Thursday, February 25, 2010

Brian Williams: Political Entrepreneur Extraordinaire or Party Saboteur?

Not since Karl Rove's heyday have so many high-ranking Marion County Democrats given "the stank eye" so intently to one man. That steely gaze is now firmly affixed on Democratic mayoral prospect Brian Williams.

Let's play 10 questions.

1. Why are people so mad?

Williams enlisted an estimated 200 people to file candidacies for Democratic precinct committeeperson (PC). In many precincts, long-time Democratic precinct committeepersons, ward chairs, and even elected officials must run against a Williams-backed PC candidate in the May 2010 primary.

2. Why would Williams do this?

PC votes decide who the Democratic Party slates for mayor. Melina Kennedy, Williams' opponent, told some folks she would not run in the primary if she lost at slating. In other words, while Williams can go to slating, lose, and still run in the primary against Kennedy, she can't do the opposite without eating her own words.

The more PCs you have who favor you, the more likely you are to win. Because Williams knew Kennedy had the upper hand, he tried something high risk, high reward and completely legal. Just like John F. Kennedy in 1960, Williams decided that if "the party" was not for him, he'd try to create a whole new party.

3. What would make Williams think this could work?

There are tons of Democratic PC vacancies in Marion County. Currently, only 210 of the 590 precincts have elected PCs. Each elected PC gets to pick his or her own vice-committeeperson, so every Williams supporter who carries is theoretically two Williams votes. If Williams could get 295 favorable PCs elected (either by putting them in vacant precincts or having them defeat all comers in the primary), he could wrap this up. As it stands, if all the PCs Williams filed survive through the May 2010 primary, he'd only need to persuade one of every four remaining PCs, which would be tolerable fighting odds.

4. Where did the wheels fall off?

A good share of the names submitted by Camp Williams won't survive. Some are being challenged by the Kennedy campaign and the Marion County Democratic Party for: (a) voting Republican in the most recent primary; (b) being unregistered voters; or (c) being registered but residing in a precinct different than the one for which they filed. Further, many Williams supporters are running against each other, dramatically increasing the likelihood of a plurality victory for incumbent PCs.

I haven't studied Camp Williams's submissions, but it seems he managed to get close to 100 new people to fill previously vacant slots, and all 100 of those PC positions are uncontested. In other words, if they're not disqualified for the reasons listed above, Williams has 200 votes in the bank.

Unfortunately for Williams, even with the onslaught of new filings, only 367 precincts have PC candidates filed. All PC vacancies are filled by the county chair under state law. That means Ed Treacy, who is crappy at Williams for screwing with his long-time personnel, will hand-pick 223 of those PCs and their vice-PCs. (It is critical to note that an elected PC gets to pick his own vice, but an appointed PC doesn't.) Which mayoral candidate do you think Ed Treacy's selected PCs will favor? Probably Kennedy, the former candidate, spokesperson for Obama, and treasurer for Andre Carson.

5. What did Williams do right?

You have to give Williams credit for mobilizing 200 new people (minus the disqualified). His effort to get PCs on the ballot was more successful than any other candidate or the party itself. In the interest of intellectual honesty, though, how hard would you try to recruit elected PCs as chair if you knew that you could fill vacancies with whomever you wanted? (You might end up with unknown commodities who would hose you later).

6. What did Williams do wrong?

The Williams campaign waited until the last day to file the mother lode of its declarations of candidacy, and they were in one big stack and signed by one notary. Had the filings been spread out, it would have been a lot harder to put the usurper tag on Williams.

But instead of stealth, Williams wanted to tout his recruitment effort and did so through a press release and follow-up letter to current PCs that served as gas on dynamite on a fire. More troubling, the Williams campaign didn't seem to make tactical considerations before jamming somebody into the slot of a potentially favorable PC. There were people honestly on the fence who came off against Williams because he dropped an opponent on them. They say if you shoot at the king, you better kill him. Williams took a shot and blew off the king's left hand.

Now not only will he lose support from some PCs, he's going to have ward chairs actively working against him. Sometimes in politics, the smartest play is to not beat the beehive with a stick. Not only do you not get the honey, you get the stingers. Every incumbent PC with an opponent will assume Williams was coming after him or her. Williams could try to say he didn't intend, for example, to front an opponent in Pike Township Trustee Lula Patton's precinct. But if he says that, doesn't he prove a strategically-inept PC recruitment campaign?

One of the party's best historians talked about how Marion County Democrats orchestrated a political revolution under John Livengood by substituting one type of Democrat philosophically for another. But most party insiders see this as substituting strong Democrats for marginal ones (or Republicans!) who will disappear if Williams doesn't win the May 2011 primary. It's unfair to say that across the board, though, as nobody has spoken to all of these folks to see who is for real.

