Welcome to Louisiana Lefty, a podcast about politics and community in Louisiana, where we make the case that the health of the state requires a strong progressive movement fueled by the critical work of organizing on the ground. Our goal is to democratize information, demystify party politics, and empower you to join the mission, because victory for Louisiana requires you.
On this week's episode, I host Stephen Handwerk consultant, strategist, and former executive director of the Louisiana Democratic Party, for the first in a series of short conversations about party politics, with this week's topic being how to get an endorsement from the Democratic Party.
Stephen Handwerk! Welcome to Louisiana Lefty!
Lynda Woolard! It is such a pleasure to be on. I absolutely am addicted to this podcast.
Well, you haven't been on the podcast before. But technically you were my first guest, because we recorded a video for the Facebook page, which launched a little bit before the podcast actually got up and running. So thank you for being my first guest.
Reunited, and it feels so good.
I've asked you to come on, I want to do a series of mini-podcasts with you, because part of the demystifying party politics part of the podcast is really something that I can go to you for, and I traditionally have for years gone to you for, when I've had questions about party politics, or when someone's asked me about party politics. I always know you're a really great resource for that. So thank you for agreeing to come on and help us with that part of our mission. Before we get started, because this is the first time you're on the podcast, I want to do some of the standard stuff we do every episode. So I wanted to talk a little bit about how we met. And you can correct me if I'm wrong, but I think it was over conference calls in maybe 2011 or 2012, when folks were trying to change up the Louisiana Democratic Party. Is that when we first connected?
I think it would have to be. Yeah, it would have to be 2011. That would have been when we were organizing throughout the state and recruiting members to run for the DSCC.
Full disclosure, I was not seriously involved with that effort. I was very peripherally involved, because I was still working on Barack Obama's re-election. And that was my highest priority. But I did know all the people, through the Obama campaign, who were working on that effort, so I attended a bunch of those calls. And I know that's where you were. And then really, legitimately in person and working together, it was through the Louisiana Democratic Party when I came on, in 2013.
Sure, that's exactly right. Good times were had, but man, how time flies.
What was your political origin story?
Wow. So largely, it revolves around equality. You know, being a gay man, I faced discrimination, quite severe discrimination, in the workplace. And I felt that is the impetus for the calling to do something about it. I'm usually not one to just sit around and complain about stuff. I'm usually the guy that's like, "Okay, well, let's roll up our sleeves. This is how we fix it, step one." And so moving down here to Louisiana, and just falling in love with Louisiana, it was really fun to start getting plugged into politics. And I did it mostly on the national level, went into national LGBT politics to make the Democratic Party better on LGBTQ issues. And then ultimately, I got frustrated with Louisiana, and decided we needed to make a change here in Louisiana. We can't keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So that led us to about almost nine years at the Louisiana Democratic Party, making things better, electing a governor, and fighting really hard for things that we all care about.
Your years of service at the Democratic Party really allowed you to get into the nuts and bolts of party politics. And you really devoted yourself to learning all of that. So that's what makes you such a great resource, and why I wanted to bring you on today to specifically talk about how one gets an endorsement from the Democratic Party, because that seems to be something that a lot of people really don't understand. I hear people complaining that they haven't been invited to get an endorsement. and things like that. And I've tried to correct people over the years, or inform people over the years where necessary. It just feels like something that would be helpful to have out there in the public for people to have an easy way to look up. And I think it would be more helpful to start with the notion of the bylaws, and how there is a national bylaw, estate bylaw, and a parish level bylaw, because to my understanding, that's the three spaces where we have Democratic Party leadership. So tell me about the bylaws, at just a top line level.
That is really important for folks to understand. So we all are built, if you will, off of the parent of the DNC, the Democratic National Committee. Their bylaws, all of the subsequent Democratic Party institutions are subordinate to the DNC. So you have to build the apparatus, off of those tree trunks, in order to be able to grow your organization as an official Democratic Party institution. So then the state party establishes their rules and their processes through their bylaws. And they can always make their rules, their bylaws, on really anything, as long as it doesn't break the law, and as long as it doesn't conflict with the DNC's bylaws, because again, being subordinate, a subordinate committee to the DNC. And then lastly, of course, are the local committees. Here, we have parish executive committees, if folks are listening from other states, sometimes those are organized by counties, some of them are organized by towns, it all really depends on your state. But really the thought process, the idea is all the same. And again, those local parties, then, can set their own bylaws that oftentimes have to be approved by the state party, and certainly can never conflict with the state party bylaws or the DNC bylaws. So it kind of flows downhill, if that makes sense as to the rules. And if you are ever going for an endorsement, the first thing you ought to do is find out what the rules are.
