Opinion: Steve Schale on the future of the Florida Democratic Party
In an open letter to state executive committee members, Schale – a veteran Democratic consultant – says that when it comes to new leadership, the party can't think 'outside the box' until it rebuilds the box.
Dear Florida Democratic Party Executive Committee:
Some of you may know me, many of you don't. Back in the day, I was a hack who worked on Democratic campaigns in Florida. There's a chance you've heard of a few people I helped elect.
You have the job of electing a new state party Chair, and I wanted to offer some perspective from someone who has seen the good, the bad, and more often than not, the ugly. I don't envy your job, but I encourage you to be thoughtful and deliberate, even if it requires taking extra time.
The party has been through more rebuilding exercises in the last decade than the Jacksonville Jaguars. And while I have never been asked to participate in these exercises, I offered some thoughts around each. If you are curious about my previous thoughts, you can read them here: 2021, 2019, 2017, 2015. (I can assure you, they are basically the same as this piece.)
For the purposes of this election, it isn't really worth spending a lot of time on how we got here. I wish I could tell you this train wreck hasn’t been a long time coming, but that would be a lie.
Before I get to the question at hand of the next FDP Chair, I think there are two things that are critical to set the table:
1. The job is utterly thankless and impossible. Period. Full Stop.
There is nothing glamorous about the job, unless your idea of fun is endless nights at Hampton Inns and Marriott Courtyards, staring out the window at parking lots and air conditioning handlers, spending your days not getting phone calls returned by donors, talking to reporters who want to know why you haven’t fixed everything in three weeks, all while being roasted on social media and elsewhere for being bad at your job by people who have never won in an actual competitive partisan election.
And here’s the fun part: What does success look like? Even the cycle where I set the (sadly still standing) record for largest net gain in the state House of Representatives, I had more critics than fans. As Chair, you will wake up every morning, run headfirst into a brick wall without a helmet, and repeat it daily. Someone has to do it. Someone really good, but who has realistic expectations, is going to be critical to the party’s success.
2. The current system is built in a way that works against the party's success.
I believe the seeds of the party’s current state were laid in the spring of 2010, when there was a conscious effort and decision – not by anyone at the party – to outsource basic party functions to outside groups. The goal of building long-term outside infrastructure wasn’t a bad one on its face, but rather than being a value-add proposition, like Americans for Prosperity is for the GOP, it ended up being a choice for donors on whether to support the FDP or other groups. For a variety of reasons, the other groups won the day.
As a result, outside of individual candidates – and in this case, mostly presidential-related standing-up operations for six months every four years – the party has never had the resources to do the work it needs to do in a consistent and sustained basis. Honestly, I don’t know if the ability is there to get some of those donors back into the tent (or find new ones). And raising money is brutal without a major statewide figure committed to it. I was there in 2005 – and it sucked.
OK, so onto the actual job.
* * *
In my view, the Florida Democratic Party has one job, and only one job: Win elections. That’s it.
The Chair of the Florida Democratic Party also has one job: Provide the resources and direction to meet that mission. Everything else, to be frank, is secondary.
One of the things I genuinely respect about my Republican hack friends? They really don’t care. They just want to win. They figure winning solves problems, and they are right.
You know what encourages discipline? What motivates working hard? Winning. And winning is fun.
Besides Florida Republicans, you know who is having fun right now? Jacksonville Jaguars fans. Why? We are winning.
You know who isn’t? Both Florida Democrats and Tennessee Titans fans. The end of the Titans season was like the Florida Democratic Party the last 3 cycles. At least I can revel in the Titans’ failure.
But I digress. Kind of.
Good candidates don’t all look alike. They don’t hold all the same views. Some Democratic ones might even hold views that other Democrats disagree with.
But in the end, the only litmus test is “can they win?” Not in the aspirational, maybe lightning strikes in a bottle, ‘wow they gave a great speech so someone should give them money,’ ‘we should help them because they decided to run’ kind of way, but in a ‘do they have something that gives them appeal, and the network to raise money to communicate that appeal’ way.
The party’s job is to help find these people, and make sure the foundation is there for those candidates. In this case, that foundation is mainly to register voters, then turn those voters out.
If the next Chair of the FDP did just two things – register voters, then turn those voters out – at an even marginally successful rate, we should give that person a 10-year contract.
