S2:E03 Demystifying Democratic Alphabet Soup with Professor Handwerk
4:17PM Aug 19, 2021
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, we continue our series with Stephen Handwerk, consultant, strategist, and former executive director of the Louisiana Democratic Party, to break down the alphabet soup of Washington, D.C. organizations that work on Democratic party politics across the United States. Of course, at the center of all these groups is the DNC or the Democratic National Committee. We briefly touch on the role they play in presidential elections. But I'd like to underscore that the DNC does not run the presidential preference primaries or caucuses. Each individual state handles their own election for delegates. So like our federal elections, those elections are run by state officials, and governed by state rules. But we can get into the weeds of that process on a separate podcast.
... or as we're calling you, now, Professor Handwerk. Thank you so much for coming back to Louisiana Lefty. As a reminder of why you're such a good resource for these information sessions on Democratic party politics, you were the executive director of the Louisiana Democratic Party for over eight years, which is a particularly long time for someone to hold that position, not just in Louisiana, but nationwide, right?
Absolutely. The average lifespan of an executive director is 18 months. So with that comes, you know, obviously, a lot of fits and starts. And so yeah, it was my honor to hold that position for over eight years.
And how we know that your expertise in this area is so coveted is that you're still working with state parties in other states. You contract with several of them to help on managing just the kind of things that we have you on Louisiana Lefty to discuss, right?
Yeah, that's absolutely right. And I'm working with a lot of great folks out there, helping advise them on how to build a better, stronger, faster state party, and how to raise the resources that are needed in order to be effective.
Well, we had you on in season one for what was billed as the first in a series. So this then will be part two. And on that episode, you talked about how a candidate would get an endorsement from the Democratic party here in our state. That was on the episode Demystifying Democratic Party Endorsements. So we started the conversation there about all the different official Democratic entities in Louisiana. But there are a whole host of national entities that work together.
But before we get into that, Stephen, I wanted to talk a little bit, and I told you I was going to talk a little bit about this before we started recording, I can only name a couple of chairs in the country. I don't think I can name any of the executive directors of the state parties. The only chair that actually comes to mind to me today is Ben Wikler, because I'm such a fan of his -- he's the chair of the Wisconsin Democrats -- because he comes from the same sort of organizing background I come from. He worked at Move On before he went to the Wisconsin Democrats. And he's doing a lot of great work there and has really started to help some Democrats win in Wisconsin, and really did a major job winning for President Biden and Vice President Harris in the last election. But it's not a glamorous job. And I think part of what I like about him is he's just a workhorse, right? So I think what folks don't really understand about state parties, and we can have an episode where we talk about what state parties really are intended to do, or what their mission should be. But if folks are getting into it without the understanding that it's just a lot of work and a lot of arrows being thrown at you at all time, they're really barking up the wrong tree. It's really just not a space where you go to be a beloved figure in politics, right?
That is for sure. I frequently said that if you are leading a party, either as an executive director or as a state party chair, you're going to get all of the blame and none of the credit. And that is just how it is. That is the job you are signing up for. The chairs that are successful, the chairs and executive directors that are become known nationwide, and end up doing great things for their party, are workhorses, and not show horses.
Well, that's right, and our actual Chair of the DNC right now came from that space of being a Democratic party chair in South Carolina. But I know and I watched this, and I never was at top leadership in the party, I really was sort of a plebian level worker at the party. You scratched your face when I said that, but I was always a worker bee, I wasn't really at the leadership level. But what I witnessed was that the folks in leadership at the party immediately were hated by the right. They were pretty immediately hated by the far left. And they were at some point, not very well thought of, by a large swathe of the base of the party. Particularly in a red state, if you just don't start winning election after election, which is hard in a red state, people are gonna think you're not doing the job. They may not even understand the job, and they're gonna think they could do the job better than you could do it. And that is not unique to the Louisiana Democratic Party. Right? I've seen that through Democratic parties throughout the country.
The other thing I've heard from other folks working at Democratic parties in the nation, is sort of the difficult relationship they often have with the highest ranking Democratic politicians in the state, wherein the most successful Democratic parties have a good partnership with those people, because that's really needed for fundraising for the party, and for sort of name brand recognition. But often really, those people I've seen this for decades in our state, and I've heard other people talk about it from their own state Democratic parties, often there's a very fraught relationship between high ranking Democrats in the state and the party. Because frankly, it can be considered competition, particularly if you're either further right or further left than your state party. That party may really not be ideologically where you want to be aligned. So you may not feel that your voter base is the same voter base as the Democratic party. The other thing I've seen and heard, is just the potential for the Democratic party being taken over by high ranking elected officials in a state, wherein they really just want it to be another arm of their own personal political machinery.
