Seven of the eight candidates who are vying to lead the Iowa Democratic Party next year gathered to take part in a forum at Grand View University in Des Moines last night. The Political Party, an organization formed this year to engage young progressive millennials, hosted the event. Icy weather deterred some local Democrats from attending, but the event still drew about 60 attendees, with many watching online (you can watch a recording of the entire forum on Starting Line’s Facebook page).
The panel, moderated by Stacey Walker, Mandy McWherter and Zach Mannheimer, went through a series of questions that focused on how to better involve young leaders in the party, how to recruit candidates in all parts of the state and how to unite the party. The candidates in attendance were Sandy Dockendorff, Derek Eadon, Bob Krause, Blair Lawton, Kurt Meyer, Julie Stauch and Kim Weaver.
While the eight candidates have participated in several phone conference forums with individual constituency caucuses within the party, this was the first time they were mostly all at an in-person event. It served as a useful outing to start seeing the themes that each candidate is presenting in their campaign.
“I really want to move our party from being candidate-centric to issue-centric,” said Dockendorff, a longtime state party activist from Southeast Iowa. “It makes everything we do work better. It helps us focus on party building around issues. It helps us advocate for issues in the legislature and helping our electeds. It helps us to fill the space between elections with activities that are designed to move things forward and not allow the GOP to define us.”
Party building was a key point for several candidates, especially Lawton, who has worked on the campaigns of Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders and Jim Mowrer.
“I think we need to make sure our next state chair has an organizing background,” Lawton explained. “My top priority is making 2017 the year of party building. There’s a few ways we can do that. We need to get back to realizing that our county parties are the bedrock of our state party. I think we need to have a renewed focus in our rural areas across the state. We need to have a goal for 2018 of contesting every legislative district.”
Two candidates, Meyer and Stauch, focused heavily on the need for longterm strategic planning. Weaver discussed her run against Steve King and how she outperformed both Clinton and Judge, as well as how she recruited down-ballot candidates.
A number of questions revolved around how to better engage young voters, which weren’t the solid voting bloc they typically are for Democrats in 2016.
“I think we have to change our approach as a party in how we reach out to millennials,” said Eadon. “I think often people think young people are apathetic because they’re not going to party functions, but I think it’s the reverse. I think young people are more interested in issues and direct action … It’s important to have communication on the front end with College Democrats and young professional organizations.”
“We have to reach out and find out why they aren’t engaged right now, what’s keeping them from being engaged and opening the door that they think is shut,” added Stauch. “We have to be out there asking them to come in. You always meet people where they are. Some of that is through social media, but I think we get a little caught up in social media in talking at people instead of talking with them.”
The discussion also honed in on Democrats’ messaging problem, with many of the buzzwords of the night from candidates being “communicating,” “listening” and “the message.” A lot of generalities were made, but some focused in on specific strategies.
“I don’t know if we’ll make it simple enough to put it on a cap, but it has to involve health care, education or the economy,” offered Meyer. “Those are our bread and butter issues. And when we wander away from them, we find ourselves in weeds where we can’t get out. It’s not a sin to want to go deep on policy. But it has to be the right policy. We have to be able to talk to our brother and sisters who are millennials, who are in the union movement.”
“I want to hold a focus group – I want to know what those issues across the state are,” suggested Dockendorff. “I’m from a rural, what used to be union blue county that is now a union red county. I’ve talked with those people, and I know what’s going on with them, but we need to do it professionally.”
Many of the candidates also suggested putting a bigger emphasis on candidate recruitment, even for areas in the state that are difficult to win in.
“I think we have underutilized our constituency caucuses, and I think we need to reach out to them, reach out to different communities and say, ‘what do you know,?’” Weaver said. “We had a wonderful turnout of young people in the caucus who have never considered caucus, and we have a really good list of who those people are … Until now we had this state structure that seemed like it anointed people to run. And I think that a lot of county chairs and local people don’t feel empowered.”
Krause, who ran in the Senate primary last year (and who all but confirmed at the forum that he would run for office again if he fails to get elected as chair), told the crowd that the party needs to offer up some funding and better data services to help out down-ballot candidates.
“I advocate using funds to incentive getting people on the ballot on the basis that each one is going to bring at least 100, 200, 300 votes,” said Krause. “We need to fix the Votebuilder. Votebuilder is completely broken. It needs to feed back in on a closed loop. Right now people take the raw lists, they do with it what they will, and the data never comes back into the Votebuilder.”
On other topics all the candidates agreed that the chair should be a paid, full-time position, that they wouldn’t run for office if they become chair and that the party needed to be a more welcoming, inclusive place. They all advocated for a change in how the IDP operates, with Eadon taking a particularly stark tone on how the party has failed in the past.
“What we have to understand is what we’re doing here in Iowa as Democrats is fundamentally not working,” Eadon asserted. “We have had hand-picked candidates for the chair position, multiple of which have left to run for office within that cycle. And we’ve abandoned our grassroots. We’ve ceded non-election years … Having someone like myself who is an organizer at heart, who thinks very outside-the-box, who has raised money for issue groups not willing to participate in the party structure … Right now it feels we couldn’t be doing any worse as Democrats. But I think it could get worse if we elect the wrong chair.”
The seven candidates at last night’s forum will participate in an interview process of sorts with the IDP’s State Central Committee today. 49 members of the SCC will vote to select the next IDP chair on January 21.
by Pat Rynard