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The Texas Blue
Advancing Progressive Ideas

On Running Races and Pointing Fingers

UPDATE: We interviewed David Van Os, where he spoke on his reaction to the 2006 campaign cycle, his race, and his response to this article. You can hear the Van Os interview here.

As Democrats, we are a big-tent party. We pride ourselves on letting a broad spectrum of opinion come to the table for discussion. We believe in Holmes' marketplace of ideas, in letting all voices be heard. So it stands to reason that one could take personal affront when they feel like their particular voice is not getting equal time in the discussion.

David Van Os wrote a letter to one of his supporters recently, which was published with his permission on the Burnt Orange Report. In it, Van Os levels the charge that the Texas Democratic Party "played favorites" with statewide Democratic candidates in the 2006 election. He makes it clear that he's not talking about the distribution of TDP money - he is talking about "the party promoting an environment of support and confidence about the candidates and their messages through its public and press communications," since "money follows excitement and hope." He does not believe the party made a "conscious and deliberate" attempt to support Democrats all the way down the ticket.

David Van Os ran for Attorney General. I ran for no position. I am sure his experience with the Texas Democratic Party is far more extensive than my own.

I had the good fortune to sit down and talk with Van Os - as I'm sure many of you have as well; he's a very personable man - when he stopped by Denton County on his "whistle-stop tour." I found his "voice of the people" style to be engaging, and his grassroots populist message resonated with my idealist side. I instantly liked the guy. I did wonder to myself exactly how he had time to raise the sort of war chest he would need to compete with someone like Greg Abbott when he was busy zooming around all 254 counties, but that concern was easily put aside - surely someone running for one of the highest positions in Texas would have that covered.

Then I started thinking about that a bit more. I hadn't heard a thing about David Van Os, other than a comment or two in a county meeting about his running, before I received his "whistle-stop tour" flyer in September. At the time I was Communications Director for the Denton County Young Democrats, so I was fortunate enough to be in a position where I would at least hear about pretty much any event or issue that a Texas candidate chose to publicize. Yet David Van Os's camp had been silent for the majority of the election, and save that one flyer, remained silent until election day.

That is not to say Van Os didn't have exposure - a group of Denton Democrats, whose affiliation to Van Os's campaign remains unclear to me to this day, raised enough money to get a billboard put up on a high-traffic area of I-35 for the last month of the campaign. The billboard was very well-done, and I was impressed that they raised that kind of money. I have no idea where it came from, since I hadn't seen the campaign put out any information on themselves before their tour appearance late in the election cycle; good job to them for rounding up some late donors without any real prior exposure. That must have been a difficult task.

Van Os notes that "money follows excitement and hope." I would note that excitement and hope imply foreknowledge of there being something to be excited and hopeful about. Where were the weekly press releases one would expect from an up-ticket candidate? Where were the reports on early fundraising efforts? Where were the per-county organization efforts? The high-profile events? Ice cream socials and hot dog suppers are fine and dandy for a Justice of the Peace candidate, but they're not the scale a state-wide operation needs to be working with to fundraise.

Van Os seems to hold the state party responsible for not encouraging " environment of support and confidence" in down-ticket Democratic candidates. I find that strange, because I do not remember in the twenty years I've lived here seeing an environment in Texas more filled with support and confidence for Democrats - candidates, organizations, what have you - than in 2006. And it showed, in the races of those candidates that ran a politically savvy race. Harriet Miller ran for the Texas House District 102 seat against an entrenched state representative, Tony Goolsby. She raised around $300,000, which is right about where she needed to be to really compete in that house district. And she ran a fantastic race. She didn't get a lick of money from the state party, HDCC, or anyone else Van Os made cited until the last month or so before the election, and even then, she received $8100 in in-kind contributions from the TDP and a $16000 contribution from the HDCC -- assuredly a help during the last month of her campaign, but in total only about 8% of her general election fundraising. Let me reiterate: Harriet Miller, running a race for a Texas House seat, managed to raise nearly double what Van Os raised for a state-wide campaign without resorting to the state party for help. Small wonder, then, that the HDCC would help chip in for the final push of her campaign. Do you imagine she could raise that kind of money in a hostile environment, one without the "support and confidence" Van Os was looking to get? In District 85, Joe Heflin, without significant state support, ran an underdog race in one of the reddest areas in Texas, raised real money, ran a real campaign, and won. Where was the negative environment there?

Of the five state rep seats we picked up in the general election, two were in the North Texas area, one in Corpus Christi, one in Austin, and one in West Texas. Support for the Democratic ticket was both clearly present and geographically distributed, state-wide. Unless the TDP released some "Don't Vote For Down-Ticket Candidates" flyer that I somehow didn't see, the Texas Democratic Party did as evenhanded a job as they could be expected of doing in encouraging Democrats across the board. Does Van Os really expect some broad statewide "feel-good" campaign actively marketing every candidate on the ticket? I like to think that he actually doesn't believe that "it's not about the money," that he didn't honestly expect the party to singlehandedly create "an environment of support and confidence" - because if he's not just bitter because he didn't get party financial support, and honestly thinks that a broad statewide pro-Democratic campaign is even remotely financially feasible, he has a much more deluded grasp of politics than I originally believed. You want the party's $400,000 to be used for that purpose? You'll need a couple more zeros, Mr. Van Os.

I'm hopeful that isn't the case, and that Van Os is more politically savvy than the points he presents in the letter would indicate, but some of his points would seem to indicate that he's going on a rant without really noticing what's going on. He cites, for example, that he doesn't want the party to be "promoting just Chris Bell for governor." Did he read his own letter? He earlier named Russ Tidwell as part of the "consultantocracy" that is supposedly running the Texas Democratic Party - the same Russ Tidwell that was lambasted elsewhere in the Burnt Orange Report for not supporting Chris Bell in the race, and instead directing key Democratic donors to Strayhorn! Bell didn't receive early support from the party - he only started getting party support after he proved himself a viable candidate by (surprise!) raising money. Chris Bell and Barbara Ann Radnofsky have that to their merit, which no other statewide Democratic candidate can claim - they both eventually acknowledged that they had to raise a significant amount of money to be viable in their races, they recognized that it is neither their role nor is it within the power of the state party to give them that money, and they went out and got it. If Van Os would have paid closer attention to Bell, perhaps he would have done a bit better with his own fundraising. Yes, money may "follow excitement and hope," but especially in political circles, excitement and hope themselves follow money.

And that's the bottom line lesson to be learned from Van Os's candidacy - the state party, having limited resources to support individual candidates (and far too limited to make a broad statewide push), have to select the most viable candidates to support. I'm not sure exactly how the "consultantocracy" controls the Texas Democratic Party - I guess that's supposed to be a bad thing, though I don't understand how taking the advice of people who have extensive experience in politics and choose to share that with the party is a bad thing - but if they were "controlling" the party by telling them "hey, you don't have much money, spend it where it counts," that sounds eminently reasonable to me. Van Os alleges that the $400,000 Boyd raised went to 17 legislative candidates, and that somehow that was - unwise? Unfair? I'm not sure. Let's pretend, instead, that every red cent of that went to Van Os's campaign for Attorney General. Okay, Mr. Van Os, after that influx of cash, you are now only a mere $1.5 million away from running a credible - not strong, but credible - campaign for Attorney General. Where do you plan to get that cash? $400,000 is not enough to fund two competitive legislative races, let alone 17 - split 17 ways, that money wouldn't make a dent. The Texas Democratic Party knows what they're there for - they spent their $400,000 on statewide voter contact programs in as many competitive regions as they could afford, doing mail buys and phone banking to get out the Democratic straight-ticket vote, benefitting everyone on the ticket. It is the candidates' job to do candidate campaigning, and to set up coordinated campaigns where all candidates for a region pool resources to reach their local targets. And frankly, our candidates did a poor job of that.

Second-guessing an election cycle where we made significant Democratic pickups in difficult regions of the state seems like a silly proposition to me. And assuming that a "voice of the people" can yield, through some democratic process, a wiser course of action than a small group of individuals chosen for their extensive political experience strikes me as akin to taking the scalpel out of a surgeon's hand and handing it to a committee of accountants. That sort of surgery may suit Van Os's populist principles, but it makes for pretty bad medicine. Democratic candidates made serious inroads in Texas politics 2006, and we won some really tough races, even though the statewide Democratic ticket included a number of people that had no concept of what a good campaign entails. I attribute that success to the hard work and diligence of those candidates, their willingness to raise money and run a sound "Politics 101" campaign, and to key late-game assists from the Texas Democratic Party. Decrying the 2006 elections as a failure simply due to individual losses is a childish game, and one we as a party don't have time to play.

Thank you

I do hereby apologize to you, for displaying my anger toward you in such an inflammatory manner on the public Blogs without trying to talk with you first.