Very good point. And those rules are generally available, I believe on all the different websites, I can link to them in the podcast notes.
That's exactly right. That's usually the best place to get them. Go and review their bylaws, find out what their Rules of Procedure are, find out, so that you understand. The other thing is, too, folks have to consider this, you know, if they're going for an endorsement if that is the ultimate end goal, they should realize, too, that this is going to be their first election, with any organization, right? And most of the time, just like an election, you know who the electors are. You know who the members are that are going to be voting for this. So you can actually run your campaign. It's a mini campaign. You typically know when the election is going to be, because it's going to be at a board meeting. And you can then work backwards from that. So it's a lot of the same skill sets that you're trying out just a little bit earlier before the election.
Very good point. Very good point. Before we start talking about endorsements, and how you would get one, I think you and I would like people to know, we don't think that's the end all be all to a campaign. And endorsements are not necessary to winning a campaign. We certainly are of the mind that, and I say we, you can correct me if I'm wrong, but I think I'm on the same page with you. I hear you say a lot, "There is no magic only work." Right? So I think that's the same thing. If you run a really good campaign and do all the things that this podcast advocates for, which is the field campaign and the communication strategy, etc, etc., the endorsements are more peripheral to that work, but they can be helpful. When are endorsements helpful to a campaign.
I'm a big proponent of saying this, largely even before I got involved with the state party. I was more of an instigator from the outside, as I was saying, with my national work. When are endorsements helpful? Well, they're helpful when they bring one of two things to the table for you: When they bring people, which endorsements often do, they bring people, the members of that organization to actually work for you in your campaign, but secondly, if they bring money. At the end of the day, you know, campaigns usually have three resources. And one of them is finite. And that is time. You run out of time when there's an election day. But you also need the two other resources, which is people and money. And you can always get more of both of those, you can always find more people, you can always find more money, if you're willing to work for it. And so these organizations, these endorsements, when they matter are when they're going to bring those things to the table for you. It's going to have a multiplier effect for your campaign in many cases.
So the Democratic Party endorsement, specifically, may or may not come with that. And that's something that you might want to check on, before you invest a ton of time in pursuing it.
That is exactly right. Having those honest conversations with members of the elected bodies, going and doing a little bit of research, finding out from other candidates that may have run before, finding out kind of what the lay of the land is, and what that ultimately meant. A lot of times, campaigns will expend an exorbitant amount of resources. They'll have elaborate whip programs, and they will have this whole structure that they will have, and at the end of the day, it's not going to mean anything, because they get the endorsement and they get a logo that they can put on a piece of mail, but again, if you don't have people to send a piece of mail to, or if you don't have money to pay for the mailing, what does it really actually mean to have a little logo embossed on your mailer? So do the research in advance to find out, "Okay, how much effort should I put into this? What is the ultimate payoff? If I do get the endorsement, how big of a benefit is this going to be to my campaign?"
So I think you do want the endorsement, if you can get it. If it's easy to get it, go get it?
If it's worth getting it, go get it. It's always nice to have the Democratic logo, if you're running as a Democrat. That's always nice.
Some of the parish executive committees, or maybe even the state party, might send mailers for you, or might put you on their slate that goes out in mailers. So that can also be helpful, but that's the thing you should ask about. And more importantly, a lot of times they'll charge you money to be on that slate.
So you want to make sure you know that up front. How much money am I going to have to put into that?
That's exactly right. That's exactly right. It may end up being that you did all of that work, and then all of a sudden find out that you're buy in, in order to be on a mailer is, typically, what especially the local committees do, is they'll do a pro rata share, in order to keep things legit, in order to keep things aboveboard with all of the campaign ethics, they will do a pro rata share. So if you're in a big Parish, and they're sending out a big mailer, your pro rata share could end up being several thousand dollars.
And if you can't afford that, what have you spent all that time doing?
That's exactly right. That's exactly right.
Okay, so let's say we want that endorsement. So as far as endorsements go for candidates, the DNC doesn't really endorse, they only get involved really at the presidential level in primaries, and they support the candidates that win the primaries. So we can talk more about endorsements that come out of Washington, DC, and the Democratic sister committees on a later episode. But let's focus today more on these local elections and the state elections, which is where our Louisiana Democratic Party or our parish executive committees would endorse. So let's talk more about that today. So the Louisiana Democratic Party staff does not make endorsements. There is a governing body, which we've mentioned several times on the podcast, of the Louisiana Democratic Party, which is the Democratic State Central Committee, shorthand DSCC. And that is the body that does endorsements. Correct?
That is that is absolutely correct.
