Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Reflections on the Unity Coalition forum

Last Sunday, The Unity Coalition held a candidate forum to give candidates for Chair of the State Democratic Party a chance to speak. The forum was held at the Carpenters Hall (Local 1797) in Renton.

The easiest way for me to offer my thoughts on the five candidates is to go through the questions and summarize my observations of the candidates’ responses.

A disclaimer: now, my observations are not entirely complete – because each candidate only had a minute to respond to each question, and I had to type fast to take notes. Also, these are my interpretations of the candidates' responses. This should not be regarded as some kind of transcript. These reflections are my personal views - not the collective views of NPI. And there's a lot of material here, so my writeup isn't as polished as I would like it to be.

The five candidates at the forum were Jean Brooks, Bill Harrington, Mark Hintz, Dwight Pelz, and Laura Ruderman.

Here we go.

Question #1: Money is called the mother's milk of politics. What is your track record of raising money?

Jean Brooks: She said she would “build on the base” and the successes of retiring Chairman Paul Berendt. I didn’t think she provided many specifics in her answer.

Bill Harrington: He declared that raising money was a “serious responsibility.” He had a difficult time coming across clearly to me when he talked – of course, it’s not his fault that his voice is somewhat hard to hear. Bill said he would reach out to “the gas tax people” - or, business and other groups that have traditionally been GOP donors but have recently been turned off by the party’s support for repealing the gas tax.

Mark Hintz: He stressed teamwork and the importance of working with elected officials to “dial for dollars” (greater collaboration, basically). He also mentioned using the Internet to raise money. That struck a chord with me.

Dwight Pelz: He reminded attendees that he raised a quarter of a million dollars for his city council race. Dwight didn't talk much about new ideas, but said he had support from traditional donors from WEA, SEIU, the trial lawyers, and several other major groups who wanted him to chair the state party. That’s nice, but what about new ideas, Dwight?

Laura Ruderman: She talked about breaking fundraising records when she ran for state House and the $600,000 she raised for her secretary of state race. I thought she came across very well and was able to condense what she wanted to say in one minute without losing focus.

Question #2: How will you build a stronger, more competitive party?

Bill Harrington: His major idea was sending some state party money (I think the figure was ten percent) back down to the legislative districts.

Mark Hintz: He talked about his experience as an LD and county chair. He said “counties and LDs need to do this on their own” - in other words, independence is important if the party is to be successful at the local level. The state party can’t be undermining local parties.

Dwight Pelz: He stated that the party chair needs a working understanding of the party. Dwight said if he was elected chair he'd be visiting every county party organization every year. He will emphasize training, technology, and equipping the grassroots.

Laura Ruderman: She said she knows what it takes to reach out to every corner of the state. According to Laura, “We can win in any part of the state” if we field good candidates. “It's about communication and training.” Laura would respect the local party members. Again, I thought she was clear in her response. I like the focus on improving communication – an area in which the party must do better.

Jean Brooks: She declared that organizing needs to start at the PCO level. She appeared to me to be reading off notes or some kind of other reference when she was speaking.

Question #3: Describe your executive experience and governing philosophy (as a manager).

Mark Hintz: He said has a great background in management (first, he’s a father, and second, he’s worked in several different companies in the private sector). Mark said he has managing skills and experience dealt with large amounts of money.

Dwight Pelz: He stated that he was trained as a community organizer. He wants to build a strong central committee and executive committee. According to Dwight, a strong organizer empowers the grassroots and the leaders. I liked this answer.

Laura Ruderman: Laura reminded the audience that she worked for several years at Microsoft. Her managing philosophy is: you hire the best people you can find and empower them to do their jobs. That's what she'd do as chair of the state party in regards to the front office. She stated that she had a track record of hiring good legislative assistants while in the state House.

Jean Brooks: Jean appeared to be reading or working from notes again. That didn't sit well with me, because I think the state party chair needs to be able to think on his or her feet and speak quickly and concisely.

Bill Harrington: Bill was hard to hear and I couldn't quite make out what he was saying during the entirety of his speech. He seemed to be talking about his membership on various important federal commissions and his work in Congressman Norm Dicks’ office.

Question #4: How are you going to make the tent big enough for people of color (specifically groups like the Native Americans):

Dwight Pelz: He stated that we need clarity and each caucus within the party needs its own goals. Dwight would sit down with caucus leaders to talk about where to go.