Right. Yeah. And look, I've seen so many examples in the last decade of those sorts of situations on both sides. Let me just tell you, you both sides of this have its benefits. And both sides have very big detractions. So you know, for you to use our own example, quite famously, going into the election when Karen Carter Peterson and I first came into the party, we had that really big situation of Mary Landrieu. That was our number one issue. And what we found was, Karen and I were usually more in line with Mary Landrieu. Mary Landrieu was fighting with national Democrats. And so it was a weird situation. And we had some of those internal fights. But at the end of the day, I don't know, I think candidates are best served when they have a party that is at arm's length, but still trying to work together.
Those are just some thoughts I had this morning, that I wanted to be able to share. And again, we can talk more about what Democratic state parties are there to do on another episode, but let's today get into the Democratic alphabet soup, that's not the local level stuff, but the national level stuff. And because you work still so closely with the ASDC, I wanted to start there. So tell us who the ASDC is.
Sure. The ASDC is the Association of State Democratic Committees. The work that we do is, we're kind of the labor union for state parties, advocating at the DNC. Technically the ASDC is a financial subordinate committee to the DNC. And we'll talk I'm sure a little bit more about subordination. What the work that we do is we really are a training support system for state party chairs. This is not a real job that you go into to become a state party chair, where there is a ladder of progression there. There's no sort of like, training academy that you go through, and after four years, you've graduated, now you're qualified to be a state chair, and there's a national search... That that does not happened. In the executive director side of things, we also have an association of the executive directors, the ASDED, and that association is there to represent the executive directors. So that, in a nutshell, is what the ASDC does. We do spend a lot of time on fundraising. We spend a lot of time on educating. And we also are the key advocates inside the building at the DNC, you know, once they finally reopen the DNC and people start going back to work there.
So you're one of the key advocates for state parties.
And I will say the training piece, you mentioned, some of the best trainings I have had have come from the ASDC training program. That is where I've learned some of the most useful information I've gotten.
And we pride ourselves in that. Our training department, we were able to advocate inside the building, the ASDC was, in order to bring back the training department that was once made famous and really did a great job underneath Howard Dean. But there for a while it kind of took a background and wasn't really invested in. We brought it back.
So the next one I want to talk about, and we've already talked to some folks from this group, so we won't go too deep into it, is CDA, which is College Democrats of America. And I think folks are pretty aware of what that group is and what it does. Did you have any information on CDA that you wanted to share?
Yeah, we have a lot of these alphabets, and people get confused about what they stand for and what kind of lane they're in. So the CDA is officially an arm of the DNC. They actually have their own line item. They work very closely with the DNC. And it is basically for any Democrats who are in college at the time, and their representatives. So it is a really great dynamic organization that works incredibly hard to develop future leaders. But as you can imagine, with College Democrats, it's a very short period in some people's lives. And so during that timeframe, those individuals move up through the ranks, they get a lot of great training, they work really with the DNC, but they also don't really have a lot of funding sources on their own. So they decided to actually work more in conjunction with the DNC. That is to be a little bit different than YDA, Young Democrats of America. YDA is basically like the older brother of the college network, sister of the college Democrats, that organization is a standalone committee. They're not directly associated with the DNC, although I believe that they're affiliated. They actually raised their own money. It's young professionals. It's a lot of folks that are doing work, and it's really anyone can be a member up until the age of 40.
I think that's lovely that they consider 39 year olds still young.
Everybody knows the abbreviation of the DNC, the Democratic National Committee, but not many people know what that entity exists to do. So let's talk about the Democratic National Committee and what they do, and more importantly, possibly, what they don't do.
Oh, yeah, that's a really good point. In my perspective, and anyone can read the troves of paper that will articulate exactly what the DNC does, but the large portion of it is the DNC is the main funding mechanism, and the main facilitator of Democratic presidential primaries. At the end of the day, that's what it boils down to. They are there to elect Democratic presidents, and to support that effort in all of its forms. So that can be with state parties, that can be with helping out in legislative races, with Nancy Pelosi our amazing speaker, and with Senate races. That can be those different lanes, but at the end of the day, their core mission is to set up the policies and procedures to fairly conduct presidential preference primaries and presidential preference caucuses. The caucuses are going by the wayside, and we're replacing them with primaries. So direct vote, one person, one vote. It makes it a lot easier to understand and is a lot easier to conduct.
And I did have a romanticized vision of caucuses years ago, until it was really made clear to me that they're just not democratic, small d democratic, in the sense that there are a lot of people who work shift jobs, who have children, who have elder care, who have disabilities, who cannot go to a caucus all day and do that old school convention, knock-down, drawn out, until the last man standing wins the race.
