteous delegates trying to create an insurrection.
    I witnessed Tom Henderson as he handled this Convention BRILLIANTLY.

  • Lee, in the auditorium we were only graced with Tom’s presence a couple of brief times after we broke into preference groups. The area where he spent most of his time speaks volumes about his partisan political intents, as well as to which party members he intended to “lead”.

    Those kind of blanket statements and insults about the opposing side are what I expect of my conservative friends. Pat rightly said, “The Polk County Democrats failed miserably at that mission on Saturday.” You are one of those that failed, and continue to fail with the words you choose today. As a previous life time registered independent, from a family of democrats, I was hoping for better. The continued dismissal and insulting of the new voices who believe in Bernie’s revolution within the party is a huge political mistake. The treatment of the man himself as a nuisance by party officials, from the local, state, and national level, is a huge political mistake. Sanders supporters are mobilizing right now, without the Democratic Party helping, all across America. If you fail to take us seriously, if you continue to belittle and insult us, we will replace you instead of being embraced by you. You may have faced a, “group of unruly, angry, accusative, inexperienced, and self-righteous delegates trying to create an insurrection,” on Saturday. I assure you, you will face a well organized force for change, that will take back the state the was taken from us through dirty tricks like we saw on Saturday and caucus night, come the State convention.

  • I attended the county convention as a first-timer this past weekend. I stayed to the end because I found the process fascinating, if not in need of a major overhaul. Tom Henderson did a fantastic job of remaining calm and professional in the face of tired, annoyed convention-goers for many hours.

    The issues with both the caucuses and the convention are simple to address, but need the individuals to actually step up and formalize.

    First, the process needs to be communicated better. At both the precinct caucus location and the county convention, many people were unclear on precisely what the event would entail. When people don’t understand things, or don’t know what to expect, it’s that much easier for things to go sideways. This was the case at the caucus (which saw one person yelling at others, simply because they didn’t know about realignment) and at the county convention. There could be something as simple as a flow chart showing what steps needed to be taken. For the convention, an example would be 1) Registration and packet pick-up 2)Fill out candidate preference card 3) initial count from cards 3) split into preference groups 4) second count 5) caucus for delegates from non-viable groups 6) recount delegates in preference groups 7) elect district/state delegates 8) ratify stuff 9) go home.

    This process wasn’t clearly defined. You have to keep in mind you have a varied audience, so words on a page or screen are only going to be so effective. Give us a visual with the flow and explain it in simple terms. This alone would have helped avoid a lot of headaches.

    Second, there are probably 12 better ways to count hundreds of people than a head count or by rows of chairs. Get QR codes for attendees. Use bar codes you can scan. Have people take a number when they show up to register. Use the check-in sheet (which I believe has numbered lines) to determine how many people are present. This is the same for voting on planks, etc. Get some classroom clickers for polling, or find a smartphone app that can feed into the laptop you’re already running. Then instead of having to manually count people when yeas and nays are close, people press a button and you know how many are on each side. If the argument is that there’s a chance people could cheat, it can’t be any more risky than human error involved in a manual count.

    Lastly, set expectations appropriately. Tell people on caucus night that the county convention they may be delegates for is an all-day event, possibly into the nighttime hours. This will do two things. It will make sure committed people are signed up to be delegates and they can plan that weekend accordingly. Also, if people expect to be there all day, they won’t get angry if they are there all day. And if they aren’t there all day, they’re going to be happy about it.

    So it really seems like the caucuses and convention really come down to improving communication of process, efficiency in the counting method and setting expectations for time commitment appropriately.

    That’s my take.

  • Joe, I agree that, “The issues with both the caucuses and the convention are simple to address, but need the individuals to actually step up and formalize.” All of your procedural ideas are great. However, what you are talking about doesn’t address WHY the processes were allowed to be used to play political games and practice partisan trickery. It doesn’t address WHY communication from party officials to Sander’s delegates was so poor. It doesn’t address tactics used by the Clinton camp chair to affect vote counts throughout the long day and night….. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8pbPEbAcRaM

  • Here’s my thought on how county convention count should have gone, and district/state should go:
    A paper ballot vote using the 40 ballots that were in our packets is to be held the moment that Credentials says all delegates are present (NO breaking for lunch prior, or it is to be done as people are walking out for lunch). This is to be done in duplicate using ballot 1 and 2. Each ballot will be signed on the back so as to prevent fraud.
    The ballots will be counted by representatives of each viable preference group, as well as two members of the rules committee. In the event that the two boxes do not agree, an audit will be performed showing how each delegate voted in each box, and reconcile any differences with those delegates directly during the second alignment.
    Each point in the alignment/reconciliation cycle will be announced by the Convention Chair/Secretary to each group, so as to maintain consistency between groups. This may be done digitally.
    During additional alignments, the delegates that are _changing_ their vote will affix ballots number 3 and 4 (or higher) over their first two ballots (which will be recovered from the boxes) by a single staple so as to show the ballot history. In the event that a delegate is _rescinding_ their vote completely, they shall do the same as _changing_ but write RESCINDED on their ballot. Any challenge will be resolved by identifying a subset of ballots that are challenged (e.g. “yellow sheet” delegates), removing their ballots, and verifying them.
    This does several things:
    – provides a set of rules on exactly how the count is to take place.
    – creates a verifiable paper trail for every step of the process.
    – empowers people that aren’t interested in defining the platform, and are not changing their mind, to go home after the first vote is validated.
    – empowers people that have a time constraint to participate.

  • We’ll, Patrick, you were in attendance tonight at the first meeting of the Polk County Cent. Comm. no one, no one picked up your call to oust Chair Henderson or Director Harrison. We need unity in Polk County, not disunity to oust Grassley, Young, and defeat.Trump! Henderson and Harrison can turn out the vote to defeat the Repubs. Shame on you for trying to divide the party. Henderson has been the best chair we have had in the 28 years I have been on the Polk Cent Comm.

    • I’m sorry you felt the post so divisive. I don’t normally write something so strident, but here’s why: because there was a lot of criticisms about the Polk County caucus locations, mostly on not enough volunteers to check folks in and bad communication about the rules to new Sanders folks. After the caucus most Polk Dems circled the wagons and vigorously defended critiques from first-time caucus-goers who saw the process as a mess. Then what happened? The Polk County convention also had the same problems: issues with check in and poorly explained rules to first-time convention-goers. The exact same issues.

      So I felt it was clear they never had those internal discussions of what went wrong since the same problems cropped up again. And it looked like once again they were trying to deflect responsibility rather than accept what went wrong. That’s why I made the concerns of what I heard from many, many people public, in the hopes that it would force a discussion so that we don’t lose all these new voters who came out.

      I thought it odd that it took Henderson so long tonight to just finally apologize so that people could move on (especially when he refused to do so in other media interviews), but whatever. At least they’re at that point and they’re going to look into the issues that caused the problems. It worries me that someone who had been in the position so long allowed these issues to crop up in such a disastrous way at convention and then didn’t properly address them quickly after to soothe tensions. But hopefully all sides can move forward now. Thanks for reading

      • Calling for the resignation of the chair who has led the party to so many victories is not divisive? Reconsider your words more carefully in the future. You are young, the perspective of time will aid your future judgments.

        • Yeah, next time you try to recruit more young people to the Polk Dems, you may want to reconsider a message of ‘well, you’re young so you just don’t know what you’re talking about’

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