Laura Ruderman: Laura sensibly stated, “All of us would sit down with the caucus leaders.” She then declared that we need to provide more training to Unity Coalition caucus members. According to Laura: “We should provide more opportunities for anyone who wants them.”

Jean Brooks: Basically her answer was: More of a partnership is needed between the party leadership and the caucuses.

Bill Harrington: Bill was hard to understand again. I didn’t have a problem hearing him – just deciphering what he was saying. During his answer he did state, “You have to care.” That’s true, of course. You do have to care. But then what do you do?

Mark Hintz: Mark said we need to act: “We need to be more aggressive.” He really didn't provide any specifics though. I would have liked some more definitive ideas.

Question #5: How would you win in future years? 2006, 2008? How would you lead the party to victory?

Laura Ruderman: She stated that Democrats need to look at local knowledge and penetrate organizations like the state Grange which have been taken over by Republicans. This is a very good observation. Laura seems to have an idea of what’ll taken to win in Eastern Washington. She reminded the audience she was one of the first Democrats to win on the Eastside of King County.

Jean Brooks: She stumbled as she started giving her answer, but finally steadied herself. “We have to go to the base of the Democratic Party in every area,” Jean said. Or: “We need to get Democrats everywhere.” Of course we do. What’s the plan for getting Democrats to win more local races?

Bill Harrington: Bill would raise goals for getting more people out to precinct caucuses (seems like a good idea). He said he we would file an initiative to move the primary from September to August. That’s a terrible idea. The primary issue needs to be addressed through legislation. The party has no money to waste on senseless initiatives.

Mark Hintz: He would work to improve the Democratic message. Mark would help local party members find money and resources to support local candidates. Mark stated “We need to build a better farm team.” I liked this answer. He focused on message (or buzz) and money – which are key ingredients for any winning campaign. Good thoughts.

Dwight Pelz: He had a creative answer and stated that we need a longer range vision. And Dwight said we need to advance the party in Eastern Washington. Essentially he was saying that we need to find a better way to express our values in enemy territory.

Question #6: How would you make sure that the party is supportive of veterans and the military?

Jean Brooks: She appeared to be confused, but then came up with a response. Stated that veterans are a force that can be reckoned with. She would listen to veterans (yes, and who wouldn’t?) She said that we can't let Republicans keep saying we're weak on the military. Agreed, but how do we counter the GOP?

Bill Harrington: Declared that we don't have a strong statement on national defense (So we need to write one?) He talked about federal issues like lack of armor and not about how the Chair would support and or respond to veterans He did say that the party platform needs to be strengthened.

Mark Hintz: Mark said that we as Democrats need to fight for veterans’ benefits. We let our veterans know we care about them.

Dwight Pelz: We need a stronger message that shows the party cares about veterans. Talked about his recent vote on the county council. Wanted to reinforce Patty Murray's hearings on veterans issues.

Laura Ruderman: Laura stated that “we've let the other party define us.” She declared that we need to be defining ourselves instead (so basically, a better message?) and that we cannot let charges go unanswered. Laura suggested that we get folks from the veterans' caucus in front of TV news as spokespeople for our party and promote Patty Murray’s work in fighting for veterans (for example, fighting to prevent veterans’ hospitals from closing). I like the original ideas.

Question #7: How will the party maximize participation with specific groups within the party? Specifically in terms of scheduling?

Bill Harrington: He stumbled in trying to respond, but then stated that he would schedule meetings further out (my question is: How does that solve the problem?). Bill’s message was that we need to more sensitive.

Mark Hintz: Mark’s response was that we have to have respect different groups (religious, ethnic, gender, etc.) but we also have to compromise so we can move faster. I thought this was a reasonable answer.

Dwight Pelz: Asked for the question to be repeated, then declared that precinct caucuses should be at a different time of the week (not Saturday) so that no religious groups would be offended.

Laura Ruderman: Laura asserted that we know when the holidays are, and so we shouldn’t have such a problem with scheduling. She said that the party should work around holidays and religious solemnities. She also told the audience that people from the metro Seattle area can in fact go to other areas around the state for meetings.

Jean Brooks: Jean’s response was to say that we should have a resolution or we should address it through the platform (Is the platform really the appropriate place to talk about scheduling?) According to Jean, if we work together, we can figure out what works best for most people.

