Nobody asked for my opinion, but I’m giving it anyway (part 1)

Amber Gustafson was the Democratic candidate in Iowa Senate district 19. -promoted by desmoinesdem

Some Key Improvements Iowa Democratic Organizations Can Make Ahead of 2020

Okay, maybe a few people have asked for my opinion on what Iowa Democrats could have done better in 2018, and how we can be in a better position in 2020 to retake one or both of the houses of the state legislature, defeat Senator Joni Ernst, keep Representatives Dave Loebsack, Abby Finkenauer, and Cindy Axne, send Steve King packing, and help rid our country of the scourge of Donald Trump.

It has been about a month since I ran against and nearly defeated Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver in a district where he ran twice previously unopposed – and made him spend more than $500,000 defending his seat in a district with a distinct Republican registration advantage – while proudly running on a platform of protecting abortion rights and reducing gun violence.

I have spent some time thinking about and talking with lots of people about the issues I address in this post.

Many have approached me about running for Ankeny City Council (I can’t, I live in rural Polk County), against State Representative John Landon (sorry – I live in House district 38), against Whitver again (maybe! 2022 is a ways off), against Ernst (boy, that would be a tough conversation to have with my husband) or to wade deeper into party politics by running for either Polk County Democrats chair or Iowa Democratic Party chair.

I am here to announce that I will not be throwing my hat into any rings – public or party – until my family and I feel ready to shoulder that burden again. That won’t be anytime soon.

In the meantime, nothing prevents me from offering some sage advice as a former candidate for higher office, the former leader of a statewide, issues-based organization with thousands of members (Moms Demand Action), as the former president of a non-profit board with 750 members and a $50,000+ annual budget, and as a teacher, leader, and inspirer of others. But you must promise me two things, Dear Reader:

1. That you will agree I don’t have all the answers – and neither do you. But when we come with open hearts and authenticity, we can begin a dialogue that leads to greater understanding; and,

2. That if something in here upsets you, before you get angry, get curious. Take time to investigate. Learn more. Ask questions before dismissing it out of hand or hopping on the internet to castigate and criticize.

So, at the risk of offending literally everyone, here goes…


I am an outsider. I was a Republican until 10 years ago. I was an independent until 2016. Even as a Republican, I never attended a caucus or a participated in any party activities, so my exposure to and understanding of the inner workings of political machines, until about 2013, was very limited.

But few things have made me scratch my head more than the fact that neither the state party, nor any of the county parties, have a clear statement of diversity and inclusion.

Not on their websites. Not in their written materials. The best I could track down was a non-discrimination statement issued before the 2016 caucuses that has not re-appeared since.

Oh, I agree with you. Value, vision, mission and diversity statements are useless. They look nice on coffee cups and websites and motivational posters, but often ring hollow because the people in power think by crafting one, they’ve done all they need to do to address systemic attitudes and values that marginalize, exclude and shut down the voices and experiences of crucial members of our party.

But I would argue that if our state and county parties took on the task of creating their own diversity and inclusion statements, members would find that we could all stand to improve in this area. We would build strength in the party by establishing diversity as a fundamental value. And we could begin to recognize ways we marginalize the voices of those whose votes we rely on but whose issues we ignore.

Values statements may not be worth the paper they are written on but how can we expect our members to pursue a value we haven’t even clearly articulated?

Diversity doesn’t just matter because it is the morally correct thing to do. Diversity matters because our party absolutely must become inclusive to everyone if we want to win elections and further our agenda. Diversity makes our party stronger, smarter and ready to face the 21st century with all the players on the field.

Yes, many county and state parties have Affirmative Action Chair positions on their Executive Boards, although many of those seats go unfilled. But it is unrealistic to expect one person (typically a person of color) to shoulder the burden of all the “diversity” issues when diversity should be a value that is upheld and promoted by every member of the group?

My recommendation: Create an ad hoc committee in your county, state, or district party to work on crafting a Statement on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Bring diverse people together to talk about these issues. Create a statement and present it for membership approval by vote. Put the newly adopted statement on your website. Display it at every central committee meeting. Read it. Talk about it. Wrestle with it. And then expect every member to put it into action and hold them accountable when they don’t.


What are the purposes of the state, county and district committees? How and when do they raise money? How and when do they spend money?

I’ve spent the last several weeks having phone conversations with Democrats from all over the state. Folks involved at all different levels of the party. People who are happy with the current state of affairs. People who are not. People who have walked away in disgust. People who have been engaged for decades.

And one thing rings true for most of the people I’ve spoken to: they couldn’t definitively answer any of these questions. That’s a problem.

If we want to win in 2020, we better know for damn sure why we exist.

