For or against a 21 County Strategy…

promoted by Rosi

For those of you who don’t know who I am, I fought the good fight and stood up to Goliath and ran for Sussex County Freeholder as a Democrat.  Running my own political race in the most beautiful part of New Jersey has been the greatest experience of my life.  I have no regrets and I would change absolutely nothing about the way I conducted my campaign over the last seven plus months.  Heck, I even received the endorsement from Sussex County’s daily, The New Jersey Herald, who doesn’t usually speak highly of Democrats up here.

The thing that I love most about Blue Jersey is that many of you feel my pain; you live in a blue state but reside within deep red.  And it’s not just people like me living in a deep red county.  While places like Bergen and Passaic produced great victories last week, there are readers of this very site who live in towns there that are as red as my beloved home county of Sussex.

There has been a continuous/ever evolving debate on Blue Jersey about a 21 County Strategy similar to the vision former Vermont Governor Howard Dean (just for the record, a political hero of mine) had and executed when he was DNC Chair.

Just to give you the background of my race:  I moved to Sussex County’s largest municipality (Vernon Township) when I was ten and graduated high school there in 1999.  I went to our county’s community college as well.  I made a lot of friends and personal contacts over this time.  I bring this up because Sussex County, while vast in geographical size, is really a small town.  Newark and Jersey City trump it in population while Paterson and Elizabeth give it a strong run for it’s money.

Since March, my life has consisted of two things: working to put a roof over my head and gas in my car, and shaking as many hands and knocking on as many doors as humanly possible.  Knowing that I couldn’t raise the kind of money that my fellow candidates could (I did raise a bit over 3k, which I am very proud of), I decided early on that I would need to out hustle them, which I did.  And the final tally was this:  best out hustle-er, Jim Tighe; last in votes, Jim Tighe.

Now I know the institutional disadvantages that I was up against (D v R party registration, their party machine v ours, money, electoral history, etc).  But my long winded monologue brings me to this point: how do we counter this?  I have had a week to mull on the words that I am about to say so I choose them carefully but they could have put “Ham Sandwich” and “Turkey Club” on the ballot and I still would have lost (again, just for the record, I tip my hat to my Republican opponents who ran a professional, issue oriented race.  In fact, I was told on Election Night, that one of them praised and thanked me and my fellow Democrat).                  

So, Blue Jersey, how do we turn red counties and red towns in our great state blue?  My take?  We build from the bottom.  Recruit county committee members, run them for things like council, board of ed, or even try to get them appointed to something like a land use board.  Dean’s 50 State Strategy didn’t have anything to do with winning Utah and Alaska nationally, but more to do with winning races there for council and dog catcher.  Have at it.        

Comments (6)

  1. Jim Tighe (Post author)

    I’m trying to make a few points here: one, is that Dean’s 50 State Strategy (of which Karl Rove seems to be embracing) seems to have paid off in the end.

    But I understand the flip side of the argument both nationally and here in New Jersey.  The President even confined his finite resources to just a handful of states and rightfully so.  

    If the State Committee here in New Jersey (again, who has finite resources as well) gave me a chunk of cash, I do not see how the results of my race would have changed.    

  2. Jeff Gardner

    Thanks Jim for running, and sharing. Running in all 21 counties has at least 2 benefits – one is keeping Republicans busy locally, so they can’t spend time or money helping elsewhere. The other is building up places that aren’t considered competitive but could be, like Virginia and North Carolina as Bertin mentions (and in 2008, Indiana; and in 2016, Georgia; and in 2020, Texas; and in NJ someday, Sussex County).

    Glad you’re out there fighting the good fight. :)

  3. Stephen Yellin

    I truly believe that the vast majority of towns in Republican areas will vote for local Democrats if they believe they’re the right people for the job.

    A great example is my running-mate for Council in 2010, who has shown her commitment to Berkeley Heights by leading our Relay for Life effort for the past 2 years. I have no doubt that many Republicans (and those used to voting Republican locally) would vote for her if she ran for office again – and she’d win!

    There are plenty of good, solid Democrats who have won repeated elections in deep-red areas by being active and visible in the community prior to running. Gina Genovese in Long Hill is another person who comes to mind, as is former Chatham Township Committeewoman Abigail Fair.

    Fair, in fact, won 5 consecutive times in a row in a staunchly Republican town because many residents crossed over to vote for her. Her environmental activism and helpful presence in the community made her worth voting for, even for the most dyed-in-the-wool Republicans.  

  4. tabbycat31

    Who has worked on four campaigns, only one in New Jersey.  

    I spent the last five months working in rural Southwest Virginia, the 9th congressional district, which is larger than New Jersey.  This particular district includes 19 counties and 7 independent cities (who confuse even native Virginians).  As we were building our infrastructure, I sent my field organizers (or myself, the field director) to the various committee meetings, and we also had a weekly chairs call.  

    There were some committees, one in particular, that we could outsource all our work (as a field director, work includes phone banks, canvasses, and putting up yard signs at polling places for Election Day) in that county too (and I will do a diary about one of them at a later date after I talk to a few people there for permission) but most of them we were on our own.  And a few counties had no Democratic apparatus in place at all.  

    As we all know, Virginia was considered a ‘swing’ state, but even in the swing states, the national campaigns will ignore red portions and hope that turning out the urban areas in large numbers is enough to make up for it.  OFA’s strategy was to stop the bleeding.  Unlike the larger campaigns, I did not write any county off, and even had my field organizers who were from the district do special calls into their hometowns.  