That is that romanticized, much fabled process, that, like, Iowa is famous for in conducting their presidential primary. It's because when the sun went down, all of the folks came off their farms, and would go to those town councils, they would go to the gymnasium at their schools, they would talk with their neighbors, they would argue back and forth, they would go into the different camps and figure out, and then once their candidate became non viable, they would have to then pick who else they were going to go to. And so it was about relationships, it was about that. But again, like you said, those days are kind of gone, people getting off work by six o'clock in the evening to spend the whole entire evening with their family. That's just not the world we live in today, no matter no matter how much we romanticize it.
It leaves a lot of people out of the process.
Okay. So that's what they do. The DNC does work on some messaging, it does work on some training. But people often really think the DNC does everything. And I guess that's part of why we're having this conversation of what the Democratic alphabet soup is. But they're just a lot of things the Democratic National Committee does not do and was not built to do. Are there any key areas that you think of that people get wrong about the DNC?
Well, first off, the DNC is not omnipotent. They don't really get involved in primaries at all, right? They have to stay completely out of any sort of party primaries. When we have the White House, the DNC has a completely different posture than it does when we don't have the White House. And the main difference for that is, while we have the White House, the DNC actually functions as the political arm of the president, doing the things that the president should not or the presidential staff at the White House should not be doing. Now, mind you, we brought that back that was not in place when the former president had the White House. The RNC got involved. The White House was involved in a lot of things they shouldn't have, like having a Presidential National Convention on the White House grounds. Like you will not see that in a Biden administration. For sure.
And you're talking about Trump, not Obama, you're talking about the previous president, not the previous Democratic president. But speaking of alphabet soup, we can mention that President Obama did have his own entity, OFA, Organizing for America, when he was president, and that was sometimes at odds with the DNC, as well.
Yeah. And it was it made it even much more confusing, right? And added another layer of alphabet soup. They were a nonprofit. So that made things more complicated on the political side of things.
That was the only the second term though. The first term, they were not a nonprofit. And full disclosure, I was an OFA person.
In fact, OFA in Obama's first term was officially under the DNC.
Yeah. And look, a lot of folks get cringy when they talk about the party. They think of smoke filled dark rooms, where deals get made and some really untoward things happen. And there was certainly a day for that. I'm not saying that doesn't happen at all anymore. But a lot of folks believe that that's how things happen, and that's why they feel that they don't like the party situation. But at the end of the day, I think the party does a lot of really good work. And it is a centralized clearing house, where hopefully if the party is doing their job, and when we say the party, it's all of these alphabet soup doing what they're all supposed to do, individually, working together to get the results we all want.
And what I've noticed, Stephen, is from the staff who work for the DNC, the staff that I've known over the years, are really good people, doing really good work, day in day out, just the hard work, not the behind the scenes political work or deals being made. They're just hard workers. And they've certainly sent some of those people to us in Louisiana when we've had big elections, like Mary Landrieu like John Bel Edwards, to come, I guess they've actually in kind donated staff to us on occasion, to come down and do communications type work, digital work...
And data work and field work and all of that. And what's really important to realize there is the only reason that happens, because it doesn't happen everywhere, is when your state party is a strong state party, who is working in conjunction with the DNC. It doesn't mean that you're always agreeing with the DNC. I've had some very famous fights that sometimes bled over into the media, when I was disagreeing with the DNC, but that was my job. My job was to advocate for the Louisiana Democratic Party, and that's okay. But when you have that relationship, and you have that respect, it's oftentimes returned when you need it most, not only in money, but also in people.
We talked the last episode you were on about the charter and bylaws of the DNC, which are on their website. But our state, bylaws are subordinate to theirs.
That's exactly right. So in all cases, we can't do something that that would violate the DNC bylaws here in the state of Louisiana. And so that's always a consideration when rules are being changed. And right now, a lot of rulemaking is happening. Folks, we just elected President Biden and Vice President Harris But the thing is, right now, we're literally working on building the rules that will govern the next presidential primary. So we're literally already working on that. And it's those individuals that are working with, and they're trying to navigate that whole thing. When you have 57, technically 57, state parties, right, because you have the 51, basically, states, because we always include D.C. in that, but then you also have Guam, you have American Samoa, and all of those groups that we need to consider in building those rules.
And the DNC also is responsible for putting on the Democratic National Convention every four years. And that is also where you get your platform, your Democratic platform put together.
As presidential preference primaries happen throughout the country, not only do they get delegates who will vote for them on the floor, but they also get awarded seats on these very coveted three committees: bylaws, rules, and credentials. So those are the three committees that run the convention. And the platform is arguably everything, right? That's what everybody fights for during it, because they want to make sure that the party is adequately representing their belief system.
So let's move on to the next set of alphabets that we're talking about: the DSCC and the D Triple C.
D Trip, as we always say.
So the DSCC that is...
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and basically it's the fundraising arm and support organization for the United States Democratic senators. That organization is always looking to pick up seats, they're looking to raise money for those seats, and are looking to find the best candidates for those seats.
