2016 is being called the year of the outsider–whether it’s the outsider Donald Trump stirring up nativist resentment and bigotry, worrying his Republican party establishment, or whether it’s the outsider Bernie Sanders, coming off a lifetime of independence to try to claim the Democratic nomination for the presidency.
Along with that rise of the outsider have come complaints that the system is rigged–that the Democratic Party is run by an establishment fueled by a love for big money and an insular mentality that keeps these outsiders firmly on the outside. Liberals, progressives, and other lefties who are the natural constituency of the Democratic Party have shied away from a partisan label, angry that the Democratic establishment rigs elections against their interests.
This sentiment is so frustrating to me, as a Democratic Party chairman in a rural, red county. From my view as somebody who got involved one day just because he decided it was time, the system is anything but rigged. The outsiders just don’t realize how to get inside and to make the party reflect their views.
Here’s a primer for those who don’t know how the party is structured. In every county in Ohio, the Democratic Party is governed by an executive committee. The makeup of that executive committee changes from county to county, but its organization begins with the election of a central committee in the primary election. Each precinct elects one member of the central committee. Here in Knox County, every one of those central committee members joins the executive committee, which then adds other individuals to the group: Democrats who have been elected to offices on the partisan ballot, plus up to twelve at-large members nominated by the elected chairman.
Here’s the not-so-secret secret about county Democratic parties across the country: There are thousands and thousands of vacant precinct committee seats that are there for the taking by people who want to get involved. It’s no different in Knox County. Of the 51 precincts in Knox County, 17 have sitting precinct committee people. Seventeen. That’s it. That’s 34 vacancies. Two-thirds of the precincts have nobody serving as Democratic precinct committee people.
What’s it take to get onto the central committee? Not much at all: Just a few minutes, a sheet of paper, a pen, and a desire to get involved.
No later than 90 days before the primary election in the even-numbered year, somebody who wants to run for a seat on the central committee needs only to download form 2-M from the Ohio secretary of state, fill it in, sign it, and drop it off at the Knox County Board of Elections at 117 East High Street, Suite 210, in Mount Vernon. If only one form has been submitted for that seat, then, congratulations to the filer! Just one vote in the election guarantees a spot on the central committee. If two or more individuals have filed forms, then it’s an actual race. The candidates would then talk to primary election voters and make their respective cases for why they should be elected to the leadership of the county party, and one will be the victor.
For 34 precincts, all it would’ve taken would’ve been a sheet of paper, a pen, and a few minutes to become part of party leadership. It really is that simple.
I am being up-front and transparent about this, knowing that, in the spring of 2018, when my term as chair ends and I am up for reelection if I choose to go that route, my reelection could be thwarted by a group of outsiders who could out-organize me, get themselves elected to the central committee, and elect one of their own as chair. And if that should happen, and I should lose my seat, that would be okay. That’s how democracy works. That’s how our party organizes itself.
And when people get involved at the local level, run for precinct committee seats, choose a leader, hold monthly meetings, pass resolutions, raise money, recruit candidates, campaign, and ultimately win elections, something amazing happens: They become the party. The party is not some nefarious establishment, sitting in smoke-filled rooms and holding onto power with a death-grip. The party is you. And the party is me. The party is your neighbor and the person across town who decided to get involved. There are no dues to pay, no loyalty tests, no secret handshakes. There’s just a form, and a desire to get involved.
Those who are on the outside looking in aren’t staring at bullet-proof glass. They’re staring at thin air. There really is no barrier to becoming part of the party at its grassroots and working to make the party reflective of its base. Or, at least, there’s no barrier except a will to put in the work necessary.
Getting organized is hard work. Winning elections is even harder. But as the Knox County Democratic Party chairman since November 2011, I welcome any and all progressives who want to get involved and do that work. The party can’t exist without you.
Chairman, Knox County Democratic Party