And as close as I can figure it, the county, district and state parties are responsible for getting Democrats elected by:

  • Identifying, training and supporting candidates
  • Organizing the caucuses and the county, state and district conventions to nominate candidates and create the platform
  • Creating and maintaining a functional and accurate database of voters, donors and volunteers
  • Fundraising and organizing people to accomplish the objectives above
  • I made a handy graphic to illustrate.

    Anything that does not fall neatly into these categories is a waste of time, resources, and human capital.

    Our parties are not social clubs. They are not charity organizations. They aren’t even issues advocacy groups. Because we already have bars and country clubs. We have amazing non-profits. We have issues groups who are killing it.

    We need a well-organized, mission-driven political party that is laser-focused on the one thing it was put on this earth to do: ELECT DEMOCRATS.

    Interesting speakers and celebrities are great. But unless their presence helps us accomplish our mission, their presence is a distraction.

    We could debate all day whether the Iowa caucuses are a good way to begin the process of finding a new president, but for now, it is the system we are stuck with. For a few weeks every four or eight years, Iowa is the prettiest girl at the prom. We need to work that status. We shouldn’t invite people to visit us; they should come to us with hat in hand and ask what they can do to help.

    Iowa is a state with a Republican trifecta. If a candidate wants to run for president here, what should they do? Invest here. Work on down ballot races. Send staff here. Help us raise money. Help us recruit outstanding candidates. Give a damn. Don’t flounce into our state and think you can dazzle us with your social media and your cool logo or your iconic hairdo. Do. The. Work. Then we will talk. Iowa Dems, let’s play harder to get. We owe no one anything.

    And speaking of distractions: a few words about charitable giving. Some charities are problematic. Some have been downright harmful to our fellow Democrats. For these reasons alone, we should continue to support organizations personally, but refrain from supporting them as a party.

    But more importantly, raising money or donations for charity does not help us accomplish our goal of ELECTING MORE DEMOCRATS.

    Heartbroken about puppy mills? Me too! Let’s work on electing people who will put an end to them.
    Angry at the underfunding of sexual assault services? YES! Let’s get to work on electing people who can fix it.
    Climate change? Gun violence? Prison reform? Medicaid? Campaign finance reform? YES. Let’s tackle all of these by ELECTING MORE DEMOCRATS.

    My recommendation: Revisit our mission and vision statements. Do they need an update? Do they need to be discussed? Do they help us focus our effort on our objective to ELECT DEMOCRATS? If the answer is no, we need clarity and we need it now. The platform will change. Our methods will change. But our mission never should.


    The majority of the Democrats who drive the engine of our party are volunteers. We are here because we care and we want to advance the Democratic agenda for all Iowans (and Americans).

    But some volunteers are run ragged. Some volunteers have given all they have to give and have nothing left. Some folks have given up a lot of creature comforts so they can donate financially and have given up time spent with family and friends to serve on committees and help candidates. Many of them are suffering the classic symptoms of burnout: physical and emotional exhaustion; detachment and cynicism; and feelings of defeat, anger and hostility. Add in the sadness and anxiety from the current condition of our state and things happening in the federal government, and you have a powder keg of things that can carry over to committee meetings and social media. (Hurt people hurt.)

    An overemphasis on events can lead to burnout among volunteers. As a former professional event specialist for a major Midwestern university, I can speak with authority when I say that events are among the least efficient ways to earn money. They are, however, a very effective way to spend money. The hours of labor required to plan, organize and execute events, averaged over the dollars they bring in should make them last-resorts, not headlines.

    We have to raise money. But we must be more efficient at it. Events have their place, but we have to build a year-round, little-bit at a time, everybody helps, every dollar counts, peer-to-peer approach moving forward. Peer-to-peer fundraising can be low-tech (sending out letters or notes with donation envelopes) or high-tech (using online social media platforms, using auto-dialers to make calls, or texting friends in your circle and asking them to help).

    Every Democrat can be an effective fundraiser with some ingenuity, some training and some encouragement – from the highest ranking elected to the first time volunteer. Our peer-to-peer relationships are an untapped source of fundraising we can work together to access.

    And while we are on the subject of money…

    Fiscal responsibility. Organizations need gateways and paper trails. Every Democratic organization should have bylaws setting limits on what the chair and the executive board are able to spend without prior authorization.

    Most organizations require expenditures of a certain dollar amount to be presented as a motion in a regular meeting, put up for debate among the body, and voted upon. In PACS, this is not a legal requirement, but if an organization funded by donations does not have some fiscal gateways that limit ad hoc expenditures without the approval of stakeholders, I’d be asking why. I’d also be asking who does make those decisions, and how the bylaws can be updated to make sure every dollar spent is going to ELECT DEMOCRATS.

