Three weeks ago, on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, the Louisiana Democratic Party held its Reorganizational Meeting to elect party leadership — most notably the state party chair — for the next four years.
Normally, the Reorganizational Meeting to choose all the officers to the executive committee is held in the spring, soon after elections for the new members of the Louisiana Democratic State Central Committee (DSCC), the governing body of the state party. However, this meeting was delayed by several circumstances, setting up a dramatic series of events that played out in public in the days leading up to the vote.
First came multiple delays of the DSCC membership elections. Our party elections, held in conjunction with our Presidential Preference Primary, would normally take place in March. However, due to state law dictating when an election can be held in relation to a major holiday, like Mardi Gras or Easter, and Democratic National Committee (DNC) regulations governing the sequence of state primaries, a later date of April 4th was negotiated between the Louisiana Republican and Democratic Parties. After the coronavirus pandemic hit Louisiana, Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin twice more postponed these elections. Finally, a vote was held on July 11th. But this year more people than usual chose to vote by mail, resulting in lengthy vote tabulations and certification. Once this process was concluded, the Reorganizational Meeting, which according to party bylaws must be held within 40 days of certification, was finally set for Saturday, August 29th (incidentally, the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina).
Like almost all Democratic meetings occuring now, in order to take public health into consideration, the Reorganizational Meeting was to be held by Zoom. Since party meetings are required to be open to all interested Democrats, by the rules of the DNC, it would also be broadcast live on Facebook. But once again 2020 weighed in, and days before the August 29th meeting, Hurricane Laura targeted Louisiana. Knowing that “unsurvivable storm surge” was predicted, and power outages were guaranteed, at the end of its extended term and three days before the vote was to be held, the previous state party executive committee came to an agreement that the elections for new leadership needed to be postponed one more time.
On the same day, with Hurricane Laura looming, one of the two candidates running for party chair, state Rep. Ted James of Baton Rouge, unexpectedly dropped out of the race. Without a new candidate throwing their hat in the ring, the next chair of the party would not be elected by the membership, but appointed by default. While the remaining candidate in the race, Katie Bernhardt of Lafayette, had been campaigning for approximately six months, and had strong support from a couple of different factions of the state party that had been organizing for almost a year, there were DSCC members and rank and file Democrats who wanted another option.
In response and after some reflection, I made the decision to run for state party chair. Although the two-week postponement of the Reorganizational Meeting existed only because of the threat and subsequent devastation of Hurricane Laura, I would have added my name to the ballot regardless. Current state bylaws, in fact, permit any Louisiana Democrat to show up as late as the day of the election and have a DSCC member enter their name for consideration from the floor.
Still, entering an election with such a short campaign window went against all my best judgment; I was fully aware it was a long shot. Yet, as someone who believes in the democratic process and the value of healthy debate about our party’s ideals, I felt strongly that the voters should have more than one choice. That said, if I had known that I was running for the state party chair seat, as a seasoned organizer and strategist, I would have started campaigning more than a year before the election.
My reasoning follows.
The 12 main executive committee positions are voted on by members of the Louisiana DSCC. DSSC members are elected by registered Democrats every four years when we hold our Presidential Preference Primary. For every state house district, of which there are currently 105, one man and one woman are elected as party representatives. They qualify for these seats like any candidate would, at their parish Clerk of Court’s office, and show up on the same ballot as the Democratic presidential candidates. Qualifying dates are set by the Secretary of State, and can start anywhere from mid-December to early-January.
In many cases, members are elected to their spot without opposition, so they are automatically seated on the DSCC when the qualifying period closes. In reality, there are some seats that go unfilled for the full length of every term. Those vacancies tend to exist in Republican strongholds, where the party has not built out in many years. But, in parts of the state that are heavily Democratic, contests can be quite competitive. Someone wanting to run for state party chair should start by recruiting folks who support them to run for as many of these 210 seats as possible.
Because the votes needed to win the chair’s race equal 50% + 1, the more allies you can get on the DSCC, the better your odds are, and the fewer number of members you have to lobby for their votes. So, ideally, a candidate would begin this effort to recruit local Democratic or community leaders to run several months before the qualifying period, and work to help them win their campaigns for DSCC.
While I did not initiate a plan to run in a time frame that made sense to me, I did nonetheless, have a few conversations with party leadership, elected officials, previous party staff, and most importantly in my mind, our governor, in January of 2020, about the future of the party. On the heels of his reelection, I thought it was important that the highest ranking Democrat in our state have input in the next iteration of leadership, and my highest hope for our future was that we could work to get consensus on a candidate from all our top elected Democrats. I spent some time researching what running the party should look like, as well as investigating whether or not there were leaders already interested in the chair position. Having volunteered and worked statewide for candidates and the party for 14 years, I felt I had a firm grasp of where our state’s Democratic efforts needed to head. Regardless, I was clear that, if the sitting chair chose not to run, I wanted to support whomever the governor backed, and we kept a line of communication open throughout the year, when emergencies were not crowding the headlines.
By mid-summer, I felt confident that I would not be running a campaign for the state party chair seat. I do believe this might have played out differently had there not been a pandemic. Still, the organizer in me knew the window to run a legitimate race, and acquire the requisite political blessings, was all but closed. When former Chair Karen Carter Peterson announced in mid-July that she would not seek reelection, Rep. Ted James jumped in the race, and I was encouraged by several women to run for first vice chair. This had not been on my radar at all, but my recruiters’ logic made sense to me. I felt I could run a pretty good little race for this position in six weeks, and I believed my experience could add some value to the role.
