Issue Advocacy and the Future Relevance of the Democratic Party

Sandy Dockendorff continues the series of guest commentaries by candidates for Iowa Democratic Party chair. -promoted by desmoinesdem

I recently participated in a meeting with a couple of local legislators to discuss education issues and to provide information about our school district and the kind of help we could use from the legislature this year. Our school district has done this every year that I have been on the school board, though this year we had a new face – one of the new GOP house members.

In short, we advocated for Education with our legislators. We were specific on what we need from our legislators. We stressed that it is not all about the funding, but that the lack of funding does have an impact on student achievement. We pointed out that public education is not failing and provided proof. We told them it is important for our legislators and our government officials to speak about public education in a positive manner if we want our families to take education seriously. We even showed them a video about why it is important to change how we view education.

Advocating for issues is what I do. It is who I am. It is what drives me to be an active Democrat.

I am not alone.

It is easy to advocate, as a group, when we all agree on an issue. Some other school district might have a different list of things to talk about with their legislators. This is why we have an association: to focus the attention of the legislature on those issues that most school boards believe need consideration.

This is also one reason for having political parties. One could argue that the purpose of the IDP is to focus attention on those issues that most Democrats believe need action.

Agreement on what to do about many issues is hard to come by in our country right now. This is also true within the Democratic Party. The jobs issue is one of those issues; water quality another. We all agree that we want more jobs and clean water. Defining how to meet these needs has the potential to pit one part of our Party coalition from another.

A mild example: Most folks agree that to meet the dual needs of more jobs and repairing/replacing our crumbling infrastructure, that the government should fund an infrastructure jobs bill. Still, there are those who point out that leaves many job classifications out. Of course, supporters reply: additional jobs grow out of having a significant number of employees with additional disposable income. It is designed to jumpstart the economy, not carry it. Others ask, what about the arts? Shouldn’t we do something that builds our society’s ability to express itself? Wouldn’t we all benefit from a renewed sense of national pride? Why not pay artists for submissions of their work to describe their feelings about our country: songwriters to write new songs; poets new poems?

Issues drive people to our Party and then we sit them in a room at monthly meetings to discuss Party Building and ultimately to work to elect specific candidates for specific roles. We walk through a political calendar of required actions and events (caucuses, committee elections, conventions, GOTV). Where is the connection? How do we feed that passion for issues that brought people to our doors?

Right now, we are experiencing a resurgence in political interest. Some people talk about whether we need to change something to keep the new people engaged. Luckily, there is nothing we could do to keep them out. Our country and the Democratic Party are grounded on the notion that the PEOPLE are the focus. Millennials are not going away. Their contribution will influence our country and our Party. The real question is whether the Democratic Party will be relevant in the future, if we don’t change some things?

Specifically, what I want to accomplish as Chair of the IDP is to lead us back to our roots. This is not a reaction to this past election cycle. It is a reaction to the last five election cycles and a concern about the importance of the next one.

We have to get back to the issues. When we focus on the issues, everything about our Party structure makes sense and works better. Here are my priorities for the next two years:

• Our Party has to be professional, transparent, forward thinking, relevant, and a conduit for the voices of our grassroots.
• We have to move away from candidate-centric campaigns toward issue-oriented advocacy.
• We need to develop a strategic plan that focuses on educating voters, training our volunteers and candidates, growing our Party and functional capacity, and creating an organizational identity.
• Fundraising should be the means to carry out our strategic plan, but it should not be the strategic plan.
• We have to be smart and fair about how we support our candidates.
• We need a Chair that brings us together to face the future.

For the last several election cycles, we have tried to be a blank canvas to allow the campaign of the candidate at the top of the ticket to paint whatever picture they choose to define their candidate. There are three specific problems with this process:

• Because of the election calendar, those candidates have less than five months from winning the nomination to election day (early voting starts 40 days out from election day) to make their case on why they should be elected. It takes 12 to 18 months for ANY product to break through the media haze we live with today. Our political candidates have the same problem complicated by the higher cost during those months for advertising and the increased number of confusing and negative ads. The candidates have to define the issues AND what they are going to do about them AND why they are the best candidate to do those things.
• When we are candidate-centric, allowing them to define us during those five months, we have no ongoing identity. Voters don’t know who we are because we have not defined ourselves to them. Since we don’t do it, the GOP does it for us. They are good at doing this and they do it in a way that pits parts of our coalition against other parts of our coalition. If we use that time between Election Day of one cycle to the nomination of a candidate in the next cycle to continuously define our issues (not legislation) for voters, our candidates already have the outline drawn for them. Now they only have to define what they plan to do about the issues and why they are the best candidate to do those things.
• This methodology provides no real connection between the issues that brought people to us and our candidates. If we expect the candidate at the top of the ticket to define our issues, we’ve left out a major voice of our Party and left them feeling that all we care about is getting them to vote. They don’t see that they have a vested interest in doing so. Further, we ignore a valuable tool to help our legislators fight for our issues because we don’t recognize the army of advocates that make up the base of our Party. It is so much easier to build our Party from the ground up when we listen to what the folks on the ground have to say. When they hear us repeating the issues they have been talking about, it draws them closer to us, they want to help, and they want to vote for our candidates who speak the same language.

We hire Field Organizers to be “candidate support builders” to replace our County Chairs who are our Party Builders. There are three problems with this:
• County Party Chairs are invested in building our Party all the time. The great folks who have been hired as Field Organizers are vested in meeting metrics for a short time and for a specific candidate. We can’t continue to choose the short term over the long term. We need to train our County Chairs to be the Field Organizers. Plug them into the data system and teach them about the metrics they will be accountable for reaching.
• Party Building is a basic function of the Party and should be ongoing. This is not just about filling county central committee seats, but about training future candidates and candidate committee roles as well as training our committee members to advocate for the issues that brought them into the Party in the first place.
• Building advocates all over the state, builds candidates all over the state. When our county parties teach their members how to advocate, our message about our issues is heard all year, every year, in every county. When those people gain confidence in advocating for their issues, some will become candidates – even in those areas currently being represented by a member of the GOP.

I have heard some counter arguments: that fundraising defines the campaign or that the candidate at the top of the ticket provides the most funding and should have the loudest voice… that it is the candidates who should be defining their campaigns because their districts are all different… that the people funding the coordinated campaign make all the decisions.

Some of you think that it would be folly for us to change any of that. Let me introduce you to the other half of the Party who will spend their last breath TO change these things.

Let’s have that discussion. It is one worth spending the time to address. It is not the issue that I am running on, however. Being an issue-oriented Party that spends resources defining what those issues are and fields trained advocates for those issues does not negate a candidate’s ability to define how they will address those issues.

I have ideas that will move our Party forward. I have the knowledge of how our Party functions and where it needs some adjustment to work better for all of us. I have the skills to bring people together to get work done.

I hope that you will support this vision of our Party and my candidacy for the Chair of the IDP. We have a lot of work to do and I look forward to working with you. If you have questions or ideas, please email me at

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