    If each county had an active Democratic committee, and a chair who cared enough to join the conference call every Thursday, then the district would be a much better place.   If Virginia is to go blue next year (Virginia is on the exact same cycle as New Jersey with the governor’s race next year) then the campaigns need to look at the 9th too.  

  5. Bertin Lefkovic

    …is more than just a chunk of cash.  It is a comprehensive political organizing and outreach methodology and psychology that dedicates a wide range of resources, including but not limited to money towards party-building efforts.  Howard Dean placed staff on the ground and dedicated a significant percentage of his travel schedule to states that had never seen much, if any, of either in the past.

    The results of these efforts were not only seen in the wave election results of 2006, but also in 2008.  However, there were unintended consequences of Dean’s efforts, especially in 2008, that his harshest critics probably never imagined for if they had, they might have even been more visible and vocal in their criticism then they had been when he was rolling his strategy out.

    Anyone associated with President Obama would deny the simple fact that he would never have been elected President if it were not for Dean’s 50-state strategy, but it is a simple fact.  First and foremost, states like North Carolina and Virginia were never swing states before Dean’s party building efforts, but even more important than that was the enhanced muscularity of many red states, which not only manifested itself as being more competitive in the general election, but were the keys to Obama’s primary election victory against Hillary Clinton.

    Obama’s campaign, lacking the institutional support that Hillary Clinton had was able to dominate in red states, because they chose not to ignore them to the degree that Clinton’s campaign did, and by dedicating money, manpower, and time there, found their efforts multiplied by quickly developing relationships with the party organizations that had been built up significantly as a result of Dean’s 50-state strategy.  As a result, Obama claimed nearly all of the delegates from most of the reddest states in the country, which provided him with his margin of victory at the Democratic National Convention.

    As I wrote in Rosi’s diary, it is this unintended consequence of the 50-state strategy that is probably the main reason why it will never be replicated here in New Jersey.  The NJDSC is controlled by the state’s political machine bosses and the way that they maintain control is by managing the voter universe both within their fiefdoms and outside of it.  This need for control is such a serious matter that there have been occasions when progressives have been beaten up for registering voters outside of the machine’s organized VR efforts.

    The talking point that is most often used by the Democratic establishment to defend why it does not invest resources in the redder parts of the state is the finite nature of these resources and the need to invest them where they will yield the greatest return, but between Corzine’s millions that were infused into the party’s coffers at various levels and the pay-to-play money that flowed into Democratic organizations over the eight years that our party controlled Trenton and all of its contracts and patronage jobs, money was not something that our party lacked.  If there was ever a time that investments could be made into party-building in red counties this was the time that it could be done.

    However, NJ’s political machine bosses did not need to see the results of the 2008 primary elections to know that an investment in the state’s red counties would not serve their interests well.  They know that Democrats in these parts of the state are amongst the most independent and progressive in the state, and they know that while these Democrats would be appreciative of support from the Democratic establishment and might even show that appreciation by moderating their idealism in the short run, the bosses know that in the long run, their commitment to progressive values and independent spirit would undoubtedly become a problem.

    The bosses know this, because they experienced in firsthand during the 2000 primary election in CD7 when the insurgent Democrat, Maryanne Connelly, defeated the establishment Democrat, Michael LaPolla, because the Somerset County Democrats gave the county party line to a favorite son candidate, Jeff Golkin, instead of LaPolla, much to the chagrin of the Middlesex and Union County political machines and their bosses, John Lynch and Ray Lesniak, respectively.

    As a result, Connelly, who ran on Governor Jim Florio’s opposition slate in all three counties, was able to stay close enough to LaPolla in Union and Middlesex that her advantage in Somerset enabled her to win.  Sadly, instead of coming together after the primary election in the way that the establishment always tells insurgents to do after we have been defeated, they abandoned Connelly and allowed the Republican, Michael Ferguson to win.

    Fast forward to today and the same dynamic could be applied to a statewide primary election between an insurgent candidate, Barbara Buono, and an establishment candidate, Chris Bollwage.  It is possible that if Buono hyperperforms with women, she could stay close enough to Bollwage in the 13 counties where he would have the county party line, to beat him statewide by racking up huge pluralities in the other eight counties, most of which have far less Democratic primary election voters, but still enough to possibly put her over the top.  This scenario would be even more likely if the Democratic establishment had spent the greater part of the last 12 years investing in party building in these counties.

    As Barack Obama learned in 2008, Getting 90-100% of the delegates/votes in small states is better than getting 55% of the delegates/votes in large states.  The same premise applies here.  This is the reason that the NJDSC will never make a serious investment in red counties and why progressives need to have a 21-county strategy of our own, which would require progressives in red counties to help progressives in blue counties during primary election season and progressives in blue counties to help progressives in red counties during general election season.

  6. Bertin Lefkovic

    …should be nonpartisan for the same reasons the school board elections should be nonpartisan.  The issues that divide Democrats and Republicans rarely apply to the local and even the county sphere.  Only in a machine politics state like New Jersey, where so much of the contracts and patronage are doled out at the local and county levels, would partisanship inject itself into local governance.

    Giving school districts the option to move their elections to November was a good idea insofar as consolidating Election Days in general is a good idea, but nonpartisan elections should be held in June on the same day as our primary elections.  This would engage more people in both our nonpartisan elections and our primary elections, both of which have traditionally been low-turnout affairs.

    I know that county level officials can never be elected in nonpartisan elections, because the county represents the core of our state’s political fiefdoms, but there are enough examples of municipalities with nonpartisan elections that their model should be applicable everywhere.


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