Democrats need to be more welcoming to candidates: 2014 election edition

Last Tuesday, when my husband showed up in our state capital to file his candidacy for U.S. Congress–in a district where no other Democrat is willing to try–he was received with indifference at the Democratic Party headquarters. It was an object lesson in how not to encourage Democrats to run for office.

Missouri election laws dictate that the first stop on the journey to candidacy is a visit to the office of your state party. All it takes to run for Congress in our state is legitimate residency [which you can prove with a driver’s license] and a check for $100, made out to the party you’re representing as a candidate. Our first stop was the office of Missouri Democrats, a little storefront on Madison St. in Jefferson City.

My husband, Arthur Lieber, is a progressive Democrat running in Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District, a seat that is currently held by a very conservative Republican—Ann Wagner. [It was previously occupied by the infamous “legitimate-rape” Todd Akin.]

To date–halfway through the filing period–no other Democratic has jumped in. The conventional wisdom in political circles–including leaders of the MO Democratic Party–is that there’s no hope for a Democrat in that district. Cycle after cycle, Missouri’s Democratic officialdom ignores the district and doesn’t bother to recruit a candidate. Apparently, they are so uninterested in the 2nd District that they are willing to allow a Republican to run unopposed.

So, you would think that when someone bothers to drive 2.5 hours to the state capitol to take on this thankless task–because no one else will–the Democratic Party would at least show some enthusiasm. Nope.

Our arrival was greeted with indifference. The person manning the front desk at Democratic state headquarters—a young gentleman wearing a shirt he may have slept in—typed up the basic candidate-information form, took the check, and exchanged it for a receipt that we were instructed to take to the Secretary of State’s office. That would have been the disappointing and anti-climactic end of the encounter if Arthur had not bothered to ask this very basic question: “Do you have any resources for candidates?”

“Yeah,” said the young man, who mentioned the Voter Activation Network [VAN], which is the statewide voter database. My husband then asked about mailing lists. We learned that the state party also has a huge list of emails, but that in order to access it, “You have to give us something of equal value,” meaning lists of emails that they don’t already have. Or, we could pay for the list. And that was it.

“Well,” I asked, feeling annoyed at our underwhelming reception and at the way party support was being portrayed as a helping hand with a large price tag. “For our $100, can we at least use your bathroom?”

The experience [filing, not the bathroom] was disappointing, but not unexpected, given that Arthur is doing something that the party considers a waste of time. But as soon as we left the office, I began thinking about all of the other Democratic candidates whose quests–for “down-ticket” offices–also begin at that office. Do they get the same blah-blah welcome? Probably.

Within a few minutes, I had formulated a simple way to make Democratic candidates feel a bit more welcome and valued. I can’t believe that someone at party headquarters hasn’t done this. It costs nothing, and it’s so easy and obvious that someone like me could think it up. Here’s the idea:

Create a campaign information sheet.[Duh!] When a candidate comes in to pay the filing fee, give him or her the sheet, which lists the resources available from the party, such as access to the voter database, dates of candidate training workshops, a calendar of relevant special events, etc. Include names of party leaders and their contact information. Include a link or phone number for the Missouri Ethics Commission, where the rules for campaign financing and reporting are kept. Maybe even include some tips for candidates on do’s and don’ts.

The Democratic Party—especially in a state where the party is struggling to muster candidates—should be elated when someone decides to give candidacy a try and walks in the door. Filing season comes back around every two years, no surprise. People staffing the Party office should be reminded to be especially welcoming to filers, and to offer words of support, not just filled-out forms. Perhaps, when a candidate comes in to file, the front desk could offer to introduce him or her to party higher-ups, or offer a cup of coffee and some conversation about the candidate’s ideas and goals and the issues of highest priority in the state. The Party should be telling the candidate that it welcomes participation and supports his or her effort to make sure that democracy is well-served by having candidates at every level. How difficult would that be? Not very.

By the way, in contrast to the “we-give-up” attitude I’ve encountered here in Missouri, Republicans have been encouraging and welcoming new candidates in a coordinated effort for 40 years. At all levels. And look how well it has paid off. I don’t agree with most of their candidates’ positions on issues, but at least they have a steady stream of candidates who give their supporters someone to vote for.

I should also note that, in contrast to the folks at the Party office,  the workers at the Missouri State Secretary of State’s office–the final stop on the filing journey– were very welcoming and efficient.

If I remember correctly, in 2012, the MO Democratic Party failed to field a candidate to oppose right-wing Republicans in two U.S. Congressional districts. So far this year [2014], no Democrat has filed to run for State Auditor–an influential position from which more than one Democrat, including U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill has launched a national career. They’re not going to run a Democrat against the incumbent Republican in a state-wide race? Incredible. It is shameful to allow anyone to run unopposed, without any opportunity for dialogue on the issues. It disenfranchises Democratic voters, and it discourages them from even bothering to come out to the polls–which perpetuates the low-turnout-, low-return-for-Democrats cycle.

I just can’t help thinking that one key reason–among many, including money– that citizens don’t step up to run in Missouri is that they have been infected with the negative, indifferent vibe that oozes from the Missouri Democratic Party.