    My recommendation: Create an annual Fundraising Plan that works around the legislative and election cycles. Set specific times for different types of fundraising: 90 days of phone banking, a fundraising letter period, well-timed and efficient events. Make sure every Democrat is at their battle station from the highest-ranking elected to the first time volunteer and keep the ball rolling year-round. Train them to fundraise. Expect them to fundraise. Hold their hands and help them fundraise … so we can ELECT DEMOCRATS.


    When things don’t go as planned, humans like to point fingers. We hate to take responsibility for our own role in a disaster. Worse yet, if we had no part in creating a problem we’d sooner vote for Steve King than to jump in and help.

    We like to create factions and alliances and sub-groups.

    Maybe we even write long, rambling blogs full of complaints and petty grievances. (Like this one)

    We want ideological perfection and we forget that humans are complex.

    We want results now and we forget that good governance and change take time.

    We want equality and success but we aren’t willing to step into a place of discomfort to achieve either.

    None of this helps ELECT DEMOCRATS.

    Voters have shown us they hunger for progressive policies. They vote time and again for ballot initiatives that expand Medicaid, legalize cannabis, increase the minimum wage and fight gun violence. They love our policies. They just don’t love us. They don’t trust us to carry out our mission and to repeat it over and over again to bring about generational change.

    Lest you think I am speaking to you, let me be explicitly clear: I AM SPEAKING TO YOU. Yes, you. It starts with YOU. Before the race to 2020 begins, I want you to ask yourself two questions:

    1. Why am I here? (If the answer is anything other than to ELECT DEMOCRATS, you’re in the wrong place.)
    2. What am I willing to sacrifice to make that happen? Options here could be: my own personal agenda, my time (more than just 90 days before the election), my ego, my comfort and privilege, my need to be right, my hurt feelings, my frustrations, my disappointments … the list could go on and on*

    *if you are a person from an underrepresented group, disregard the second point. You have already sacrificed these things and more to be here and it’s time for those of us in power to sit down, shut up and listen.

    To win in 2020 and beyond, we need to be like marathon runners: lean and singularly focused. We need to train every day so that winning isn’t just a magical thing that accidentally happens but that it is an inevitable outcome of our focused effort. Winners aren’t made when the runner steps up to the starting line. They are made in the weeks and months and years of practice that lead up to that moment. They are made when we acknowledge that every day is an opportunity to improve, not just the in the autumn of every even-numbered year.

    All is not lost. We have so much to be proud of. Democrats are a hard-working, compassionate group of people who are committed to the common good of all Americans and dedicated to the notion that all of us are created equal. We show up. And we care.

    We can win in 2020 by focusing on our strengths and offering what no other party can: a laser-like focus on improving the lives of all Americans by electing Democrats and advancing an agenda that upholds the dignity of all people.

    Thanks for reading all the way to the end of a very long post. I hope it has given you a few things to chew on. I love this party and the people in it. More than anything, I want to see us win races and change the trajectory of this nation for my children and grandchildren. I am committed to help make that happen. I am glad you are too.

    Come back next week and I will share my thoughts on how we can do better in rural Iowa.

    Maintenance Notice - As of November 14, 2023 we are still seeing issues with replying to comments...Thanks for your patience, this will be restored.

    • I'll definitely return to read your rural Iowa thoughts

      Thanks for a very interesting post, and I nodded several times. One question — do you see any need for more research on what it will take to elect more Democrats? I really don’t know if that should have a place in your pyramid — maybe we already know what we need to know.

    • The personal is political

      I, too, would like to see the local party as an election winning device, not a social club of the same dozen people doing the same three or four things every year. But I think maybe the election is just a different expression of the social structure of our counties. We need to build a new, stronger social structure if we want to have our vision ratified at the next election. Much as I dislike the socializing, maybe we need it as a means to our ends.

      • Individuals that are not the usual cast of characters...

        You are is not a social club…helping new people, that are not the same faces, feel included and given responsibilities are key to expanding the effectiveness of the party’s role in electing Dems.

    • Thanks for starting the ball rolling.

      May this be a fruitful and robust discussion. On social events: good idea to re-think them, and think about what the goal for an event is. Events in this last cycle were a very good way for new people to get involved, at least in Johnson County. They gave people a chance to talk to like minded people, and stay energized enough to keep working. Maybe events could become simpler affairs that promote those goals (or other goals, such as fundraising). Maybe there could have been fewer of them and more effective organizing.

      I agree with PrairieFan that we need more research on what happened in the last election. I do not believe that we know all we need to know.