Last week, in his article “Democrats have a depth problem,” Aaron Blake broke down big electoral battleground states and identified a brutal truth: “… the cupboard is pretty bare when it comes to recruiting capable Democrats into big-time statewide campaigns.”
As executive director of the New Leaders Council, I tend to agree.
The root cause for this “depth problem” is actually pretty simple: It stems from the fact that we progressives too often have short attention spans. I see it when I travel across the country, only to see strategic conversations devolve into “Can you fix our movement?” or “We need to recruit candidates” — as if there is a magic wand that just needs to be waived or a candidate tree to shake.
The fact is, with the institutional disadvantages we face, the progressive community needs to commit to building a well-funded and sustainable infrastructure. When I hear questions like those above, I point to one sobering fact: The conservative movement’s Leadership Institute has trained over 100,000 leaders since 1979 and has an annual budget of $13 million. But its counterpart — New Leaders Council — is only nine years old and runs on a budget of just $900,000.
For more than 60 years, the conservative movement has heavily invested in building an organized and long-term pipeline to turn promising young leaders into election-winning candidates. They have done this through groups like the Leadership Institute, GOPAC and the Heritage Foundation, and they have invested countless millions of dollars in this effort.
By contrast, the modern progressive effort is less than a decade in the making, essentially starting after John Kerry’s loss in 2004.
Furthermore, when it comes to building a bench, the saying “all politics is local” has never been more appropriate. Conservatives understand this. They know that the real action is at the municipal level: school boards, mayors, city councils and state legislative bodies. And they have built a clear ladder for young leaders to climb — from doorknocker to trained activist, all the way to campaign surrogate and finally, candidate.
Conservatives, adhering to the all-politics-is-local mantra, have used this model to install future members of Congress into positions such as county commissioner, state representative and beyond, creating an assembly line whereby, as soon as one member moves “up,” there stands another in line to take the recently promoted one’s place. Along the way, training and networking hubs are provided to launch their most effective pupils to even higher heights. From there, those individuals affect policy, including redistricting, campaign finance and patronage, using their positions and design of these policies to ensures their bench remains well-stocked with higher-office potential.
To compete, progressives must become equally as disciplined in training and equally as strategic when investing our dollars. It is easy to get excited about the newest shiny object, focus only on presidential elections and not midterms, and spend millions on “sexy” lost causes. But when it comes to the less glamorous and more serious work of making smart investments in long-term leadership development, we run out of interest and funds.
Put another way: Conservatives run their training and leadership development operations like a blue-chip business on the NYSE, reliably paying steady dividends. Yet we run ours as if hoping for the next big IPO payday.
This does not have to be the case.
I would recommend two guidelines for success, and highlight one bright spot on the horizon as progressives think through the “bench” issue.
One guideline is New Leaders Council. Of course, I might be biased, but the simple fact is NLC is on the ground across the country doing the hard work of progressive infrastructure and leadership development. Through its 40 chapters, NLC will train more than 700 leaders in 2015 and will have over 3,000 alumni. This infrastructure, while far shy of what the Leadership Institute is doing for Republicans, will be the future backbone of the progressive movement, and the well of talent it generates will lead us into the next generation.
Blake’s piece zeroes in on Florida, where Democrats control just 10 of 27 congressional seats, no statewide constitutional offices and less than 40 percent of both state legislative chambers. Well, since 2011, NLC’s presence in Florida grew from one chapter to seven, and these chapters have trained more than 200 promising leaders. In just three short years, NLC has built a statewide network of trained, capable and engaged political entrepreneurs. These are folks who will become candidates and populate the “bench” at every level in Florida.
And NLC is replicating this model in major markets like Texas, Ohio and North Carolina, as well as Montana, Louisiana, Iowa and Nebraska. Blake’s piece correctly diagnoses the problem in Florida, and NLC’s organizing and leadership development work is one part of the treatment.
The other is in Kentucky. Yes, it sounds hard to believe, but many of the swing and blue states in Blake’s piece would love to have Kentucky’s bench. Admittedly, Kentucky has inherent advantages when it comes to progressive politics, including a strong Democratic history, an important labor constituency, less racial politics than neighbors to the south and 120 counties driving patronage. It also is a state Bill Clinton won twice.
But for years, Kentucky progressives have also invested in on-the-ground infrastructure, both formally and informally. And it starts at the top. Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, is committed to raising money for campaigns (an often overlooked skill) and has focused on jobs as well as being bold in supporting the Affordable Care Act. Kentucky also has a robust in-state independent expenditure effort that dates back to 2007 to drive the message. And, finally, Kentucky has a clear leadership development pipeline for emerging progressives, with groups like Emerge doing amazing work with women candidates, and New Leaders Council and Truman National Security Project organizing and training new leaders on the ground to step up when the moment arises.
The fruit of those investments has paid off, as seen in strong candidates like Senate hopeful and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, attorney general and governor hopeful Jack Conway, state Auditor Adam Edelen, attorney general candidate Andy Beshear, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and numerous others. Kentucky, where Democrats hold five of six statewide constitutional offices, is an example for other states to study.
Technology and emerging demographic advantages have enabled progressives to make great strides. But we cannot rely on passive trend lines to carry the movement forward. We have to do the hard work. To build a truly progressive future, it is about recruiting, training and promoting leaders in all sectors and seasons, not just election cycles. And building a broad and deep cross-sectorial coalition in government, legal, nonprofit and corporate leadership positions takes time and serious resources.
The “depth problem” is very real and we are seeing the real-life consequences today pointed out by Blake. However, the bright spot is this: There is an emerging progressive pipeline to build talent. Along with New Leaders Council, hard working groups like Roosevelt Institute, Organizing for Action, NOI, Emerge, Progress Now, Truman, Labor, Our Time, Voto Latino, Bootcamps, Project New America, NDN, the Center for American Progress, the Progressive Policy Institute and others provide skills and networks to the next generation of leaders.
Bill Clinton always said, “Elections are about the future.” I agree. The battle between conservatives and progressives for the millennial generation — what will be the largest voting block in American history — will likely determine the next 50 years of our country.
Mark Riddle is a media consultant, political strategist and veteran of numerous campaigns. He is also executive director of New Leaders Council and the New Leaders Council Community Action Initiative. All statements and opinions are personal to the author; organizational affiliations and titles provided only for identification purposes.