* * *
In my view, Karen Thurman was the perfect party chair for the era I worked there (2005 to early 2009), a moment not dissimilar to this one, except we took over a party in worse shape than this one. We inherited so much debt that we couldn't even get a credit card.
Karen had won tough partisan elections herself, elections against Republicans, so she knew what it took.
She didn’t have any further political ambitions, this wasn’t the biggest title she had earned in her life, and she sure as hell didn’t need the job. She had a Rolodex to raise money, had enough trust of donors to take her calls, and she understood that limited resources should be deployed in smart ways to win.
I remember once having a conversation about a candidate who had some positions well to the right of the current party, and her answer was “Steve, honestly, who gives a shit? Can they win, and will they vote for the Democratic Leader?”
The answers were yes, and we got that person across the line. So if I am voting for Chair (and I am not), I am looking for another Karen Thurman.
Furthermore, as a voter for the next Chair, I encourage you to ask every candidate for the job four questions:
1. Can you raise money?
If their answer is “I have a plan to get small donors” or some other whimsical “Field of Dreams” kind of answer, that means no donor is going to take their call and you shouldn't vote for them. All the things that everyone wants the party to do will cost money, a lot of money. If the candidate for Chair you are talking to doesn't get that, we will be having this conversation again in two years.
2. What is your plan to register voters?
Like the Jaguars’ record over the last few decades, the Dems’ win-loss record on voter registration is obviously bad to anyone who has looked at them. There is no way to spin it, no sugar-coating. This isn't all the Party's fault. Much of this work has been outsourced, but you need to drive the policy to take it back.
So ask the candidates what their plan is. If they tell you they have some cool "texting outreach" or other plan that isn't putting actual people on the ground talking to actual voters, find another candidate. And as the last few cycles proved, this isn't work that is effectively done virtually.
3. What is your plan to recruit candidates to build a larger – and broader (in every sense) bench?
4. How do you intend to rebuild real volunteer capacity?
We are leaning way too much on paid canvassers. Paid canvassing is a Band-Aid, it isn’t a plan. Volunteers are committed, they believe in the cause, and will be warriors for it.
And in my opinion, that’s all any state executive committee should care about. There are a million things the party could do – many of which it should do – but the fastest way to do a lousy job is to try to do too much. If I am voting, I want someone focused on those narrow functions, because doing these basic, core-party functions even moderately well will still be a herculean task.
* * *
Right after I took my party job in 2005, I sat down with fellow Florida Man Chuck Todd, who was then at Hotline. He said to me, “People say there isn’t enough outside the box thinking.” I responded, “The problem is, we need to build the box before we can think outside of it.”
We built the box when I was there. We built a good voter file and recruited good candidates (and gave the voter file to candidates for free). We registered voters, ran a narrowly-targeted turnout operation and built a real registration advantage.
We put in place the things you needed to take advantage of political winds. And over the next decade, that box was smashed into pieces, ground up in a woodchipper and shot into the next stratosphere.
So, the next Chair gets to start over by building a new box.
And the best person for the job, quite honestly, just like Karen Thurman in 2005, probably has not raised their hand, and will need to be talked into it.
There is no silver bullet. There is no "one thing" and those who tell you they and they alone have the key to our success should be run out of the room. No one person created this shibacle, and no one person is going to fix it.
The road back will be a slog, and the likelihood is that whoever takes the job, if they do it right, will be setting the table for someone else’s success. That is the nature of the upcoming task. It needs someone with the relationships and temperament to see it through.
It is hard work, and someone needs to do it – but we did do it after 2004.
Can we do it again? Ask me after the Jaguars win the Super Bowl.
Good luck to you. And just like the Jaguars hiring Doug Peterson after a decade or more of futility, taking the time to get this one right isn't just important. It is vital to getting the institution back on track.
Steve Schale, Florida's resident has-been/grizzled veteran hack
A version of this post was first published on "Steve Schale: Veteran Florida Man Politico" (www.steveschale.com). Schale, now a lobbyist with The Advocacy Group at Cardenas Partners, also has been an advisor to President Barack Obama and Florida candidate for governor Gwen Graham. Views expressed are those of the author and not of the City & State Florida editorial staff.
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