In fairness to Williams, a lot of organizations were recruiting PCs, so Williams is probably being blamed for a few PC contests that aren't even his fault. Sometimes you get victimized by your own success.

7. Will people say this will destroy the party?

Yes. In fact, some are.

8. Will it?

Not necessarily. This will strengthen current PCs. Human nature says if you don't have to ramp up, don't. I love my party people, but I've heard way too many say how hard they've worked (past tense), as if they're now entitled to coast. Sorry, but the PC's job is to know his or her people, and in a transient society, those people change frequently. If a long-serving PC or elected official can't get more votes from Democrats in his or her home precinct than somebody who has never worked a poll or been to a township club or party function, they aren't trying hard enough to connect with folks. This competition will push PCs (and elected officials) into their neighborhoods, connecting with their neighbors.

I also don't believe this will hamper our ability to carry our slated candidates. If you can't say, "I'm so-and-so, your Democratic PC, and I hope you'll support me and Terry Curry, who....." then you need help multi-tasking.

The real harm comes in the vacant precincts Team Williams now controls. Only time will tell if Williams' supporters are committed to the party or just to Williams. If it's the latter, these folks will fill their boards and work their precincts in November 2011 for Melina Kennedy, should she prevail, and the party will be stronger. If it's the former, not only will these folks not work, but the Chair won't be able to put somebody who will into their slots. That could be catastrophic to the party's mayoral effort. The hope would be that if Williams doesn't win, and his people aren't serious, they'll resign. But only time will tell who's who.

9. Would Williams have had a realistic chance to win slating?

He had better odds than he thought, but probably not better than 40/60, so I understand the recruitment effort as a tactic.

10. Has he demolished any chance he had to win at slating?

Indisputably. Williams took a high-risk roll, and because his strategy was poorly-executed, he crapped out. He needs to start thinking primary strategy because the slating game is over.



erin said...

Nice post Chris. As a former PC (appointed because I could never make a four year commitment with work and school) and long time party worker, I would just say this:
1. There is absolutely nothing wrong with getting people to file for PC. If BW had stopped at that, it would be all good in my opinion.

2. Supporting one candidate over the other is a different issue. I do not know nor have I spoken with the candidates BW recruited. But, I do know some of the current pcs being challenged. Lula Patton is not only an elected official, but she also happens to do voter registration drives and lit drops throughout her precinct (and ward and entire township for that matter), fill her boards and host meet the candidate events. Most importantly, she does this for every election cycle and for all Democrats.

So, I don't have a problem with her having opposition, but I can and do question why BW is supporting someone else for that position. BW's own statements are that he is not only supporting his candidates, but he apparently told Abdul that his candidates would be provided with "resources".

Why does BW think his candidate would be better than Lula? I don't know and there could be legitimate reasons. But, I haven't heard them made. And, frankly, I think BW would be hard pressed to come up with a good argument on the merits in this specific race. He chose to publicy state his "endorsement" in this race. So, I (as a member of the D party) can and do look at that endorsement and make a judgement about HIS judgement. Granted, alliances and endorsements of other candidates usually weigh fairly low on my voting choices (I certainly wouldn't vote against one D candidate because they supported Hillary in the Primary). But, in this case, multiply Lula times 40 (the number of pcs that I am comfortable saying I have personally experienced their commitment to ALL the duties of their position) and the fact that BW is in each case not only publicly supporting their opponent but suggesting he is going to use Mayoral campaign donations to defeat them, then yes, I disagree with his choices and it makes me question his decision making.

BW's candidates could have a huge impact on more than just the 2011 elections. They are elected for 4 year terms, correct? So, in supporting one pc over the other, it is important to make sure that the candidate is committed to working hard for all D candidates in all races for the entirety of their election term. Certainly for 2010 and 2012 this is important. BW's candidates may have that commitment and more power to them to persuade the D voters of their precinct of that fact if so. But, if BW is supporting them primarily bc they will vote for him in slating rather than because they will do a better job at the actual duties of pc, then that is a poor reason to me. And again calls into question his judgement.

Perhaps BW misspoke or was misquoted by Abdul, but suggesting he is going to help one specific pc candidate over another is very problematic to me and raises a host of issues outside of "opening up the democratic process". Brian should understand that and his refusal to acknowledge that part of this and reverting to ridiculous "oligarchy" claims is disingenuous. He chose to publicly pick a side so there is nothing undemocratic about asking why he picked one side over the other. So far, his reasons fall way short for me.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article Chris. Your analysis that Williams is done, I agree 100%. Will his hijack attempt help the party in the long run? Yes it will.

