My Political Hiatus and Our Party Problems (Part 1)

January 23, 2013

I sincerely want to thank the many people around the state who supported me in both 2010 and 2012 as a candidate for public office. It was a tremendous honor and privilege to be elected as our Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in 2010 and to run for Kansas Senate in 2012. During these two election cycles, I have been tremendously moved and humbled by the steadfast support I received from so many.

However, my New Year’s resolution is not to run for office again until the significant problems that we have as Kansas Democrats are improved. Some folks may be surprised by this news – especially those who were staunch supporters and believed in my candidacy. Sadly, you may also be surprised to learn that not everyone in our party truly gets behind our candidates. Unless you have run for office personally, it is almost impossible to know about some of the issues and problems that exist. Because of this knowledge barrier, I wanted to spell out our challenges for all Democrats so that individuals from across the state can lobby for change and hold the leadership accountable for progress. We have a tendency to focus on the multitude of problems and shortcomings that we observe in Kansas Republicans. However, if we want to make progress in this state, we need to take a long, hard look at ourselves.

There are two competing philosophies when it comes to group “issues”:

  1. You don’t air your dirty laundry in public. (i.e., just stay quiet and let the dysfunction continue until those in charge decide to do things differently)
  2. Sunshine is the best disinfectant. (i.e., make people aware of the problems that exist so they can add their voice and effort to make positive changes)

Clearly, I favor option 2. In light of this, I will outline and discuss in detail those issues that I feel have been seriously holding us back as a political party in this state including:

  • Internal hostility and cliquishness
  • Candidate recruitment and selection problems
  • Royal family syndrome
  • Perfect candidate syndrome
  • Fundraising problems and lack of education
  • Leadership and organization issues

I will address the first two issues in this post and the remaining four areas in later posts.

Internal hostility and cliquishness

There are far too many ingroup versus outgroup dynamics within our party. This is especially evident in some county parties (especially in larger counties) in which you can see cliques or subgroups who consider themselves the “in crowd” and are skeptical of newcomers who haven’t “paid their dues”. We are already the minority party in Kansas. We should not be weakening ourselves with petty infighting and unnecessary division. We should be welcoming everyone who wants to be involved in the party and bringing them into the fold with open arms.

Astoundingly, the worst treatment I received as a first time candidate in 2010 was from people in my own party. I understood that some folks would choose to support one of my primary opponents. Many people were cordial and simply told me that they were supporting one of my opponents. I completely understood this and respected them for their forthright honesty and maturity. People must make choices and realistic candidates know not everyone will get behind them.

However, I did not expect ridiculous petty hostility both during the primary and afterwards from a number of folks. Amazingly, there are some individuals who still to this day are nasty and dismissive towards me because they preferred one of my 2010 primary opponents.

I have many stories but I won’t detail them here. But I hope those who behaved in this manner know that my inner circle and I laughed at their ridiculousness. On a personal level, I could care less if I am liked. I was running for office to stand up for what I thought was important not to be chosen as Miss Congeniality. Frankly, I always get more determined to win when people act like asses. (So perhaps I should thank the malcontents for the extra motivation.) However, this type of behavior makes me angry on behalf of our party.

This isn’t junior high or high school – people need to get over the BS cliquishness. We need to support all strong candidates even if they aren’t our favorite on a personal level. It’s better to have someone in office who shares your values even if you don’t enjoy them as a person rather than someone who promotes values and actions that you feel are dead wrong for our state or our county.

Undermining Democrats who have the potential to win (either now or in the future) undermines the whole Kansas Democratic Party. While there are some people who have an insatiable need to run for office, most people don’t have this unquenchable urge. They have other things they could be doing with their time and talents – and they will move on to do these other things if we as a party do not choose to embrace and cultivate what they bring to the table. We are the minority and we can’t afford to piss people off or scare them away with idiotic backbiting and infighting.

Candidate recruitment and selection problems

The old guard within the party seems to have a template for candidates they will encourage to run for office. The criteria in order of importance are:

  1. Well connected
  2. Fundraising and/or self-financing potential
  3. Reasonably respectable background/experience

We are really missing the mark here. Politics have changed over the years and both Obama campaigns have changed things permanently. Style and substance are both critically important. Connections shouldn’t matter as long as we decide as a party to support all our candidates. We can easily choose to allow someone new to be connected.

Unfortunately, those setting the priorities are not always making the best decisions about who the “chosen” candidates ought to be. Below are the criteria that we should use if we want candidates who have a chance to win in challenging districts:

  1. Charismatic – Candidates must be very compelling, likable, and interesting. If not, we are dead in the water from square one.
  2. Knowledgeable and credible – The days of the empty vessel candidate are over. While it used to work for those behind the scenes to pull the strings and give the candidate talking points to repeat, this is no longer a viable strategy. Today’s candidates need to know what they are talking about without being constantly coached.
  3. Articulate – It’s not enough to have knowledge and a good resume, you must be an excellent communicator to succeed as a candidate. Average to poor public speaking skills are a disqualifying attribute.
  4. Attractive – Sorry, it’s true. We can argue all day long that this shouldn’t matter. But, the research is clear – all other things being equal, the more attractive candidate wins. As the minority party, we need to use every advantage we can. So, in challenging races, if our candidate isn’t better looking, we can probably forget about having a chance to win. We don’t need runway models but we do need candidates who can evoke a compelling visual image.