Okay. And I remember, for me, personally, my last interaction with the DSCC was when they pulled out of supporting Mary Landrieu in her runoff against Bill Cassidy. Sometimes they get an earful when they call here trying to raise money from us.
They should. I still have the scars from that time period. They had committed to funding about 100 staff members for us for that 40 day run off or whatever it was. All of a sudden our call stopped being answered, our emails stopped getting returned, and the money stopped flowing, and no communication about it. We have learned in the press that that's what they were doing. And that was horrid. You don't do that, especially to a sitting United States senator who raised the money into the DSCC, that she was now asking to get a portion of that back. So that was wrong, and Louisiana should feel really upset. The one thing that I will say is, nobody in DC understands Louisiana. They don't understand our runoff system. And so because of that, they think that there is an opt out portion that you get for the runoff. And that's just not right. Because our runoffs are so different, a lot of the work that we do as a party, or at least should be doing, is advocating in DC, so that they better understand us.
Okay, okay. The D Triple C. D Trip...
The exact same thing, but it's for House members, United States House members. So we have six congressional districts in Louisiana. It is for those six seats, they're always looking for candidates. They run their operations a lot different than the DSCC. But they function the same, their mission is the same as it is for the US senators. It is to elect the best possible Democrat in all of the congressional districts.
And just as a teaser, I'm getting ready to do an interview with a former fundraiser for the D Triple C, who lives in Louisiana is from Louisiana, but used to cover the whole southern region. One of the questions I asked her was, "What's with all the emails?" The DCCC is famously the entity that sends out just 50 emails a day.
Not only that, it's always the one with the subject line: It's over. It's over, and you're like, "It's August, like what?" Yeah, they became quite infamous for that, and they haven't slowed down. So here we are.
I've opted out I don't know how many times and I keep getting back on their list. But that's a conversation for another day. Those were for federal seats. There are some state level seats that gets fundraising also from alphabet soup entities in D.C.: the DLCC and the DGA.
Let's talk about the DGA first. The DGA, the Democratic Governors Association, is the organization that helps elect governors in the states. We worked, obviously, very closely with them over the years, to first get them to pay attention to John Bel Edwards. It was it was a real pleasure to work with the governor and his team in those early days to try and get the DGA to pay attention down here, and to make them understand that we could actually win. So that was a lot of really good work. Again, they serve to elect Democratic governors. And also, they do spend a lot of time on trying to make sure that the best Democratic candidate is actually the one that is on the ballot come Election Day. And so they do a lot of that sort of work. We don't always agree with them. Sometimes we have competing interests. But the good thing is that they are there as a funding source. Yep. The DLCC, on the other hand, is the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. And it is there to help us pick up seats in both of the state houses, the state senate and the state house. That is what their mission is. They are there to not only help fund, but also help train, and that's one of the things that I don't think we here in Louisiana have been able to take enough advantage of, for one reason or another. We seem to have had a lot of our house and senate leadership has been kind of adverse to working with them. And I'm hoping that that changes, like you said before, the training that is offered, and most of the training that they do is in conjunction with the ASDC training department, and it would be so great if a lot of our legislators would actually spend some of that time modernizing their campaigns, rather than investing all of their money in yard signs.
Okaaay, and then there's two more that we don't have to talk too much about because A) I think it's self-explanatory, and B) I don't know that they do much work here, but DAGA and DASS.
DAGA is the Democratic Attorneys General Association. Underneath Alex Padilla actually, who now is the United States Senator for the great state of California, he did an amazing job at really kind of leveling up the work that they're doing. So the amount of fundraising that they're doing, the more sophistication that they brought to their team to really try and make them a major player, rather than just raising a bunch of money on Martha's Vineyard, they literally are doing the work now and really supporting their candidates, which I think is really great. I'm really looking forward to seeing that move forward. And I'm sorry, what was the other one?
Democratic Association of Secretaries of State.
They do the exact same work for Secretary of State candidates. And mind you, not all states have secretaries of state. And the jobs are differing from every state. So it becomes a lot harder to run those national organizations, when there's so many differences per state.
Okay. So just to wrap up, Stephen, for Louisiana to get investment from any of these alphabet soups in D.C., what's our best avenue to doing that?
Doing a good job on the ground. At the end of the day, we have to start the work on the ground to get the attention and realize the investment nationally. And it's also building those relationships. That's the best advice that I can give to folks, is pay attention to what they're doing. You know, when you get those emails that it's all going to end, make sure that you offer your advice, maybe even start making some investments, but then at the same time, giving them the feedback that they've got to pay more attention to Louisiana.
Okay. Stephen, thank you so much for running through all of that with me today. I know you're moving on to your next call with Democrats somewhere else in the country. But thank you for spending a little time with us here.
I absolutely love it. Lynda, you're one of my favorite people in the world. Anytime we get to talk is a good day.
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