We needed a good motivator, thanks BW.

Anonymous said...


Thorough and thought-provoking as always, but consider these three points:

1. Melina is not challenging Brian's filings. Campaigns don't challenge PC candidates, registered voters of the precinct do. It may be true that the Williams campaign has decided to defend its PC candidates who end up being challenged on registration or other grounds, but the Kennedy campaign is not in the challenge business and has continued to work with ward chairs to organize their wards for the primary and beyond.

2. You make the assumption several times that the PC candidates the Williams campaign has are "his" and that they are a "lock". Although clearly some of his PC filings would be from legitimate supporters, there is new evidence emerging that many of the folks he filed (a) weren't told that they were being asked to consider themsleves to be "Brian-filed PCs" as opposed to just PCs, (b) knew that Brian's people were asking, but are not committed to him in any event, or (c) weren't sure exactly what they were being asked to do. In short, strategically, getting support at slating wasn't the most important goal of the Williams campaign in making these filings. Getting pub so he could appear to have momentum by "bringing 200 new supporters of his into party" was the goal. Frankly it worked because it is difficult to disprove that they support him -- just as your post assumes it. But that's an awfully selfish exercise hardly worthy of praise as party-building.

3. Forty plus of Brian's PC filings were botched, because the PC candidates have registration issues. This underscores that SAYING he filed 200 was always more important than ACTUALLY HAVING 200 viable candidates. And Abdul has reported that Brian denied that there were a significant number of filing defects and that he had double filed ANY PC candidates in the same precinct - calling the latter practice a "waste of resources". But now we know that both denials are untrue. On this score, can you imagine what Democratic bloggers and others would be saying if Melina had been so reckless as to botch at least 25% of her filings and then had used Abdul to misleadingly defend the mistakes? They'd be saying the wheels had come off her campaign. I suppose it is telling that people expect far less competence and honesty from Brian.

Anonymous said...


Kennedy has committed to slating. Brian has not. Why do you let him skate on this?

Chris Worden said...

Fair comments all, to which I can say only: so much analysis, so little blog space.

Anonymous said...

This is a different anonymous. Why have you let Mr. Williams slide on slating? By the way, Melina has donated over $125,000 towards other democratic candidates and marion and state democratic committees. Mr. Williams has donated exactly 1200.00 to 2 democrats in the past election cycles -- and those were in federal elections. Why would the party support Brian?

Anonymous said...

Dearest Brian,

1. Where are your endorsements?

2. Are you attacking organized labor as "the establishment"? PLEASE continue to do so.

3. BTW, does the UAW know about that foreign car you used to drive?

4. In addition, did you EVER attend one of Tim Durham's infamous parties? Pictures?--you think somebody might have one?


Durham Heger

Anonymous said...

I am very bothered by Williams not committing to slating. He says he wants to build the party and that's why he filed PC candidates. If this is true, and he's not just in it for himself, then he should support the strength of the party and commit to abide by slating. His actions do not support his words.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately I've seen Brian operate in the business world a number of years ago. It seems like his PC strategy mirrors his business experiences. He destroys organizations from the inside. Look up all the lawsuits he's been involved in with his previous biz ventures. Nobody is involved in this much litigation. The common denominator is Mr. Williams. It will be a big mistake if people believe his rhetoric. It doesn't match what his actions will be.

Anonymous said...

I don't really care about the mayor's race because I think both Brian Williams and Melina Kennedy will get beat by Ballard. They are both 2nd tier candidates. So I don't really care about the petty back and forth I've seen on the blogs.

However, I think that slating is totally outdated. Why do only Marion and Lake Counties do slating? Hmmm.

I've attended a lot of slatings. It is a sham. EVERYONE knows that. The rules favor party bosses and cronyism. What is so wrong with a primary? Sometimes Democratic voters should choose between two or more candidates.

And who cares, Erin, if your beloved Lula is challenged? Isn't this what democracy (even within a party) is about? Just because she's elected (for a township office - not exactly something to admire), why does she get an automatic pass for you. I guess you think every Democrat has to fall in line.

That's the problem with Marion County Democrats - it really is not open - and most are petrified to challenge the "system" - which results in completely substandard representatives of the Party - look to the Council as Exhibit A.

Slating in Marion County leads to good candidates being deterred from seeking public office.

Chris Worden said...

I have a pretty liberal comment policy, but if you are going to make a comment against a candidate or elected official, I ask that you be specific. I looked at Brian Williams, and I found one lawsuit AGAINST Tim Durham. If you're going to make an allegation about litigation, leave a cause number. It's not like there aren't more than one Brian Williams, so when you find Brian S. Williams in more than one lawsuit, send it to me. I'll look into it.