When we identify candidates who have these attributes, we need to get behind them as a party and do everything we can to support them. These individuals should have their race prioritized. Individuals who do not have these attributes should be encouraged to take on a supportive role in a campaign or within the party rather than running for office. If such individuals choose to run as a placeholder, it should be made crystal clear from the outset of filing that they are to be a name on the ballot and will not be receiving support as the prioritized candidates will. It is not fair to allow people to get their hopes up only to be confused and crushed as the election cycle unfolds.

We also need to improve and promote our brand as a party. Our candidates are ambassadors of our brand and as such need to be carefully selected so they are consistent with our values and our brand. Putting forward candidates who don’t possess the “right stuff” dooms us in competitive districts and undermines our image even when these individuals happen to win in Democratically favorable areas.

Next Time in Part 2: Two of our party ailments – Royal family syndrome and Perfect candidate syndrome.

  • sjcxbb

    I like your critique, and agree with a large part of the argument… but feel like one important qualifier is left off of your selection process – values. As has happened numerous times with the leadership of the KDP, they recruit moderate Republican Californian’s to come run as Democrats for large offices in the state of Kansas (ie – Tom Wiggans and Greg Orman). 

    This is largely because of the large amount of cash that they can bring in trumps all philosophical differences in the minds of the party leadership. This does not hold water with the populous of the party though. 

    Personally, I would much rather see a Democrat who votes their conscience be elected, rather than a political operative. If you make your decisions based upon whether you’ll catch flack for it from Republicans (ie – sales tax, voter ID, etc.) and not your beliefs on the issues… you weaken the Democratic Party. If we don’t have our morals and issues to stand on, then we’re just Republican-lite and Kansans will not elect us. They can, will, and do elect Republicans.

  • sjcxbb – I certainly don’t want to see DINO (Democrat in name only) candidates which sounds like the concern you are raising. We must present a true choice for voters and in order to do that we need contrasts with our opponents. Of course, there will be some differences between and among Democrats on certain issues and that is to be expected. However, I agree that we don’t want folks who are voting against their beliefs in order to fly under the radar in an effort to skate by and keep their jobs. This is a problem in politics at every level. We have too few folks who have the courage to lead and say what they believe even when it is difficult.

  • Radio Free Kansas

    The last two paragraphs are fluffy and smack of a better brand of toilet paper. Nixon’s image of his hands out stretched his fingers spread in a “victory” sign is forever. He was ugly, sweated profusely and blood curdling ambitious but, he supported and passed such liberal and progressive laws that today make many Kansas Democrats blush. Then there is Brand Reagan, reading quaint catch-all phrases from 3 by 5 index cards, sleeping through cabinet national security briefs, stopping all work to watch old westerns in the White House theater, his decrepit and dishonest administration glows today … yes Dorothy you can put lipstick on a pig, but everybody knows there are some pretty smart pigs who don’t need it. 

  • Radio Free Kansas – I agree with your assessment about the progress made during the Nixon administration. But, of course, he was elected in the late 60’s. I would argue that if he were running in today’s climate he wouldn’t stand a chance as the media picks people apart on style and image (plus he would never make it through a Republican primary with his issue positions – another topic entirely). I am merely suggesting that in today’s climate electability requires the total package of style and substance (the higher office, the more true this tends to be). When your are the minority party in a state – you must think honestly about everything that can affect the outcome of a race one way or the other. I wasn’t arguing for lipstick on a pig but rather a nice suit and put together look on a candidate who has an outstanding grasp on the issues and a desire to make positive change. So, no, not lipstick on a pig – lipstick on Hillary Clinton, however, is fabulous – brilliance and image.

  • Janice Norlin

    I’m right there with you!
    janice norlin
    candidate for 24th senate district (unsuccessful)

  • Radio Free Kansas

    I’ll be adding more comments and popularizing this series on today’s Radio Free Kansas “Saturday High Noon.” Callers are welcome anytime during the 2 hour episode at 646 716 8652 and is linked for easy listening at: 

  • Vickie Thornton

    Just a comment in regard to looks. While attending a conference at the KU campus with Kathleen Sebelius and a panel of Female Governors and campaign strategists this subject came up. The research they shared showed that .. for WOMEN this trend was very apparent while for men it seemed less so. Men were much more likely to get elected if they possessed charisma, a firm grasp of subject matter and a good speaking presence. Women on the other hand had to also posses an attractive face and style as well. This being said I do believe the times are changing in that we are beginning to scrutinize men the same way. Rick Perry is referred to in his state as the “good hair” governor for example. While we hate to have an image of ourselves as petty when it comes to such matters the bare truth is … all things being equal, we tend to vote for the better looking person.