Question #8: What can the state chair do to increase participation by disabled people in the state party - specifically running for office?

Mark Hintz: Mark would increase outreach to disabled people. After some confusion he managed to say, “It's about unifying the party.”

Dwight Pelz: Dwight responded by saying that the party needs to communicate better with advocates of the disabled community. That community needs to be welcomed into the party and asked to become more active.

Laura Ruderman: Laura rephrased the question, and outlined a process in her answer – first, the party needs to think, then it needs to listen, then it needs to act. Laura said the party should translate its materials into different languages (including Braille). And at events we should have translations for speeches into sign language.

Jean Brooks: She would meet with the disabled community and listen (So where’s your original idea? I didn’t hear one).

Bill Harrington: I couldn’t quite make out all of Bill’s answer, despite straining to hear. He went off into some story about a candidate who's running for Congress in Illinois.

Question #9: What do you believe is the party's responsibility to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community and how will you manifest this responsibility?

Dwight Pelz: Dwight was very assertive in saying that be believed there could be no compromise on the party’s support for the GLBT community. In Dwight’s words, we need to stand up for gays and lesbians. He said that having a big tent is fine but the party cannot waver in its support of equal rights.

Laura Ruderman: Laura stated that she wasn’t scared of the issue. According to Laura, we let this be divisive issue and it shouldn't be. Laura’s response was basically that we as a party just need to stand up for civil rights and not be afraid of the other side.

Jean Brooks: This is a direct quote – the first words out of her mouth: “What I have to say is ditto.” Again, I didn’t hear any original ideas, just repetition of what other candidates had already stated.

Bill Harrington: Bill started off by saying he agreed with Laura and then said that the party needs to elect more Democrats to the state legislature so Ed Murray’s civil rights legislation can be passed. (However, the following day - which was last Monday – Sen. Bill Finkbeiner confirmed he would vote for the bill, so it may pass this year after all.)

Mark Hintz: Mark said that we need to listen to the GLBT caucus or we won’t have unity. I didn’t get much else out of his response.

Question #10: We have a defined platform. How will you support our candidates and elected officials to respect the platform?

Laura Ruderman: Laura’s response was that we need to close the rift between elected officials and party members. According to Laura, that way elected officials will feel more tied to the party and will respect the platform.

Jean Brooks: All I got out of her answer was that “we can’t push the platform on people who don’t like it.” No, but we can strive for our elected officials to have a better respect for the platform.

Bill Harrington: His response this time around was one that I liked. Bill stated that our elected officials are turning away from the party because other groups are giving them money and resources for their campaigns (too true). To address this problem, Bill said that Democrats should be raising more money on the local level to assist our candidates.

Mark Hintz: Mark also had a creative idea. He’d help connect candidates and elected Democrats to the local party organizations – and invite them to meetings and events. I think there’s work to be done in this area and it’s good to see Mark recognizes that.

Dwight Pelz: Dwight declared that Democrats should be proud of the platform. As a party, he said, we should not strip away the “D” beside candidates’ names if they don’t respect the platform, but he would ask every Democratic candidate for office to read the party platform. That’s another idea I like.

Question #11: What your vision for the direction of the party? Where do African Americans fit in?

Jean Brooks: She was confused that it was her turn to answer first. All I could hear was redundant talk about being unified. Unity and being unified is great, but I’m interested in specific ideas.

Bill Harrington: Bill did have an idea – he’d hold forums that would focus on issues that are of concern to the African American community (such as civil rights). This could be helpful.

Mark Hintz: I heard a generic answer: more “I’ll meet with them and listen to their concerns”. I did not hear a specific idea.

Dwight Pelz: Dwight was also somewhat generic. He would work with the caucus to develop “strategies” to help the African American community. Yes, but what kind of strategies?

Laura Ruderman: Laura didn’t provide many specifics either. What I heard from her was that the party needs to come together, not fracture. but when it comes together, then peoples' concerns need to be addressed instead of being forgotten. I agree, but that’s not much of an original answer.

Question #12: How would you fund programs (i.e. training) to help Hispanics and other ethnic groups?

Bill Harrington: Bill said that it was more of a legislative question. I agree to some extent, but there are some things the party can do.

Mark Hintz: He had something creative this time – he talked about how the Snohomish County party had worked to be multilingual. Specifically, people who speak other languages like Spanish should be able to download materials off the party website into their own language.