However, generally those endorsements are discussed ahead of time with the executive committee.
The executive committee makes the recommendations to that body. So the elected members of the executive committee of the DSCC really makes the first stab at the endorsements, right?
That that is absolutely correct. And the DSCC, you're represented by, you know, two members, a male and a female, from every state house seat. So that's 210 people that you potentially can get votes from. But typically, yes to your point, the executive committee will interview candidates, they will talk to them, they will review their financial backing, they will review their endorsements, they will review a whole host of different things, interview those candidates, and then pass on a recommendation. Sometimes it's no endorsement. Sometimes it's we love all Democrats. Sometimes it's, this is the best democrat for this race. So yes, that is absolutely what happens.
But how do you trigger that? Is that automatically done? Or does a candidate have to request to be interviewed by the executive committee? How does that start?
Yeah, so typically, it starts with the candidate making the request of the chair of the party and the executive director. Typically, that is how the process starts. If you review the state party bylaws, there is mentioned in there, that request can be made of the state party to endorse in a race. Now, that is completely up to, then, the governing body, whether they want to take it up or not. But yes, that is typically what gets the process started.
And how early can you ask for that to happen if you're the candidate?
There are no hard and fast rules for that. It has been tradition, that oftentimes, for non incumbents, that endorsements won't be made until qualifying happens. Because of the short window that we have between qualifying and election on some races, it's gotten better over the years. But it's still problematic. Sometimes we'll we'll jump earlier than that. But generally speaking for non incumbents, that's how that happens.
Not to get too into the weeds about it, but is there a mechanism if the DSCC at large is not happy with the choice of the recommendation that the executive committee has made? Is there a mechanism for them to say we want to look at a different candidate, or we want to go a different way? Is there a way for them to not just give an up or down vote on the executive committee's choice?
What typically would happen if the executive committee makes a recommendation, that comes as a resolution from the executive committee, and it is 100% debatable, it is 100% modifiable from members, who you'll need to get a motion and a second, obviously, and follow normal Robert's Rules. But yes, that is completely possible. And it has happened frequently. Sometimes there is a disagreement, and the state committee can come in and make changes to that. There's also been times where that has happened, and things have kind of fallen apart, and so no endorsement ends up getting made, because you still have to get 50% plus one, according to the bylaws in order to pass a resolution of endorsement.
Okay, okay. And then at the state level, does that tend to come with people or money or even ballots?
So it always depends on what the resources are, but here are the major benefits that you get, typically - I will put an asterisk beside this - typically, through the state party, with the state party endorsement. Number one, you usually get access to the state party's mailing permit, in order to be able to work with the state party and fundraise with the state party, in order to pay for mail going out. And the state party permit gives you a significant discount in mail. It also provides a lot of opportunity for the state party to message on your behalf. That was a really big thing while I was running the party, I would not get out over my skis and talking about any one candidate without having that backing from the state central committee with an endorsement or with some sort of a resolution. And so that's why it's really important to be able to do that. And then, it also comes down to, and the very real tangible thing is, that any sort of field operations that is going to be run by the state party, if you get the endorsement, you are typically included. Now, devil's always in the details as to what that might involve. We typically ask candidates to help us fundraise for those efforts, but it's normally not fully on the brunt of their shoulders, because it will go to the highest ranking Democrat on the ticket to help us raise money. So if that's a gubernatorial race, if that is a a senatorial race or congressional race, those funds oftentimes will also come through other resources. But it is a really good sort of collaborative work that you get to be included in, by getting that endorsement. So it's certainly something to work for.
The DSCC only concerns itself with statewide races?
Again, tradition dictates that only multi-parish races and statewide races, the state party will get involved in. So the Supreme Court, BESE, the Public Service Commission, those sorts of races, the state party will get involved in. Typically, though they do not endorse in the legislative races. That oftentimes is reserved as the purview of the legislative caucuses. So the state party, are they prevented from doing that? Absolutely not. But typically, when a race is held solely inside a parish, the state party will not endorse there, because that then falls to the local party.
Okay, so there's a not so much bylaws issue there as not wanting to step on each other's toes?
That's exactly right. It's a mutually assured collaboration agreement with folks, yes.
So for those municipal elections, those within parish elections, more localized elections, that's where you go to your Democratic Parish Executive Committee, for your endorsement.
That is exactly right.
Now, I know from serving on the Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee, that we would always host an endorsement meeting for every set of elections that came around, without the candidate having to come ask for that endorsement. We would just set up an endorsement meeting, and invite all the Democratic candidates to come. Is that the way most DPECs operate?
