The four candidates for state Democratic Party chair all have different views on how the party should be organized coming off of a crushing 2016 general election.
While they differ on whether the state should employ a bottom-up versus top-down approach, or some kind of mix, they all agree that what was in place last fall didn’t work for Democrats.
WisPolitics.com interviewed the candidates vying for the role ahead of the Dems’ annual convention next weekend in Middleton, where an expected 1,000 delegates will vote on one of them to lead the party.
There are three challengers set to take on incumbent Martha Laning, who’s running for a second two-year term as chair: Joe Donovan, a former Waukesha County businessman; Eric Finch, an attorney; and Bryan Kennedy, the mayor of Glendale and former AFT-Wisconsin president.
And they all have very different takes on how the party should operate.
This spring, Laning put five regional organizing directors in place and hired Angel Montes to be community outreach director, moves she said will ensure Dems have a year-round operation that’s “reaching into our communities” and “getting out a strong progressive message about the issues.”
But Kennedy criticized the approach as “a top-down political organizing model” that sends “strangers into areas where they don’t live” and wouldn’t result in a permanent infrastructure for the party.
Instead, he’s backing a “bottom-up approach,” which would include hiring ward captains for every voting ward in the state, and get the party involved at the neighborhood and township level.
“These are front porch conversations,” Kennedy said. “It’s not a top-down approach of dropping down a team and having that team try to organize.”
Meanwhile, Finch and Donovan are looking to build off of Laning’s regional director structure, and also shift some employees into what they say are more fitting roles.
Finch is looking to from ad hoc committees based on the 33 state Senate districts, and he took shots at Kennedy’s ward captain system especially in rural communities, where he says that organization “might not be what makes sense.”
Meanwhile, Donovan said the hiring process for regional directors seemed kind of “desperate,” and he stressed the importance of regional leaders being familiar with the regions where they’re working.
Candidates weigh in on party’s shortcomings
The four also differed slightly on their takes of the party’s shortcomings, as Dems’ biggest wins in recent years came in 2012, when the party won the presidential election and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, took office.
Laning and Kennedy said a lack of communication with all parts of the state contributed to the party’s losses.
During listening sessions the Dems held after the 2016 general election, Laning said the party learned there were areas of the state that didn’t receive any messaging at all from the Democrats. That means the party needs to work to obtain resources “to be sure that our message is getting out to every corner of the state,” she said.
“We need to amplify our voice by reaching out to people who care about our values, the values and the platform that we have, and getting them to help us get our message out,” she said.
Kennedy said the party has been focusing on south-central and southeastern Wisconsin while ignoring the rest of the state. To get back to winning elections, he said, Dems need to “start reconnecting with voters everywhere in the state, not just our two biggest urban centers (Madison and Milwaukee).”
Donovan, meanwhile, chalked the Dem losses up to the party becoming “a little bit complacent,” and allowing “the Republican Party to define what the Democratic Party stands for,” among other things.
And Finch said party candidates couldn’t be afraid “to run on things that matter,” such as universal health care.
“If we stand on the issues, on reasonable, liberal principles, we win,” he said.
Candidates look ahead to 2018
Every candidate agreed that winning both the governor’s race and keeping Baldwin’s seat in 2018 were both equally important, and also went hand-in-hand.
“The fact is they’re both vital,” Finch said. “We have to get him (Walker) out or in some ways he’ll control the redistricting process.”
And Donovan said if the party was “addressing the priorities of voters, both of those candidates will win.”
The candidates also agreed the party should be more involved in state Supreme Court races, and all four said they would be active to some extent in supporting a challenger to Justice Michael Gableman next year if they were chair. Laning said there was “no doubt” the party would get behind Madison attorney Tim Burns, who announced a run this month.
And she said the reason the party hadn’t put up a challenger to run against Justice Annette Ziegler, who ultimately ran unopposed for her seat this spring, is because the party lacked the infrastructure to find a candidate in advance.
“I don’t think that our party has done a great job in the past of building that infrastructure to get people ready,” she said.
And while they all said they would be a full time party chair and take a salary, Finch took shots at Kennedy for planning to continue being mayor until his term expires in 2018.
But Kennedy said being mayor is a part time position, and he had already quit his full time consulting job in February to campaign for chair.
Hear the interviews: