Friday, August 8, 2008

An Open Letter to Marion County Democratic Party Chair Ed Treacy: "Let's Make Slating Defensible" (Part I)

Dear Mr. Chairman:

Welcome back! I read that Marion County Republican Chair Tom John said we had taken you "out of the political graveyard." Talk about putting a stick in the hornets' nest! I think TJ will realize how fitting his zombie metaphor is once your pit bull political sense starts haunting him.

But enough about the Republican Party. With Mr. "Can't Find Seventy Million in Cuts" leading their way, the R's will be in your rearview mirror soon enough. I wanted to talk about the OTHER elephant in the room: a completely broken slating process.

Mr. Chairman, people HATE the slating process. Except for the people who benefit FROM the slating process. As you know, whether a person benefits generally hinges on his/her ability to induce you to engage in unfair electioneering and "vote packing" plans that would make FDR blush.

But don't take this as a condemnation of slating. I love it in principle. We have precinct committee people whose jobs are to canvass neighborhoods, find unregistered voters, get them registered, distribute literature door-to-door for the party and its candidates, and make sure people actually vote. This is a LOT of work, for which precinct committee people are paid in three ways: (1) gratitude in the form of pitch-in dinners; and (2) the right to pick his or her own vice committeeperson; and (3) the right to cast a "slating" vote for which candidates the party will endorse.

No disrespect intended to the baked beans and the authority to pick a "number 2" a la Dr. Evil, but the slating vote is THE meaningful thing we give our precinct laborers. But the way we handle slating conventions dilutes their votes to travesty levels. Mr. Chairman, it need not be so.
For the uninitiated, here's how it works. Marion County is divided into 590 precincts. In theory, each precinct would have a Democrat (and a Republican counterpart) who has been elected in a primary by the self-identifying Democrats (or Republicans) in that precinct. Under Indiana Democratic Party rules (written principally by yours truly, LaPorte attorney Shaw Friedman, and former Chairman Robin Winston), an elected precinct person selects his or her vice committeeperson.

For countywide offices, all 590 of these precinct committeepersons and vice committeepersons decide who the party "slates" (a/k/a "endorses"). If the office at issue were a state representative or city-council slot, only the precinct committee and vice committee people who reside within the district boundaries for those offices vote.

But, Mr. Chairman, you know we don't have 590 elected precinct committeepersons, and that's where the problem starts. You have the authority to fill vacancies, but you don't have to pick someone from within the precinct with the vacancy. In fact, you don't even have to pick someone in the same township!

Respectfully, it seems that you and your predecessors work hardest at filling precinct vacancies right before a slating convention. In fact, state party rules let you appoint up to 30 days before a slating convention, and candidates cajole you into appointing their friends from Center, Washington, Wayne, or Pike Townships to fill vacancies in Perry, Franklin, or Lawrence.

I know this happens because I was appointed before the last slating convention. I live in Center Township, and I was put in....well, I don't even remember where I was put because I NEVER worked in that precinct. My recruitment went something like this:

Candidate's envoy: "Hey, do you like (insert name here)?"

Me: "Yeah."

Candidate envoy: "Want to be a precinct committeeperson?"

Me: "Sure. What do I have to do?"

Candidate envoy: "Vote for (insert name here) at slating."

Me: "Okay."

Next thing I know, I'm a committee person.

You see my point, Mr. Chairman? We hold as a central tenet of our party's philosophy the preservation of everyone's right to vote, and yet, we endorse a process that dilutes the votes of precinct committee people who actually WORK for the party. Why would we do that, except for our own self-aggrandizement?

We bash people who "run against the slate," but this is what happens when there is no faith in how slating is conducted. Why WOULDN'T I run against what is essentially a corrupted process?
Some people will never like slating, but I believe most people truly committed to the party would back the results if it were truly fair.

I have some thoughts on how we get there, and I look forward to sharing them with you soon.



Wilson46201 said...

The Indiana Democratic Party has been around since the 1800s. I doubt if you or any other whippersnappers wrote the Party rules. Amended and tweaked perhaps but not wrote de novo.

