Living in Society

Blow Up the Coordinated Campaign

Johnson County Democrats
Johnson County Democrats

In Iowa, the Democratic Party organizes the nuts and bolts of statewide campaign operations around something called the “coordinated campaign.”

The coordinated campaign has been a blessing and a curse.

On the short list of preparations for 2016, one hopes the coordinated campaign is blown up and re-invented into something that can win against what has become a better organized Republican campaign operation. 2014 brought us Senator Joni Ernst, Governor Terry Branstad, and continues to re-elect incumbents each election cycle. Iowans deserve better than that.

As much as one believes that Democratic elected officials would provide better policy and governance for the vast majority of Iowans, the message is not getting out and Republicans are suppressing the wackiness found in extreme elements of their party enough to garner substantial, and winning support in the electorate. Most active Democrats I know are good people, willing to do the work of a political campaign. The problem has been with the way party leadership organizes each cycle’s effort, and what work is getting done.

What is the coordinated campaign, exactly?

It is a pooling of resources through the Iowa Democratic Party from campaigns up and down the ticket into a unified field effort.

Candidates pay to play, and the focus is usually on the big ticket races: president, governor and members of the U.S. Congress.

A manager and central staff have been hired to run the program and develop campaign options for approval by stakeholders in coordinated campaign.

The coordinated campaign organizes a field program with a paid canvass and targeted mail campaigns designed to help turn out Democratic voters and persuade targeted voters to vote for Democratic candidates.

In addition to statewide candidates, the coordinated campaign works on statehouse races in an effort to build a Democratic majority in the Iowa House and Senate.

Political insiders might nit pick with some of this, or add additional details, but this is the broad picture of what has been the coordinated campaign in the years since 2004 when I have engaged more actively in politics.

Why do I say the coordinated campaign should be blown up?

Democrats require some organizing mechanism, but continuing to repeat the past will produce the same results. Here are four reasons to blow up the coordinated campaign:

1. There is limited buy-in from local activists to what the coordinated campaign has planned. Campaign choices—locating resources like paid staff, offices, house parties and mailers—are made by others and local activists talk among themselves that some decisions don’t make sense. They have been asked to participate, but that participation has been framed as staffing a shift at an established phone bank or door-knocking event outside our precinct. It has been a clear disconnect from precinct politics that used to be a Democratic strength.

2. Republicans were stunned by the Democratic organization of the 2006 and 2008 campaigns, and they caught up. I used to laugh at Team Nussle’s efforts to organize phone banks and canvasses in 2006, but no more. The Republicans—partly due to the political leadership of Terry Branstad and Republican Party of Iowa chair Jeff Kaufmann— have caught up and surpassed Democrats, as evidenced in the results of the 2014 general election.

3. Democrats failed to articulate their message. Where Republicans made significant inroads is their effectiveness of identifying stakeholders in government and offering solutions. They framed solutions as bipartisan, but the core message that won elections is the sense of belonging their campaign helped create. Because the coordinated campaign focuses canvasses and get out the vote efforts on targeted voters, it left messaging to others, and a broad sector of the electorate on the table. Republicans have been Hoovering these voters up.

4. Democrats don’t get the role of third party resources. Because of its structure, the coordinated campaign made poor use of third party resources. As if when the check wasn’t deposited in the bank account, it didn’t exist. Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate took a drubbing from liberal bloggers in the 2014 campaign, and some of the criticisms were rightly placed. However, liberal bloggers are not the coordinated campaign. In a time of the Citizens United ruling, Democratic leaders must figure out how to better balance outside resources to advance Democratic issues, while walking the legal tightrope of campaigns not coordinating with third parties. Some accuse Republicans of coordinating with outside groups illegally. Unless lawsuits are forthcoming and prevail, the role of third party resources in campaigns has been a Republican advantage. As annoying as it is that Senator Ernst wears an Americans for Prosperity pin at public events, Republicans have become masters of campaign finance laws, giving them an advantage the coordinated campaign can’t match.