Thank you for your honest apology, David. I think any discussion Democrats have should be fundamentally grounded on the fact that we're all trying to achieve the same thing, and are looking for ways to get to where we want to be. Likewise, if any of my commentary on our discussion came across as malicious or hurtful, I apologize. That was not my intent.

I think we are starting to see eye-to-eye on some of these issues, but I note that there are a number of cases where you mention "factual errors" with my argument which I did not make, and which were further not germane to the point I was getting at. Most of these are prefaced with "apparently," which would indicate that these were more impressions from reading the piece than explicit statements in the piece itself. Where those impressions occurred, I am sure at least part of the onus lies with the writer for not being clear enough. I apologize if that was the case; I intended to state only what was in the piece itself. I would like to therefore clarify these impressions you mention.

You mention I criticize, in part, lack of experienced campaign staff, a criticism with which you agree. But you then mention then an "apparent assumption" that I thought you didn't want more campaign staff. On the contrary, David, I never held that premise. I've never met a candidate that didn't want more campaign staff -- I don't have to tell you the rigors that a candidate goes through in running, as you know them very well. I am sure you wanted as much help as possible, as that is the reasonable opinion to hold. In fact, I had assumed what you state was the case: that the lack of professional campaign staff was due to not having the funding to be able to get that staff.

You mention the "culture of defeatism" that didn't allow for the raising of significant funds and therefore did not allow for getting that well-trained staff you wanted. I'll touch on that a bit later, but first let me say that I misunderstood and thought you were saying that grassroots Democrats were also part of that culture. Thank you for clarifying your stance on that. Since you'd mentioned the "defeatism" in reference to me, and I considered myself, as a blogger and campaign volunteer active in my county party, part of the grassroots Democratic movement, I thought you were extending that label to me due to the kinds of organizations I was involved in. Just another miscommunication, and I'm glad we got that clarified. I understood the "culture of defeatism" stance simply from having heard a year ago that big Democratic contributors were donating to Strayhorn, but I could not understand the application of that to our grassroots efforts.

You also mentioned that you thought I might believe that you didn't press hard enough on metro journalists for exposure. That is most assuredly not the case. I would never accuse a candidate of not pressing hard enough on journalists -- indeed, I believe that is not their job at all, and can only hurt their image and ability to get exposure if they end up pressing too hard. So as I had no knowledge of how much you'd personally pushed to get yourself in media, I had no opinion of it. I did speak with one of your volunteers (who I believe was on your steering committee) about how I thought the *campaign* was not where it needed to be as far as press exposure goes, but I at least intended to be very very clear about one thing: any problems with press exposure were not due to lack of effort on the part of the campaign. I know firsthand the devotion and work ethic that volunteers can show, not only having been one but having had volunteers work for me. And I believe they did everything within their power and knowledge to get as much media exposure as they could, and was complimentary of their efforts. My main point was not their lack of effort -- it is that getting media exposure is a very difficult task, which requires a lot of "insider" knowledge as the media is almost a culture to itself, and therefore it is absolutely necessary, especially in a statewide campaign, to have a communications director or press secretary with that sort of experience and insider knowledge to handle media relations. In other words, it is just a specific instance of the earlier general problem we both agreed with of not having sufficient experienced campaign staff, due to not having the funding with which to get them.. (I still have not addressed the reasons you mention for that, which are of course tied to the "culture of defeatism;" I will, like I said, address this later, as it is one point where I think that instead of the misunderstandings I'm addressing now, we do have an actual, honest point of disagreement with each other, which we can then discuss separately.)

And when I mentioned local media, I simply was asserting that, as far as local independent print media in Denton goes (I spoke specifically about that small subsection of media), I tend to be a ravenous reader of those and did not see anything from your campaign. That was not geared as a criticism, as I would never criticize volunteers for not being professional press secretaries, and I specifically mentioned that though I felt a press secretary was necessary in a campaign your size, I was very impressed by the Herculean efforts your volunteer campaign staff put forth when having to take those responsibilities upon themselves. It was simply geared as a suggestion, a "you may want to try this next time." Since it was suggestion instead of criticism, if you feel your campaign got the exposure from the local Denton independent print press that it could get, that's fine, and I'd simply say, "well, I'm glad you tried that." It is perfectly possible that I missed the exposure you got from those sources.

