Politics ain’t bean bag.
– from a 19th-century novel
It’s true. If you want to be actively involved in politics, there are times when the tactics are perhaps less than polite. And, most experienced political actors have a sense of when something is part of the “not bean bag” set of practices, and when it is over the line.
Still, it is disconcerting to see it happening in your own state, involving people you either know or have respect for. And when it is people in your own party attacking other people in your own party, it is not just disconcerting – it is destructive.
So, it was with a sense of sadness that I heard that Governor Beshear had a slate of candidates he is pushing to get elected to the State Central Executive Committee (SCEC or EC or just “state central”) of the Kentucky Democratic Party (KDP).
But, the news was compounded when I also was told, by more than one person, that there was also an “anti-slate” of persons that the governor was working to get OFF of State Central.
I reached out to a person whose name was connected to this effort, to see if that person could comment. So far, I have not heard from that person.
I have, however, talked with many sources across the state, including elected officials, members of State Central, and political activists. They confirmed that there is, indeed, a slate, and that persons are being contacted about either being on it or voting for it.
Before I go into what I learned, though, we need to explain the somewhat arcane process of “Democratic party reorganization” for persons who are not familiar with it. If you are, feel free to skip ahead.
The quadrennial Dem reorg
Every four years, the KDP goes through “reorganization.” This is a process where each unit of the party, from precincts to legislative districts to counties to the state level itself, elects new leaders. There are rules like requiring a man, a woman, and a youth from each unit, and having elections at each level to send delegates to the next level.
The process culminates at the state convention, which normally happens the summer before a presidential election. (The 2020 convention was delayed due to COVID, so the whole reorg process is happening now.) At that convention, delegates meet in six groups representing the six Congressional districts in the state to elect that CD’s representatives on State Central. In addition, they also elect six at-large representatives.
I attended the 2016 convention as a delegate, and I can attest to the fact that there was a “slate” of candidates being passed out on paper at that convention. It only had names of people to vote for; there was no indication where it came from, but it was generally understood that it came from people high up in the party.
Being the loyal Democrat that I am, when I was handed the paper I said “Screw that – I’ll vote for whomever I want,” and proceeded to do just that.
This year’s slate
So, the news that there is a slate for this year’s reorg was disappointing, but not shocking. If a Dem is sitting in the governor’s office, that person is supposedly the titular head of the party, so if they want to push the people they want, then I guess they can do that. I would have a lot more respect for such a slate if it clearly said at the top “From the desk of Andy Beshear,” and if the governor himself came to the convention and explained why he wanted these particular people on State Central. But of course, it’s politics, so we have to do things in the background and without attribution.
No one that I spoke with has seen the actual 2021 slate on a piece of paper or on an email; they just know various names that are on it. If handled as it has been in the past, it will not show up until right at convention time, which is a few days from now.
One thing that concerned me, though, was that it seemed that the slate was largely made up of people who would not make waves; who would go along to get along, and focus on what the governor wanted. Could I be wrong about that? Of course. The ones I have heard named are not bad people at all; in fact, some of them are my friends, and are people I respect. But I wouldn’t say I have heard many of them challenge the status quo.
Which brings me to the real reason I’m writing this article: the anti-slate.
This year’s anti-slate
As I said, the fact that there is a slate from the governor for State Central is a little too back-room for my tastes, but not unprecedented. What surprised me this year was that there was also a list of people that the powers that be specifically wanted OFF State Central.
Who are these people that are such a problem for leadership? Here’s the thing: they are people who have asked questions, who have challenged the status quo, who have called for greater transparency and greater accountability. They would be considered “troublemakers” only if you don’t like uncomfortable questions.
What sort of questions? Well, ones like this:
- Why does our executive director make $10,000 a month, which is more than the executive director of any state around us?
- If the finance committee wants to see the contract for an expensive bill, why can’t they?
- Why have we asked for training for years, and our board has never received the training we requested?
- Why in the world do our own candidates have to PAY to use the voter file?
- Why do we not follow our own bylaws?
These and other questions were raised more than once by some of the people on the anti-slate, and instead of dealing with the problems that were brought up, some in leadership decided THOSE people were the problem. And they wanted them gone.
One person on the anti-slate, who was specifically targeted for removal, had spent many hours doing volunteer work in their part of the state, helping other counties get organized and building the party back. Instead of being thanked for their service, they have now been removed from all positions of leadership.
So here we are, desperately needing to hold onto the seats we have in Frankfort, desperately needing to regrow the party, desperately needing a new direction for the KDP – and instead, we are removing dedicated workers because they ask too many questions.
Comments from sources
As I spoke with people across the state, here are some of the comments they shared in the interviews.
“There’s an unspoken understanding that this is coming from the governor.”
“It appears that a number of people on the slate are actually employed in state government.”
“This is obviously an attempt by those in power to keep things the way they are.”
“They seem to want to get rid of the progressives.”
“We can’t get anywhere because we keep falling back on old patterns.”
“The rules are only enforced when it benefits individuals.”
“How can staff members of KDP also be delegates to the convention? They’re allowed to elect their bosses?”
“Republicans are having golf scrambles to raise money for 2022, and we’re arguing over who is on a piece of paper.”
The REALLY bad thing in all of this
If all of this strikes you as old-style politics, and an attempt to keep certain people away from the levers of power, then I’m there with you. I think it’s bad, and a little sleazy, and destructive to the party – but not, by far, the worst political crap I’ve ever seen. (Looking at you, Republicans.)
But in addition to all of the above, here is what I think is the REALLY bad thing about all of this:
It doesn’t matter.
Why doesn’t it matter? Because, in the grand scheme of politics in this state, the KDP in its current state is impotent, ineffective, and irrelevant.
Impotent – How many races were won in 2018, 2019, and 2020 because the KDP put its muscle behind the candidates? How much money has KDP raised for itself (not for candidates) in the past four years? How much has KDP done to rebuild the Dem brand across the state?
Ineffective – One measure of a party org at any level is how much money they raise, how many candidates they have on their bench, and how many of those candidates run and win. Has the KDP been successful at any of these things? Have they had a strategic plan, and have they executed that plan?
And, speaking of re-organization, how strong is the KDP top to bottom? According to one source, the leaders of the KDP were pleased that 84 counties had functioning county-level party organizations. That means there are 36 counties with NO Democratic organization at all! In 2016 in the first Congressional district, there were only four counties without a county-level organization; this year there are 13.
Irrelevant – I attended a meeting recently where some exciting grass-roots organizing plans were shared. After the meeting, I spoke with one of the persons involved, and asked them why they weren’t working with KDP on this project.
“We’ve given up on the KDP,” this person said.
I heard the same thing from other sources. One person said “It’s every candidate and every county party for themselves.” Another said, “I’ve stopped caring about what the KDP does or doesn’t do. I’m focused on my county and my candidates.”
I’m sure that by writing this article, I’m probably going to be added to some “enemies list” in Frankfort. But here’s the thing: I actually, desperately, want KDP to succeed. We need a functioning state organization that is ready to spend the next twenty years moving this state back to blue.
But I’m tired of waiting years and years for our state party to become the party it needs to be. And this sort of heavy-handed, same-old-sleaze action by the leadership of the party is not only not helpful – it is destructive. You don’t want Yes men and women when the boat is sinking; you want people who will both work hard and challenge leadership to do what’s right.
If Andy Beshear and Colmon Elridge and the others “in power” really want to make a difference, then they have to do things differently. Otherwise, it’s going to be like one old-time activist said to me:
“They’re fighting over who gets to be in charge of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”