Few others have taken the coordinated campaign to task in public. While there are no solutions offered here, I invoke the rule of 1,000 words. Ideas toward a better process will be the subject of a future post.

Environment Living in Society

Walking the Walk

Ed Fallon, Sen. Joni Ernst, Miriam Kashia
Ed Fallon, Sen. Joni Ernst, Miriam Kashia

Twelve participants in the Great March for Climate Action made a reprise visit to Washington, D.C. last Wednesday.

Ed Fallon, march founder, tried to get meetings with the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency to coincide with the end of the march last September, however, key people were unavailable at the time.

The White House meeting did happen, with Dan Utech, special assistant to the president for energy and climate change; Rohan Patel, special assistant to the president and deputy director of intergovernmental affairs, and Angela Barranco, associate director for public engagement at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. My story about the meeting in the Iowa City Press Citizen is here.

Fallon was unable to attend the meeting with EPA later that day. Marchers met with Joseph Goffman,  senior counsel, assistant administrator for air and radiation and Mark Rupp, deputy associate administrator for intergovernmental relations. After the EPA meeting, marchers fanned out and met with their congressional representatives.

The Great March for Climate Action was not a stroll in the park for the core group of 35 marchers who made some or all of the way from Los Angeles to Washington. There were physical challenges including weight loss, foot and leg problems, fatigue and stress. They dealt with extreme weather events physically, notably in Nebraska where they encountered a giant hailstorm unlike any they had previously experienced. More than anyone I know, Fallon and company walked the walk, experiencing personal hardship to do so. The meetings in Washington were both a culmination and a new beginning for participants in advocating for climate action.

“Officials recognize that climate change is difficult for many people to grasp,” Fallon said. “The eight months along the march route allowed us to experience the situation directly, and this places us in a unique position of credibility.”

In addition to the White House meeting, Fallon called on Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, and Representatives Dave Loebsack (IA-02) and David Young (IA-03) to advocate for climate action. While the results of the meetings were mixed, marchers had the ear of their elected representatives. All four politicians voted for a bill to build the Keystone XL pipeline, something the marchers adamantly oppose.

Last night, Fallon posted a photo of himself and Miriam Kashia of North Liberty with Senator Joni Ernst on his Facebook page.

“Between driving, meetings and presentations, I’m behind on getting these posted,” Fallon wrote. “Our meeting with White House staff on climate change: very encouraging! Our meeting with Senator Joni Ernst: not so much.”

Having gained standing by walking the walk on climate change, it opened doors. What marchers found on the other side wasn’t all they had hoped. While they were away from Iowa, the electorate brought to power our most conservative congressional delegation in a while, notably absent Senator Tom Harkin.

In effecting progressive change there are two important parts. Electing people who represent our views and advocating for our causes with them. In 2014, progressives did not fare so well on the former, which makes the latter more difficult.

While some may not like looking at photos of Fallon and company posing with these politicians, they are doing their part for progressive change. If we don’t like the current crop of politicians, we can’t give up.

“Obviously we were all disappointed with the outcome of the last election, and there are a lot of reasons for it and I’m happy to take on some of the blame,” said President Barack Obama at the House Democratic Issue Conference on Thursday. “But one thing I’m positive about is, when we’re shy about what we care about, when we’re defensive about what we’ve accomplished, when we don’t stand up straight and proud… we need to stand up and go on offense, and not be defensive about what we believe in.”

It’s an open question whether progressives will get organized for the next election. It’s clear we won’t unless we emulate the Great March for Climate Action and walk the walk—beginning now.

Living in Society

Politics in the County Seat

Warm Winter Temperatures
Winter Warm Spell

With sun shining and temperatures above freezing, yesterday was a pleasant day to be out and about in the county seat.

Four interviews for the newspaper, a stop at a used bookstore, and afternoon conversation with friends over coffee. We discussed the world as we know it… and politics.