Absolutely. Many, many operate that way. Others, depending upon their structure, their number of members, where they're located, whether there are Democrats in the race or not, that's sometimes complicates having strict calendars. But for the most part, many committees will automatically, if there is a Democrat that's running in the race, they will call some sort of an endorsement meeting. And again, talking with that parish chair or vice chair, any of the other officers that they have, is incredibly important to find out what the insight is, as to how that meeting is going to get run, who's going to be invited, who's going to be allowed to speak, and what order, all of those things are going to be important for you to find out.
We can talk more about the DSCC and DPECs in a future episode. But you mentioned it matters how many folks are on a DPEC. It's a pretty wide range. I think Orleans is the largest. And I want to say we had around 70 members.
70. You have 70. 14 members per councilmanic district.
Yeah. And what's the smallest number a DPEC might have?
I think that would be Lafayette Parish right now. I could be wrong. It happened once before. But because of the deconsolidation in Lafayette, they went down to only five members, plus five that large, so that has significantly shrunk their committee. But typically, we're looking at around 14 members, is I think what the average would be. But you have one seat, per every councilmanic district in the parish. Okay? So if you're a police jury, if you're a council, whatever, one seat per district, and then five at large. That is the rule. The problem is there are exceptions to that rule, in Orleans Parish, St. Bernard Parish, as well as Jefferson Parish. Those all have slightly different rules and slightly more numbers.
But the important point there is if you're looking at about 10 or 14 members, that's a very easy number of voters, essentially,to work.
You are absolutely fishing in a barrel. Yep.
So that's a) whether to identify that they're even capable of being convinced to vote for you.
But if they are, if you're able to talk them into being on your side, that's a really small number of people to work, so that might be worth your while.
And so if you're running, what you want to do is contact your local DPEC, so that you are sure that they have your contact information, when they start putting their endorsement meeting together, because I've run into that before where the DPEC might not have the contact information for the person. And what I've seen happen is candidates give their contact information to the clerk of court or the secretary of state, and if you're not monitoring that phone number, that mailing address, or now that email address that you've given to the clerk of court or secretary of state, and you get invited through that means to an endorsement meeting, but you don't see that invitation, then you might miss that meeting.
That is vital. It is absolutely vital and critical, especially because we go back to that point we just made, which was about when qualifying happens, those names are not out there. Don't assume that just because you made an announcement on your Facebook page that you're running, that everyone in your parish knows. You really have to do that outreach yourself. And you can go to the state party website, LouisianaDemocrats.org, and you can pull down a list of the parish executive committee members, or you can contact the office, and they're more than happy to share with you that contact list, which will typically be the most up to date list available.
Well, and what I'll say one other tip, before we move on, if you know you're going to run, whether it's community organizations or Democratic Parish Executive Committees, or any of that, I'd say start to get to know those folks, reach out to them, become their allies early, start to let them know - you don't have to tell them you're running - but start to let them know who you are, and that you're interested in the same things they're interested in, so that you're not a big fat unknown to them, when it comes time for you to go ask for an endorsement.
That is so incredibly true. And it's so true on so many different topics, not just endorsements.
Well, very good. So I've told you that I want to have you back on for other Democratic Party issues.
I will hit you up for that again. But in the meantime, since this is your first time on the podcast, I do want to ask you the final three questions that we ask of all guests, the first being what's, in your opinion, the biggest obstacle for progressives in our state?
The biggest obstacle, I think, is purity tests. I think that if we're going to have people try and live up to a standard, heck, I don't agree with my husband on everything. How in the world are we going to try and put people through some sort of massive purity test in order to get them? So I think that that's our biggest obstacle right now, that we've got to figure out a way to navigate.
And what's our biggest opportunity?
I think our biggest opportunity is the issues. If we refocus the conversations, and we set the conversation rather than letting others at the conversation, we're going to be winning. We have the issues on our side.
Succinct and well stated. Stephen, who's your favorite superhero?
Oh, hands down Wonder Woman. I mean, being a gay man of a certain age, having Linda Carter in my life, as I was growing up, probably set a lot of things on track for where I've ended up today. And also, too, I think, my husband would divorce me, if I didn't say Wonder Woman. So, there we have it.
Ha! And I know you've been watching the Justice League.
Oh my gosh, so good. The Snyder cut, I can't even.
Very good. Stephen, thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate your helping us break down those things that a lot of people don't really know, that might be, sort of, insider information for folks. And I really want it to be information that's available to everyone, so everyone knows how to utilize it to their best interests.
I absolutely love this. I love what you're doing here to help demystify and to get more people involved. So thank you Louisiana. Lefty. Thank you, Lynda Woolard, for the work you're doing, and I can't wait to hear the next episode.
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