DeKalb Democrats: Cleaning Up After The Party’s Over

Local party organizations – Democratic and Republican – all tend to be absolutely stark staring mad, an unbirthday party with crack-flavored tea and crazy biscuits. People involved in politics understand that they’re vehicles for ridiculousness.

Tonight, I got out of the car.

I resigned my seat as the chairman of House District 87 in the DeKalb County Democratic Party tonight. Most people who know me don’t know I was actively involved in the local party organization. That’s probably for the best.

As long as we’re talking about our secret political histories, here’s mine. In 2002, I quit a promising job at a web news company to run as an independent for the Massachusetts State House. I was 29, two years out of college and three years out of the Army. I had lived in Boston for all of 18 months.

The state had just passed – over the mighty objections of the powerful legislature – a mechanism for public funding of political candidates as a way to take money out of politics. My state rep, a party hack, had just quit. I ran as a publicly-funded protest candidate on a clean elections platform, to make sure someone worth having would be on the ballot in the general after the Democratic primary.

(That … and I was still sore about losing an election at Boys’ State in high school.)

I got my clock cleaned of course. I won 13 percent of the vote. 16 percent of voters cast a blank ballot. The winner, Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, has been an able legislator for 13 years now … and has never faced a serious opponent.

I learned a lot by losing that race, not the least of which is that having an organization matters. No one wins alone. There’s a reason parties exist. In Boston in particular, the Democratic Party really is a machine designed to cultivate leaders and to connect neighborhoods to the levers of power. Boston is an amazing city. Is there political corruption? Sure. But it’s functional. Corruption exists there in part to control how many stupid people are allowed near the good china.

In DeKalb, not so much. 

DeKalb County contains about seven percent of Georgia residents. It contains 14 percent of Georgia’s Democrats – one out of seven Democratic voters in Georgia lives here. Only Fulton County supplies more, and only just barely so.

Local parties are yeoman’s work. On paper, local political parties are supposed to be a mechanism for raising money for issue campaigns, recruiting and vetting candidates, connecting people looking for volunteer work with political infrastructure, supplying manpower to campaigns, and getting out the vote. Party leaders can make crazy partisan noises to move the base without compromising the campaigns of people who have to get elected.

But Georgia ain’t Boston. No one with meaningful political power here needs to entrust an unaccountable stuffed shirt at party headquarters with actual authority. So, interest groups work around them. Politicians ignore them. Campaigns build their own infrastructure. They’re completely invisible to voters. In Georgia in particular, local parties tend to have only one meaningful function: taking a fee to run primary elections, which are generally conducted by through the local registrar anyway.

I started attending Democratic party activities a few years ago, because I wanted to see what I could do to help straighten out DeKalb’s dysfunction. I thought that the local party might be able to hold Democratic office holders to account for government corruption and ineffectiveness. I wanted to help build the machine properly. Silly me.

It was at a breakfast meeting held at Piccadilly Restaurant in Tucker in 2013 when I first heard Commissioner Sharon Barnes-Sutton explain how all the talk of corruption in DeKalb was the work of evil white news reporters bent on making black elected officials look bad. She said it there, because for her it was safe space.

Politicians didn’t come to be grilled. They came to be honored guests and drink free coffee. Actual policy discussion was incidental. No one came prepared for one.

In the three years I’ve been attending meetings with the DeKalb Democrats, and the nine months or so I’ve been a voting member, the party has never actually taken a public stand on a matter of public importance. It has never so much as debated one. I cannot find a press release on a matter of legislation.

The local party committee has, to my knowledge, never actually recruited a candidate to challenge Republican office holders here. Rep. Taylor Bennett’s win in House District 80 this year is purely a creature of the state party and the guile of the candidate himself.

The assumption most of the time has been that ninety percent of the decision for voters rests solely on party identification in the voting booth. Thus, some effort has been directed at voter turnout and voter registration. But even that effort has largely been dictated by – and funded by – campaigns. The campaigns thus captured the real value of that work: the personal connection to voters that permits long-term communication and feedback. When Nunn and Carter lost last year, all that outreach died with their candidacies. The county party will start from scratch next round.

I expected some introspection after the brutal losses of the 2014 cycle, and perhaps a leadership shuffle. Membership had steadily been bleeding away since I started attending. But since there’s no real authority to the role, no one new stepped up. The old board for the most part, led by Chairwoman Sandra Austin, was reinstated by acclamation.

In the first meeting of the year – the first at which I was a voting member – I asked how we might analyze the loss to build a strategy for the 2016 race. No presidential campaign that wins Georgia can do so without a strong performance from DeKalb. I wanted to know how we might deliver that.