I think perhaps somehow wires got crossed when you mention that I was "applying a somewhat unrealistic belief that a statewide candidate's campaign organization is not credible if the ideal model of a campaign organization doesn't exist in every county." My arguments for county campaign organization were not in relation to statewide candidates at all. That was a completely different issue, in which I was arguing that the strength of the *state party* -- not statewide candidates -- depends in large part on the strength of the county parties and their ability to contribute manpower and information (like the data on local press outlets, for example) that they can get much more easily for their particular area than the state party. That is a very different discussion, one dealing with how grassroots activists can best affect the political environment around them, though I'd be happy to discuss that topic with you as well if you like.

I understand how you would have been upset when you thought I was making, as you mention, "assumptions that factually were way off base." I was upset as well, when I noticed that the assumptions that were attributed to me were not ones I actually made, and I was being told that my facts were wrong -- a cardinal sin for an investigative journalist -- regarding "facts" I never stated; hence my accusations of "straw-manning" the debate. I'm glad we have reached a point where we can engage in calm discussion, as this allows for clarifying what clearly must have been miscommunication between the two of us.

I think only one real point of disagreement actually remains between us two, and that is one I would be happy to discuss further if you like, though perhaps having the discussion elsewhere would be best so that all the points of miscommunication from previous discussions don't get conflated with this one. That point is that the "culture of defeatism" held among the more famous large Democratic donors that you were told of and experienced was the reason your campaign found itself strapped for funds. To clarify my position on this: I do not doubt for one second that this "culture of defeatism" made it more difficult to get funding. My contention is that even with that difficulty, your campaign could have raised more funds than it did. I cited as examples from my research some small regional campaigns that did not have state funding, and yet were successful in raising more money than your campaign did statewide. Even if you could not have raised the millions that it is normally argued one would need for a statewide campaign, raising, say, the $300,000 that the Harriet Miller campaign raised in North Dallas, up from the approximately $150,000 that your finance filings report you raised from 1/06 onwards, would have been enough to hire both that press secretary we mentioned earlier and a trained, experienced campaign manager as well, and probably still have money left over. Joe Heflin is another good example of getting a good amount of campaign funding without party support. (I mentioned Hopson only accidentally, as I tend to get the two names confused.)

And I understand, as you stressed in your interview, that you felt that it was more important to travel to the counties and to spend meeting the people in those counties and hearing their concerns. And obviously this message appealed to me, as I mentioned, when I introduced myself. (No hard feelings on that, by the way; I know you mentioned it, and indeed we did meet, and I introduced myself as the communications director of the Denton County Young Democrat and mentioned I'd be happy to help how I could, but I am well aware that a candidate meets a great deal of people throughout a campaign, and without a "body man" there to handle interactions with people, write down contact info, etc. etc. while the candidate is meeting the onslaught of people one always finds, it is nearly impossible to keep track of everyone.) But I guess my take is, sometimes it helps to have a little bit of bean-counting as well as heart -- I think both are necessary. You mentioned in your interview with us that you probably spent 5-7% of your time doing fundraising for your campaign. I don't think a candidate should solely fundraise and ignore their constituency -- no one wants all bean-counter and no heart -- but if you could have gotten twice the money you did having spent, say, four times the amount of time you spent on fundraising (and of course, I don't have to tell you that's not just phone calls; an intelligent candidate like yourself knows there's a number of ways to raise funds other than cold calling known donor lists), you'd have spent 20-28% of your time, which I don't think is unreasonable, getting to that $300,000 figure Harriet Miller did which would have allowed for a campaign manager and press secretary, and then you have the ability to get your message out to thousands more people than you were able to through leveraging media more efficiently, and perhaps at that point fundraising becomes even easier, as media presentation restores some of the credibility which was taken from you by those fostering the "culture of defeatism," and so on. In short, I think you would have reached more people and gotten a stronger net effect had more of your time been spent fundraising. Not that "bean-counting" beats "heart," but that "bean-counting" to some degree can enable the "heart" to come through much better. Heck, that's how the Republicans have been beating us for years -- Karl Rove, the ultimate bean-counter undermining our state judiciary. I don't think we have to reduce ourselves to their level, but I do think we need to acknowledge that raising a certain amount of resources is necessary to compete in this rigged game, and we have to compete -- and win! -- before we can start fixing the imbalances and making the system fairer. As I mentioned in another comment elsewhere, a common mantra around here is "you can't govern if you don't win."

I know this is a point we simply disagree on, and that's OK. I'd be happy to discuss it with you further if you like. Drop me an email, or if you ever find yourself in town maybe we can sit down and talk.

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