The Polk County Democratic Party will elect their critically important County Chair next Monday night. The election includes these four officers: Chair, Vice Chair, Secretary and Treasurer. However, it is the Chair position that is so vital to the future success of not only Polk County Democrats but the State Democratic Party as well. There will be at least three candidates for the Polk County Chair position. It’s assumed the current Chair, Tom Henderson, will run for re-election. Sean Bagniewski and Dylan Funk have also announced they will be nominated. The only announced candidate for Vice-Chair is Rachel Lunsford. Other candidates may be nominated on Monday night.
Folks outside Polk County might not realize the importance and influence the Polk County Chair has on the rest of Iowa. In fact, some Democrats outside Polk County may be reading this and thinking this is just more over-emphasis on Des Moines.
Here in Polk County, Democrats hear that criticism frequently. It goes something like this – too much direction from Des Moines, too much top down lecturing and too much neglect of the rest of Iowa. Much of that criticism is justified; just look at the shellacking Democrats took outside of the four metro counties in rural Iowa.
With that acknowledgement, a strong and dynamic Polk County Party is essential for a number of reasons. Polk County’s large share of the state Democratic vote as well as their vote domination of the Third District, makes them a must-win in every election. Statewide races and Third District congressional elections depend on a huge turnout in Polk County. Winning the Third District can’t be done without a big run-up of Democratic votes in Polk County to offset rural losses in the other 15 counties that make up the Third District.
Secondly, it’s simply just geography and the location of the Statehouse that adds to the importance of Polk County. Located near the center of the State with the largest metro population gives it a big political footprint. The Statehouse is the center of the political universe in Iowa, especially this year, and it easily dominates all the political activity in Iowa. The large Des Moines area media market provides an additional element of influence by reporting on legislative activity. In addition, the Polk County Democrats share an office with the State Democratic Party that makes coordination of strategy and policy more convenient. The Polk County Chair is often called on by the media as an alternative to the State Democratic Party Chair.
For all these reasons the election for the Polk County Chair should have received more attention this year. It may be that current Chair Tom Henderson has done such an outstanding job at maintaining equilibrium that the party assumed it would just continue whoever is elected. However, Henderson hasn’t been clear about whether he will run again and it’s giving some local Democrats heartburn thinking about electing someone without Henderson’s experience and knowledge. Henderson’s steady leadership since 1998 has provided a dependable stability that have made Democrats grow comfortable.
Henderson is going to have some competition if he decides to run. Both Sean Bagniewski and Dylan Funk have announced they will be candidates for the Chair position. Bagniewski is edging a bit on running by saying if Henderson runs he might drop out. There could easily be other Chair candidates nominated Monday night as well.
The Chair position requires someone with diverse political skills. They must be comfortable talking to the media, understand the intricacies of policy, countering Republican talking points and be a professional fundraiser.
Henderson has been assisted by his Executive Director (ED), Tamyra Harrison, who conducts the everyday business of the Polk Democrats. She manages a significant organization of volunteers, coordinates with other counties and the State Democratic Party, as well as executes several large fundraising events. She has played a pivotal role in getting the new grassroots neighborhood groups started. At last count there are 15 neighborhood groups formed or forming with more to come. Her creation and coordination with the Republican Party of the youth caucus is another significant success. Whoever is elected Chair will need to retain Harrison or train a capable and hardworking ED like Harrison.
Henderson’s leadership has suffered some bumps in the last year with criticism of both the Polk County Caucuses and the Convention. The controversy over the razor thin win by Clinton over Sanders left some Democrats feeling caucus reform was essential. Following that, the Polk County Convention wasn’t considered to be a roaring success in terms of building party unity or confidence in the process. Henderson can’t be totally faulted for either since the process is dictated by the Democratic State Constitution, by-laws and state law. Henderson should be credited for having an open and transparent review following the Convention. In his 19 years he has turned Polk County from a party mired in debt to a very strong financially-resourced County. He has developed a strong relationship with local elected leaders that depend on his leadership. Henderson is always a professional and has the poise and confidence to field questions from the media. If Henderson runs it’s likely he would get significant support.
Sean Bagnieski is well known in Iowa politics having worked for both Governor Vilsack and Culver. His recent leadership in the Clinton campaign added to his resume of political accomplishments. A graduate of Drake Law School he currently works for the state. His local experience includes heading up the NW Des Moines Democratic Neighborhood Association and the Beaverdale Association. Bagnieski says his goals include working with Democratic allies, communication of Democratic messaging through social media and building the strength of the neighborhood groups. He specifically wants to improve the confusing county convention process. He wants to increase Democratic participation by bringing in more national Democratic leaders. He explained that he feels confident serving as the face and voice for Polk County Democrats.
Dylan Funk also announced that he is running for the Chair position. He is relatively new to political involvement. He had been a lifelong independent, but the Sanders’ campaign inspired him to get involved in the Polk County Democrats. He is the Vice Chair of the Progressive Caucus and is running for the Chair of the Ankeny Democrats as well as the County Chair position.
His priorities include unifying the Party and bringing back independents who may have left the Democratic Party. He is known by his progressive friends for his unique skill of persuading Trump supporters to see the light and embrace progressive values. Jason Frerichs calls Funk the “Trump Whisperer” for his special skills. Funk has a degree in psychology that may explain his unique talent as counselor to Trump supporters. He’s currently working as a computer programmer. Although relatively new to Democratic politics, Funk’s star has risen quickly. He is a member of both the Polk County Central Committee and the State Party Central Committee.
The only announced candidate for Vice-Chair of the Party is Rachel Lunsford. She serves as the Chair of the Polk County Communication Committee. She has quickly gained credibility in the Polk County leadership by recruiting many new members to her Committee. In addition, that experience has prepared her for the goal of improving Polk County’s communication infrastructure. Her degree is in public policy and she is employed by the State of Iowa in public health.
Monday’s Chair election is a crucial test for the future of the Democratic Party in both Polk County and the state. Only members of the Polk County Central Committee are eligible to vote.
by Rick Smith