The slating process is and has always been imperfect but politics is not an exact science. The point of slating is to minimize expensive inner-party Primary battles so that resources can be spent against the opposition party instead. Non-slated Californian Woody Myers forced a $ 4 million Congressional primary battle!!!

Slating is also to minimize the effect of wealthy "outsiders" from buying an election in a large metropolitan area like Indianapolis. Most voters could give a damn about "minor offices" such as County Auditor or Surveyor: the Party's collective wisdom via slating generally selects decent candidates. It tends to winnow out the flakes. In a small county, voters are more likely to personally know office-seekers than in this big city.

Yes, I've broken the slate - most notably in 1992 for Senator Billie Breaux. I dont recommend it though. Its damn hard work and if you lose, it can be costly politically.

Nevertheless, I've always felt it's in Judgeships where the slating process gets "hinky" - know what I mean, Vern?

Anonymous said...

I have to agree that the slating process is not perfect but it works most of the time. Precinct committeepersons get little or nothing for all of their time and effort. This is one small perk. Wilson is correct in that it prevents kooks from winning a primary just because their name may be similar to someone else or because there are 10 people filed for one office. I do have to admit that the last judges slating procedure was a mess and a joke and Ed Treacy is partially responsible for that. If Treacy is chair when his wife runs again, he needs to turn the judges slating over to someone else. Slating is here to stay and should be.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, that Ackles thing four years ago really showed how well slating works, didn't it? That flake didn't exactly get winnowed out, did he? And it also prevented that kook Bobby Hidalgo Kern from winning a primary, didn't it?

Wilson46201 said...

1. Slating is only a process in Marion County - Bobby Kern got his votes outside of Indianapolis.

2. Slating works when the race is considered winnable. The GOP had a lock on County offices for 32 years back in 2004 - few expected the Democrats to win the Treasurer, Surveyor and Coroner. We chose a superb Treasurer - the other two offices got slated by default by whoever wanted to be the sacrificial lamb. To the surprise of all, they won. Oooopsies!

Winnable offices is where the Party's support is fought for and the winnowing works...

artfuggins said...

No one said that the slating process is perfect. It was not the Marion County vote that resulted in Kern being nominated. Perhaps if the other counties had used slating the voters in their counties would have known about him also and voted against him.

Chris Worden said...

Wilson 46201:

You are correct, sir. We clearly didn't come up with all the ideas, but we added a helluva lot to flesh them out. I'm sure Robin Winston and Shaw Friedman would love knowing they're whippersnappers, by the way!

varangianguard said...

Well, according to Wilson himself, everybody else are a bunch of whippersnappers, as compared to him.

Still, you have to lend him some credence here. After all, Wilson was around the Marion County Democratic party since about 1822, if I remember correctly. He was always the more serious one about it all, truth to tell.

Of course, back then we were calling ourselves Democratic-Republicans, which if you think about it from a Libertarian perspective, not all that much has changed, really.


Wilson46201 said...

By Democratic Party whippersnappers, I meant anybody who came of political age sometime after the presidency of Martin Van Buren...

Anonymous said...

IPOPA, if my memory serves me correctly, you were a "stiff" in the February slating convention.

Chris Worden said...

Anon 4:47:

Absolutely, I was a "stiff." This is the very experience of which I speak in my post. Of course, the irony was that I almost stiffed my stiffer by voting against the intended stiffee until an answer to a question by the non-stiffee candidate (who, by the way, had a handful of his own stiffs) swung me back. Wait, this is sounding way too sexual. I'm outta here.

Wilson46201 said...

There's another great power of precinct committeepeople: electing a public official if an incumbent of that political party leaves office during their term.

It happens more often than many realize. I've been involved in quite a few of those elections -- under the guidance of the late Julia Carson I learned how to win them too!

As a political operative, I love those "micro-elections". There is a limited number of voters and they can be won very cheaply and quickly but the resultant political power is great.

The power of the County Chair to "stiff" in those caucuses is quite limited in that all appointments as voting precinct committeepeople have to be done 30 days before the office is vacated.