There was news in the political world. Governor Terry Branstad gave his inaugural address after omitting any mention of a key local issue—supplemental state aid to the K-12 school system—in his condition of the state address earlier in the week. He left it to analysts to figure out he plans to underfund schools this budget cycle. One of the local school districts is advocating for a six percent increase in funding. The governor proposed roughly one percent depending upon how the numbers are interpreted.

The Iowa legislature is open for business after the formalities of the first week, and K-12 funding is one of many issues they will consider this session.

Today, the Iowa Democratic party is expected to elect a new chair to replace outgoing Scott Brennan. Not having a dog in the race, I wish them well.

On Tuesday the president delivers his state of the union address to a joint session of congress. The television audience is expected to be the lowest of any of his state of the union speeches. Iowa’s junior Senator Joni Ernst has been selected by congressional Republicans to deliver a rebuttal immediately following.

There has been a lot of very public political action this month, but what I would like to know is what area families have to say about this political window dressing. I’d also like to identify the voters who were for both Dave Loebsack and Joni Ernst in 2014. I believe unlocking their motivations is key to understanding the electorate and determining a path forward after a disastrous general election.

During the 2012 campaign we door-knocked an enclave in northwest Cedar County. Because of the low number of homes, I decided we would knock on every door, rather than the lists created by algorithms in the party’s voter database. It was eye-opening.

What we found was families who were giving considered thought about candidates before voting. They were willing to listen and debate and be open minded. There was no presumption of voting for one or the other candidate, even if the voter had a party affiliation. If we had followed the algorithm, we would never have found them and the lesson therein.

The model used by Democrats to target voters has outlived its usefulness. The idea that outside organizers can invade the high population areas of the state and produce a victory may have worked for a while, but has grown stale and ineffective. What must happen is a return to the basics, where community political organizers—people who live in the community and are not hired consultants—canvass every voter in their geography and look for supporters. We haven’t been doing that for a couple of cycles.

The simple truth is Republicans have gotten effective at exploiting the every voter canvassing method, and the 2014 election results stand as evidence. Democrats are in a position of playing catch up, and my sense is in many cases they don’t realize what is going on.

So before we lock into the political stress and storm of the 114th Congress and the 86th Iowa General Assembly, let’s pledge to spend some part of each week talking to people in our neighborhood. By identifying issues important to people, we will gain information that can work toward winning the next general election, where like the one just past, a lot will be at stake.

Living in Society

January in Winter

Garden Cart in Winter
Garden Cart in Winter

The ambient temperature dropped four degrees since waking. Morning’s gray light brightened the plains as the new day arrived without fanfare.

One of the dozens of viruses and colds making the rounds has me feeling punk. That’s understating it. The arc of disease seems to be on the downside: there is energy to post a few items.

In what seemed like a fragmented, hesitantly delivered speech, Governor Branstad today reported “the condition of Iowa is strong.” It is hard to argue with the general topic areas of his initiatives for the coming legislative session: moving the economy forward, education reform, strong and healthy families, agricultural production, protecting our resources, transportation, safety and security, and open government. It was Branstad’s 20th condition of the state address, and we’ve heard much of it before.

A couple of progressive web commenters complained that Branstad used fallacious job creation numbers and made no mention of “middle class priorities” like increasing the minimum wage. There was a decided lack of interest in the speech, so few were likely listening to the commentators or the governor.

No one is listening. There is a lack of interest in government among a middle class that makes up most of 3.1 million Iowans. If some have their interests, written on a legislative agenda, most do not. The disinterest goes beyond what the 86th Iowa General Assembly does or does not accomplish.

The bubble in which we Americans live is real and is becoming the ridicule of the world. It is as if we took what’s best about our country and locked it up in a strongbox to protect it from those who might steal it. We venture from our borders to loot planetary resources, wage war and assert hegemony where we can. We have become exceptional in these things and our culture is the less for it.

The near term prospects for making a change are not good.

That’s not to say it is hopeless. In a world that has grown increasingly small during my lifetime, global cooperation is more important than ever. The rest of the world is coming together around a few issues—the environment, nuclear abolition, and poverty—but like in the French rallies over the weekend, the U.S. has been noticeably absent.