It was as though I had farted in an elevator.

Since I seemed to be the only person concerned about 2016, she appointed me research chair. I asked for access to Votebuilder, the party’s analytics platform, so I might be able to present something rigorous. She said no.

For what it’s worth, I can say now that DeKalb’s voter registration model provided no net gain. Based on registrations from the 2010 cycle, DeKalb should have had about 405,000 registered voters. On Election Day, there were 404,094. The money campaigns poured into registration didn’t get more voters registered in DeKalb.

And the Get-Out-The-Vote campaign, dragging party volunteers into boiler rooms for long calling sessions to disconnected land lines, appears to have had absolutely no effect. Assuming exactly the same performance at 2010, about 220,500 people would have been expected to vote. Last November, DeKalb produced 213,762 votes – a three percent drop in turnout, despite native son Jason Carter on the ballot.

Early voting increased by about fifty percent, thanks to the increased emphasis and open polls on Sunday. But all of that increase came at the expense of Election Day voting. I wanted to know if there were something in the data that might show how to target people who wouldn’t otherwise vote, to actually increase participation in a heavily-Democratic county. Only, she wouldn’t give me the tools. I still don’t understand why.

I would have liked to use that analysis as a starting point to build precinct-level organization and perhaps ward captains, as a means of communicating neighborhood-level problems through the party to the powers that be. I figure that might make the party more relevant to the public, and thus something to be heeded when it asks people in power to keep their mitts out of the till.

But a month or two later, Austin played games with the process of electing delegates to the state party committee to ensure that she and her husband would be seated. The whole mess required the state party to force her to re-run the delegate election over again. (I am one of the delegates, and I intend to remain so.)

I stopped attending local meetings after that. I planned to show up once every few months to maintain my voting status. Most people have simply dropped out at this point.

Then one of the last remaining committee members messaged me to say that a spending discrepancy had been unearthed in a steering committee meeting: Austin had spent money in the county party treasury without explicit permission from the committee. Members told me there was an argument about what had happened, and effort made by executive committee members to dismiss concerns and … above all … not to let it get out.

I called the treasurer. She refused to discuss it with me. I sent email up and down the chain at the state party, and asked Austin to explain herself. She ignored me.

At the monthly meeting tonight, I asked her directly to explain herself. She refused.

I called for her resignation. Smugly, she refused. I called for the process of her forcible removal to begin. Most people in the room had no idea what was happening. No one seconded the motion. Exasperated, I got up, and left.

Austin – and others – called me after the meeting to explain (and to ask me to keep quiet.) Legislators gave money to the party as “scholarships” to Barefoot Republic, a Christian summer camp in Kentucky where she had been taking her own grandchildren for years, Austin told me. She took the money, deposited it in the county account, then rented a van to take refugee kids to the camp, she said. While it was only about $300, no vote authorizing the expenditure – as required by the by-laws – was made.

“The county party did designate, I think it was two years ago, $500 for a fund that I could use at my discretion,” she said. Never mind that it directly contravenes the county by-laws, could she show me evidence of such a decision, quickly? No, she said.

I know it seems small. A few hundred bucks.

But seeing that is like seeing brown M&Ms backstage at a Van Halen concert. When little, important things are being ignored, big important things are too. It means there’s little effort being made to adhere to financial controls, and that’s deadly for an organization that raises money from the public. I’m an anticorruption guy. I can’t stick around this. It’s the last straw.

I have no reason based on the track record of its leadership to believe things will change internally, or that this is an organization capable of making external change. Everything I’ve just written, more or less, has been discussed ad nauseum by party members, only quietly. No one wants to confront the problem, because no one wants to take responsibility for fixing it.

In my view, the local party organization needs to be wiped clean and restarted from scratch with ambitious political leadership who view it as a stepping stone to something better. Leading the party needs to be someone’s resume line, and not a participation trophy.

Leaders from core Democratic interest groups –  labor groups like the AFL-CIO, women’s rights orgs like Planned Parenthood, civil rights groups, environmentalist organizations like Green Law, 1st Amendment activists, and other liberal organizations – need to be recruited to serve as the party’s caretakers here. DeKalb is too important to leave screwed up.

If the party doesn’t fix things by the time the presidential primaries roll through, it will be too late to put the county into play in November next year. And without DeKalb, there is no winning Georgia.

23 comments

  1. Jiminy Cricket says:

    I thought you told everyone on PP that you were a Republican? Or did you say Conservative? (;>)

    Local party organizations – Democratic and Republican – all tend to be absolutely stark mad – People involved in politics understand that they’re vehicles for ridiculousness.

