Opinion » Viewpoint

Rebuilding a Party

Grassroots efforts and a progressive coalition can bolster state and local Democrats.

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Shelby County Democratic Party politics: What can you say?

This past year, we Democrats have seen many highs, such as endorsing marriage equality, opening a full-time resource center, and getting involved with many progressive issues that are affecting our great city. However, we have seen some lows as well. We lost three great progressive state representatives due to redistricting and party infighting.

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I started my career as an organizer in southwest Chicago, which is not a place where you want to be unorganized. When I came back to Memphis, it was a little surprising how little structure the Democratic Party had here. There was a feeling that only people who had been involved for many years were welcome at the meetings and that anyone new was met with resistance.

Young people, the LGBT community, immigrants, women, and progressives feel left out by the local party. This is the Democratic coalition, and we need all of them to be successful as well as a party structure that is poised to win elections.

Learning how to work in campaigns in 2004 on the south side of Chicago was an eye-opening experience. I saw firsthand one of the nation's premier campaign organizations and how it worked. I learned to organize and build relationships and coalitions and, most importantly, how to work with others for a common goal. Eight years later, I am still hoping my state and local parties can learn those lessons and begin to win elections against better organized and financed Republicans.

Shelby County has far more registered voters who identify themselves as Democrats than as Republicans, and yet, in our county elections two years ago, only one Democratic nominee won. The election results ought to be an embarrassment for us, but no one in power has stopped to consider what went wrong.

Where was our campaign organization? Local elections are not won by standing around at a polling site; they are won by targeted doors, phone calls, and "Get Out the Vote." If voters show up at a polling location for a local race, they already know who they are voting for. Our job should be to organize those who are registered and turn them out. We have not done this, and then we wonder why the Republicans still have control of almost every county office.

This cycle has been a rough one for Tennessee Democrats. We are fractured as a party, and this makes us unable to focus against a unified Republican campaign effort. Here in Memphis alone, we have multiple offices for different organizations that are all identified with the Democratic Party. These offices are meant to improve the reach of Democratic campaigns into everyone's neighborhood; instead, they have become mini-fiefdoms, which are focused on reputation, not results.

If we want to be the blue beacon in a red state, Democrats are going to have to learn to work together and start including new people. We can no longer fall back on how things used to be and think that it will move us into a progressive and productive place. Campaigns have to take it to the streets. We have to get out to events, recruit, and meet new people — like potential donors, organizers, and, most importantly, volunteers. The party should always be working, including during election off-cycles, to build that donor base and work on progressive issues, so that when election season arrives, we are not starting out behind ... again.

Donors only give when they see their money garnering results. If we are not delivering on results, we will continue to run on shoestring budgets and not be able to deliver for our candidates and constituents. We are not in a swing state or swing district, thus we do not gather money from the Democratic National Committee and beyond. We have to engage donors locally and show results; then we would be able to attract national donations. Fund-raising success and election success go hand in hand.

If this past cycle has taught us anything, it should be that we all need to work together in order to be successful as Democrats. We are not a "lost cause" state. We know the Republicans will outspend us, but we can out-organize them. It's the key to winning elections. I believe in my party, and I want us to be great here in Shelby County and beyond. But in this age of new campaign tactics and technology, it's still the traditional grassroots efforts that win races. If we nourish our grass roots here at home, we will see success.

Elizabeth E. Rincon is an independent fund-raising and political consultant who has been involved with several Democratic campaigns.

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