The current debate over Iran is a good example. Much of the world has come together to bring Iran’s nuclear program into compliance with their obligations under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty to which they are a party. A deadline was set to conclude the talks, but the State Department asked for more time. Political hawks believe this is a stalling tactic on the part of the Iranians to further develop enriched uranium for nuclear warheads. The State Department and those who watch it believe negotiations are almost finished and a resolution at hand.

Rather than give the negotiations more time, the Republican majority in congress is poised to pass new sanctions against Iran.

“If we pull the trigger on new nuclear-related sanctions now,” Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said, “we will go from isolating Iran to potentially isolating ourselves.”

The political hawks don’t mind, because to them, all that matters is assertion of American hegemony and sovereignty.

The late Howard Zinn points us in the right direction for action.

“History is instructive,” Zinn said in a 2005 interview.

And what it suggests to people is that even if they do little things, if they walk on the picket line, if they join a vigil, if they write a letter to their local newspaper. Anything they do, however small, becomes part of a much, much larger sort of flow of energy. And when enough people do enough things, however small they are, then change takes place.

This short piece may not be much—it is a little thing. But what ails me is not a virus contracted while living in society, or the cold weather. It is the disinterest in things that matter: a reversion to what in the Siouan language was Ioway—the sleepy ones. We must wake up and soon.

Living in Society Social Commentary

Step Forward


Having bit my tongue for several years about the state of our electorate, 2015 will be a time of writing about our politics and society in a process of working through ideas, to determine a path by which progressive ideas can gain more solvency in government.

Meeting so many people since 2012—in politics, in retail sales, in farm work, and in writing—my understanding of how society works, and the attitudes of people who live in it has grown. Society is not what I thought—at all.

My formative years began when in 1959 I secured a card for the public library bookmobile that stopped near our house. I read biographies about people important to the growth of our culture. There were a lot of them, although the names I remember are the Ringling brothers, Thomas Edison and George Washington Carver. I gained an understanding that through personal industry, thrift and good ideas, a person could create things that mattered in society and made life better.

I wasn’t the only person who learned this as the ideas grew from the founders and persist. Matthew Josephson articulated this American idea in his 1934 book The Robber Barons.

In a brief cycle, the laissez-faire political philosophy of a Jefferson, having given free reign to self-interest, would stimulate the acquisitive appetites of the citizen above all. These, whetted by an incredibly rich soil, checked by no institutions or laws, would determine the pattern of American destiny. The idealism of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, and his Inaugural address of 1801, would be caricatured in the predatory liberty of the “Valley of Democracy” where, as Vernon Parrington has said, Americans democratic in professions, became “middle class in spirit and purpose;” where freedom came to mean “the natural right of every citizen to satisfy his acquisitive instinct by exploiting the natural resources in the measure of his shrewdness.”

With minimal modification, Josephson’s language could describe attitudes of an electorate that in the same year brought us U.S. Senator Joni Ernst and Representative Dave Loebsack. It elected State Senator Bob Dvorsky and State Representative Bobby Kaufmann. It is a spring which nurtures dichotomies: people worked long hours to elect President Obama while others fly the confederate flag; row croppers manage the land with chemicals while others restore it to prairie; consumers are more connected to the world, while seeking small enclaves to live their lives in isolation. The picture isn’t clear, but clarity is coming.

Josephson describes what so many people want to get to—satisfying our acquisitive instincts through exploitation of a world that hangs in a balance because of human activities since the dawn of the industrial revolution. This is a bankrupt idea in light of what we know about the interconnectedness of our lives, but it persists, driven by a social setting in which church, family and work play a pronounced role.

The rest of understanding will come. While beginning the new year I plan to spend more time in the garage, yard, garden and kitchen while continuing my work in sales, writing and other odd jobs assembled to sustain us financially. Hopefully that will be a sustainable framework for exploring these ideas.

There is everything to gain and nothing to lose as we sustain our lives in a turbulent world.