    That is the whole story, the rest is fill.

  2. Dave Bearse says:

    The current system is works too well. Nothing short of jail has any significant effect, the effect being it’s impossible to serve while in jail. Balfour’s words, “I’ve been doing the same thing for 20 years and they keep re-electing me” apply well in DeKalb.

    • Jiminy Cricket says:

      You’ve been on a roll these last few days, Dave!

      Somebody else mentioned , “we get the government we want,”

      To many, there is absolutely no problem in DeKalb, which is absolutely the problem.

  3. saltycracker says:

    Once again you write a good story and overlook your potential to make millions. There is a sequel to the “Minions” here involving their twins the GOPers seeking leaders at another Villian-Con convention. Please contact Paramount Studios immediately……my cut is 10% for the referral.
    Good luck.

  4. Bill Arp says:

    George, give it up. You in Atlanta not Boston. If you gonna be a journalist write about something that is interesting. People only laugh at a joke once. You sounding like a lunatic.

  5. Chet Martin says:

    Serious question- would you ever consider making common cause with the DeKalb GOP to take on entrenched corruption?

    • George Chidi says:

      Interesting question. As a practical matter, that’s already happening. People have started sharing information without regard to party, and that’s half the battle.

      • benevolus says:

        In Fulton, back in the Howard Dean days, we tried to get a bunch of younger people involved to address some of the same type of concerns. Alas, I think the boulder was a little too large and the hill a little too steep.

  6. rightofcenter says:

    George,
    Great post. I really enjoyed the story of your run for office in Boston. Nothing really hones humility like a sound public electoral thrashing. I had a friend get beat about as soundly in a local race one time. His response: “I guess I need to start carrying a gun if I don’t have any more friends than that.”

    As for DeKalb – good luck with that.

  7. Three Jack says:

    Spot on George! Same could be said for most local GOP social groups…oops, I mean parties. They are basically useless other than hosting an annual Christmas Party where like you note all the pols show up to receive the back patting they think they deserve. Good column!

  8. elfiii says:

    Good post George. Look on the bright side. The Democrats own Dekalb lock, stock and barrel. Per Three Jack the local GOP party is indeed a social group albeit populated with escaped inmates from the island of misfit toys.

    We do indeed get the government we desire and deserve.

  9. MediateIt says:

    Great story, George, I feel your totally justified frustration. You should know, though, that Commissioner Sharon Barnes-Sutton blames all of her troubles on racism, and doesn’t seem to require a safe space to expound on her beliefs. She once stated to me at a public event that it was a racist white commissioner who was behind all of the “false claims” being filed against her at the Board of Ethics. When I pointed out to her that the pending claims had been filed by a black citizen, her response was “Well, there are some [blacks] who will do whatever a white person tells them to.” So, there’s that.

  10. Parties in Georgia only have value because they can raise unlimited funds. But the state party can do it for anyone (and is better equipped to actually do it) so there’s really not a reason, legally, for county parties.

    County parties are magnets for low level thievery because they collect those qualifying fees every 2-4 years. It’s usually not a lot of money (few thousand, maybe $20k in a one party county) but it’s a lot of money for someone. Some county parties have been decertified by the Democrats over the years because it’s literally just one or two people stealing the money who aren’t even pretending to be an actual party.

    • SallyForth says:

      Chris, I like your statement that there’s no legal reason for county parties to exist- especially concerning DeKalb’s clique of do-nothings. Why doesn’t the state party take away their honeypot – and at least stop the embarrassing situation George describes? Pretending to be a county party doesn’t make it so. Those qualifying fees every two years for the ton of Democratic candidates in DeKalb could be better used to help pay DPG’s rent, for God’s sake!

  11. Spacey G says:

    Is there even one (non-corrupt) member of DeKalb County anything, gov or politics or both, to even turn out the lights when the room has been cleared? And looking to the DPG to do the necessary room-clearing is like asking Kasim Reed to become sweet-natured and contrite. How can that even happen?

    • SallyForth says:

      Good summation, Spacey. The DDP is dead. Let’s see how Chris responds to my question above; if he doesn’t think the DPG can/will do anything, then it looks like Austin’s own private crazy car will keep rolling along, just like the corrupt DeKalb politicians.

  12. NoTeabagging says:

    George, what a brave article. I certainly feel your pain. I have one problem with the suggestion “Leaders from core Democratic interest groups ” should be directly involved with a specific party leadership or committee. I think this opens a myriad of conflict of interest, inappropriate lobbying, and other associated violations that require these organizations to remain outside of direct party involvement. They could however encourage their local members and followers to participate in local politics without being specific or one sided.

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