I had completed the bulk of the campaigning I estimated I needed to do for the first vice chair seat by the day Ted James dropped out of his race. I was in the home stretch when the dual stories of the meeting’s postponement and the candidate’s exit broke. It would have been difficult for almost anyone else to step into the vacancy in that moment. The fact that I had already talked to almost every one of the DSCC members, and they had already received information on my qualifications, put me in about as strong a position as you can get to run a two-week campaign. Because I had already done the research and had the conversations about the party early in the year, I had a decent idea what the job entailed. And since I had spent a good bit of time doing party building work over the last decade, I felt confident that I would be able to take on the position.
However, none of that is what convinced me that I should recast my candidacy. As news spread about the seismic shift in the chair’s race, I received steady phone calls for nine solid hours. While a few did come from elected officials, most of the calls – and certainly the ones that moved me most – were emotional ones from young Democrats and members of the LGBTQ+ community, who were concerned there might not be a place for them in the party, given the changes that were being proposed by some of the forces working to orchestrate the reorganization.
I can credit one person, in particular, with convincing me to run for chair. Peyton Michelle is the first openly transgender person elected to the DSCC. We had only just met by one five-minute phone conversation a mere two weeks before. She called me in the midst of those nine hours in what seemed like a very difficult call for her to make. She was hesitant, given that we didn’t really know each other. Having already been on the phone for hours, I encouraged her to “spit it out,” that she couldn’t possibly be telling me anything I hadn’t already heard that day. But her bravery in making that open and honest call to someone she didn’t know, explaining to me the worries that she had, impressed upon me that this was a serious moment. I had, then and there, an opportunity to show up, to say to someone “I have your back,” and even if I had to walk through some kind of political fire, there were people in our state who deserved to have a champion in their corner.
As most will know by now, I did not win the election, but I believe running was the right thing to do. And I would do it again.
I ran on a few assertions that I still hold true. I suspect the new party leadership will not be as right leaning as their campaign implied, but as I said in my speech to the DSCC before the votes were cast, I believe it’s the job of the incoming chair to unite the party. There is a lot of healing work to be done there.
I also ran on increased transparency and demystifying how the party operates. I intend to continue to share information like this, so that I can contribute to that goal.
One of the reasons I believe it’s so important to make the party more accessible and comprehensible was actually well exemplified in the final days of this chair’s race. There was a lot of engagement online by grassroots Democrats, who didn’t know that only elected party officials got to vote for chair, or who didn’t understand how we ended up with the candidate dynamics we did, or who had strong feelings about the women running for the position. I was challenged multiple times to reel in the comments of folks who had quite visceral reactions to information about the race as it was made public. As I was running in an already very abbreviated time frame, there was little opportunity for me to try to monitor the actions of people who were neither surrogates nor volunteers for my campaign.
Similarly, I did not expect my opponent in those final weeks to correct the falsehoods spread about me by those who were unofficially whipping votes for her. As I don’t know Katie Bernhardt, and she doesn’t know me, she could frankly be forgiven if she believed those tall tales. But some of the people who most feverishly propagated those rumors were well aware they weren’t true. The fault rests solely with them.
What struck me as very real about all the outcry, was that it reflected a microcosm of what is happening at a national level with the Democratic Party. It is not unique to Louisiana that Democratic voters want more say about what is happening with their party. They want less backroom dealing and insider gaming. There is a desire for more pathways to engage with the party. And that’s really good news for us. It should represent to us a chance for growth, for bringing more people into the fold, and for having more boots on the ground working to be a part of everything we are building. Still, any period of growth brings growing pains, and we will inherently experience some awkwardness and discomfort as people learn how the system works. They will take time to learn what parts of it they want to change, what actions are required to accomplish those goals, and who they can trust in that mission.
This, to me, is the greatest illustrator of why folks who may not be happy with the outcome of this particular election, or any one election, should avoid the trap of changing their party affiliation. The only way to change the party is to be a member of the party. The only way to vote on the presidential nominee, the members to the DSCC, or the members to the local ruling bodies called Democratic Parish Executive Committees (DPECs) is to be a registered Democrat. And certainly the only way to run for any of these state and local positions is to be a Louisiana Democrat.
There are vacancies across the state today on the DSCC and some of the DPECs. Congressional district caucuses are yet another level of party organization that few people know about, and their leadership elections just occurred last weekend without much fanfare. There are many opportunities to engage at a deeper level, and I would argue that if you want to change the way the party operates, increasing your involvement is where that starts.
Specifically, if you are a progressive, and want to see progressive values held up by our state Democratic party, the least helpful thing is for us to have a smaller and weaker caucus.
The reality is, the pendulum swings. We all know this. But like John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, our calling is to stay in the fight. Think about the changes they saw in their lifetime — the progress forward and the slips backwards. But they never stopped working towards what is right. Both left messages of determination and hope in their final words.
There is work to do towards progress. Some of that will happen within the party, and some of it will happen outside that official infrastructure. It has always been that way. All those efforts are important, and there is a place for each of us.
I remain a proud Democrat, because this is still the party that believes everyone should have access to affordable healthcare, that every child should have the opportunity for a quality education, that anyone who works full time should make a living wage, that women’s rights are human rights, and love is love. We believe we must protect and expand voting rights. We believe that we should leave a better planet for future generations. And we believe that Black Lives Matter.
Democrats know that to achieve that promised more perfect union, we must get up and fight for it every day. That is what I am counting on us all to keep doing.
Are you interested in getting involved in party leadership? There are folks who would love to help you find out if there is an open seat where you live now, or alternately to help you plan to run when the next opportunity arises. I can connect you with them if you reach out to me through Lamar at firstname.lastname@example.org.