Dwight Pelz: Dwight declared that we need to register more Hispanic voters and involve more Hispanic activists. He also agreed with Mark and stated that the party website should be translated into Spanish (and presumably other languages).

Laura Ruderman: Laura responded by saying that the party needs to maintain constant contact with ethnic communities, not just appear and disappear around election day. I thought that was a good point.

Jean Brooks: After repeating what other candidates said, Jean said that the front office should reflect diversity in hiring.

Question #13: The executive committee is unbalanced because there are four women and fourteen men. How do you make it more equitable?

Mark Hintz: He would increase outreach and set a to increase participation by women. He had somewhat of a difficult time responding.

Dwight Pelz: Dwight reminded the audience that the state’s top three elected officials (all Democrats, of course) are women. The state party chair shouldn't be involved so much because powerful women are already competing well.

Laura Ruderman: Laura of course declared that electing a woman as state party chair would help, which elicited laughs. She agreed with Dwight that women are competing well within the party.

Jean Brooks: After she agreed with Laura, what I heard was that “we need to keep addressing the issue.” I would have liked to have heard a more creative answer.

Question #14: Is it time for change in the makeup of the state central committee (meaning more representation of ethnic groups?) Why or why not?

Dwight Pelz: Dwight said that it would require a charter review. He affirmed that there is a problem as far as the representation of ethnic groups goes, and that the central committee should be diverse.

Laura Ruderman: Laura stated that the state committee needs to be more representative of many different groups - ethnic, gender, disabilities, etc. In her view, less splintering will happen if the state committee is more diverse.

Jean Brooks: She said we should look at changing bylaws and taking actions to address issues that people present.

Bill Harrington: Bill’s idea was to have LD chairs and vice chairs meeting every year (or twice every year) to figure out how the central committee could be more diverse.

Mark Hintz: I couldn’t catch much of his response. Something about working with the community to build stronger relationships? I’m sure it was more substantive, but I was momentarily distracted.

Question #15: What is the role of labor in the state party?

Laura Ruderman: Laura reminded the audience that she supported collective bargaining while she was in the state Legislature. According to Laura, labor has a significant role in helping organize and elect Democrats.

Jean Brooks: Her response was that we’ve strayed from supporting labor and we should go back to supporting them.

Bill Harrington: Bill declared that labor is currently facing troubled times, and there are no easy answers (often in politics, there aren’t easy answers). Bill would stay in contact with labor leaders and push for increased legislative action.

Mark Hintz: He said that labor has historically helped the party a lot – and that labor deserves more support from the party.

Dwight Pelz: Dwight responded by saying that the party needs to reach out to workers. He said he’s worked as a union organizer and won union elections, and thus has a solid relationship with labor groups (which would help him to be an effective party chair).

The candidates then gave closing statements. I'm not going to summarize those because there wasn't a lot of new information.

Based on this forum, I would say the two best candidates are Laura Ruderman and Dwight Pelz. Both seem to be able to communicate clearly, which is extremely important. Laura especially has some innovative ideas. She realizes the party has a problem when it comes to communication and public relations and that we need to improve.

I think of the five candidates Laura is also the most technologically savvy. She mentioned to the audience at the end of her closing statement that she has a podcast available for download on her website. I think Laura would be the kind of chair who would reach out to bloggers.

Dwight Pelz can't be written off, though. I sensed that Dwight is the kind of person who is empowered and wants to empower other people. He would be good at organizing and leading the charge to return fire at the Republicans when fired upon. And our next chair does need to be able to aggressively respond when we come under attack.

I do like Mark Hintz but I didn't think he was able to articulate himself so well. Despite this, Mark has some positive attributes and I won't write him off, either. I'd like to hear more from him.

I don't think Jean Brooks and Bill Harrington are serious contenders for state party chair. They're great people, but we can't have a party chair that the electorate can't understand, or who is confused.

I view good communication and speaking skills as vital. And it certainly does help if you have a strong voice. I believe that Laura, Dwight, and Mark communicate pretty clearly when they want to say something, and that's a major reason why they are each serious contenders.

Laura Ruderman and Dwight Pelz each have websites, I haven't seen websites for the other candidates yet.

What do you think? Feel free to post your thoughts but keep our comments policy in mind. Corrections and or additions are most welcome.

<< Home