The "Why's?": Why am I writing This Post and Why do We Focus On Helping Young Candidates and Staffers
Recently I have been asked the different variations of same question by quite a number of people, how exactly does a candidate go about getting endorses by Next Generation Democrats. I've heard it a few times from both potential and announced candidates. I was asked by members of the Democratic community at large, and most recently by Lowell Feld on Raising Kaine.
In the interest of openness, that we sometimes wish the Bush administration possessed, we have decided to just go ahead and publicly publish our endorsement method both on the Next Generation Democrats homepage blog (where it will be permanently be accessible) and on Raising Kaine (where I assume it will be highly visible for a day or two and then be archived like any other diary). Let me begin by saying that we never intentionally made the decision to keep our endorsement process undisclosed, it just never occurred to us that anyone would care so much about the actual process. We have always had the criteria for endorsement, our http://www.ngdpac.or... >NGD Values and our http://www.ngdpac.or... >Mission Statement publicly posted and prominently linked to from our home page and thought that would be enough. That was our nativity, we failed to foresee that questions are always asked when tens of thousands of dollars are contributed or raised for some candidates while other just as seemingly worthy candidates do not get an endorsement or any assistance from us at all.
There are two purposes for my writing this post, first is to answer the questions in the broader Virginia Democratic community pertaining to our endorsement process. The second purpose is for the candidates themselves to understand our process a little better (tip: This is way too long and boring, make your Campaign Manager read it and brief you). As you read this, keep in mind that our stated purpose for existing as explained in our mission statement is to assist younger and first/second cycle candidates and staffers at the time their careers need it most, to "give them a boost" if you will. So if your wondering why a big name Democratic a highly targeted race is not receiving our endorsement, it is not because we don't like him or her, it's because they are outside of our target for assistance.
Allow me to briefly answer the natural follow up question of why we are focused on assisting inexperienced staffers and candidates. It is because if we don't have inexperienced Democrats gaining experience, then our party and the progressive movement will suffer from a huge brain drain as the current leadership steps down. By increasing the number of available and qualified candidates and staff we are not only helping rebuild the natural loss but we hope that by increasing the talent pool available for years to come, all progressive campaigns will improve.
For campaign staff the hardest part of anyone's career is being able to fiscally survive past the ridiculously low wages of a first or second cycle job and getting to the point where they have "Director" in their title. For example, the average first time staffer in on a Democratic campaign in Fairfax County (after volunteering or interning unpaid to acquire the sufficient experience to land a paying job) get paid an average of $500-$1,500 a month. Not enough for someone with student and automobile loans to live on. We help supplement their salary so that they are able to make it past this period and to a point where they are financially self-sufficient as a campaign staffer or political consultant.
Candidates get a little less dramatic story but it is one that is just as crucial to the future vitality of our progressive movement and strength of our Democratic Party. As many of you know, Congressional re-election rates for members of Congress are historically and average of 94-98%, that's pretty high. So does having to face such a daunting task cause us to give up? Not so much. It forces us to get ready TODAY so that when there is an open seat, there are any number of Democrats able to defend the seat or turn it blue and add to our majority in Washington. But local politics is not merely spring training for the big game in Washington, state and local politics affects us daily, including how we drive (or sit in traffic), our children's school, many of the parks we frequent, making sure our water is safe to drink and countless other ways that we take for granted. So when a local elected officials is ready to step up and challenge for a State Legislative seat, that is something we pay attention to.
developing the endorsement process
We knew that right off the bat we didn't have the influence to deliver votes (nor are we sure we ever will), but could from day one provided both unrestricted campaign donations as well as earmarked donations to be used as supplemental funds for first and second cycle staff salaries. Of course the next thought was, well, none of us here are millionaires, so we're going to have make some limitations on who we endorsed. This meant that we would not be able to endorse every candidate that we like, every candidate that we wanted to see win, or in fact every candidate that we wanted to endorse. So NGD founding board decided to enumerate what the endorsement criteria was and have it fully agreed on by all board members before we even filed our paperwork to formally exist. This way, the criteria could be created without any specific candidates in mind, and could always be referred to when making these decisions.
What the I and the rest of the founding partners did was literally take a few days of work and sit in a room for 14 hours a day just talking, debating (sometimes throwing rocks at each other) after all of which we came up with our Mission Statement which doesn't necessarily present an endgame instead it spells out what we want to do as an organization and why, essentially our raison d'etre, and we check all our decisions against it to make sure we are still on target and on point.
Something else that came out of those meetings was our NGD Values. Initially the thought was floated of having a specific list of issues or stances that candidates had to meet (e.g. Pro-Choice, against the war in Iraq, etc?) with the thought that it would simplify our endorsement process later on. We later concluded (and I still think rightly) that specific issues tended to be too rigid so instead we created a list of values that we all thought were essential in any candidate that we were going to work with. We came up with a list of eight values that we look for in candidates we endorse, additionally each value has a in 2-3 sentence explanation of what it is we're looking for (purposefully made vague).
For example one of our values is "Democratic Team Player". This value goes beyond just vetoing the Liebermans and Benny Lamberts of the world. The candidates we endorse go above and beyond as Democrats, such as actually putting the words "Democrat for X Office" on their lit and signs. We look for candidates that are proud of being Democrats not those candidates that attempt to hide their party affiliation from voters. I want to note that this is not necessarily ideological in terms of "left or right" but instead measured on what role that particular candidate sees themselves playing in the local Democratic party, are they exciting the base? Many conservative and moderate Democrats posses this value such as Congressman John Murtha or 2004 Congressional Candidate Paul Hackett would certainly posses this value. That is one value, the others can be read here.
So, now we have these values and a mission statement, that we always refer to when making decisions about who to endorse, which candidate to support in our next email and so on. I've you've managed to make it this far down, and still want to know about the endorsement process, read below.
So we have a standard questionnaire and interview process. Then the board will talk some times (usually just a few days to discuss) and then we vote. A simple up or down and a simple majority wins the endorsement. That being said though, we vote not on whether we like the candidate or even if we would like to see them win or whether we want to be associated with a particular candidate, we vote on a two test system for the candidate and then a third consideration regarding the PAC (explained below). The first is almost a formality and there has yet to be a single vote in the negative recorded. The question is if this candidate gets elected does it further our mission statement (I can't imagine any candidate that we would get as far as the interview stage with failing this first test). The second test is the difficult part (of the two questions based on candidates performance and answers). The question asked here is whether or not we feel like this particular candidate in this particular cycle is truly representative of the values of our organization. Again, this was left purposely vague to prevent an otherwise strong candidate failing some sort of litmus test and being automatically excluded.
The final part of the process is also the most unfair. At this point we look to see if we can, as an organization, financially afford to make another endorsement. As stated earlier this is important to us because we want our endorsements to continue to carry weight and be an actual asset to the campaigns we endorse, not just a bullet point on their website. To that extent, we make a financial pledge to every candidate that we endorse. We usually do our financial contributions as a set amount per month through election day, so if the Board feels that we have too many outstanding pledges, we will vote to not endorse a candidate through no fault of their own. This means, that even if a candidate fit our values perfectly, we do look at how many current endorsements we have, how much money we have pledged going out the door per month, basically, how many more endorsements can we afford.