Stand for #CLTEquality

10995921_10153116327474761_3007939241033963013_n.jpgMy name is Sam Spencer, and I prefer the pronouns he, him, and his.

You may not have heard that coming from a cisgender person (someone whose gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth), but thousands of trans Americans have to state their pronouns every day.

Trans folks also fight for their lives every day. That’s not hyperbole. We’re less than three months into 2015 and at least eight trans women across America have lost their lives due to hate crimes. Two of them have lost their lives since the council put these protections on the agenda. Most of them were trans women of color. This happens so often that there is a Wikipedia page devoted to cataloging the killings year by year.

Because of the daily abuse and harassment they face, at least seven trans people have taken their life this year, including one young person in Greater Charlotte.

In no small part because of stories like this, members of the Charlotte City Council have put an updated non-discrimination ordinance on the docket that protects, among other things, sexual orientation, gender expression, and gender identity. QNotes has a good summary of what's happening with the vote if this is the first you're reading about it.

Dignity and respect have not come quickly enough for the thousands of people who have suffered violence because of their gender identity and gender expression, but these basic protections send the message that anyone who visits our community is afforded dignity and respect.

Though there is a 9-2 Democratic majority on the Charlotte City Council, enough Democrats are planning on breaking ranks to put the outcome of the vote in question. If you're following the Charlotte mayoral race, Mayor Dan Clodfelter and former Mecklenburg County Commission Chair Jennifer Roberts support the ordinance, but neither has a vote (Clodfelter can vote to break a tie if someone abstains, however). Mayor Pro Tem Michael Barnes has been a firm no, and At-Large Councilman David Howard is unsure but has suggested a cisnormative compromise.

These protections should be a no-brainer - Dan Clodfelter & Harvey Gantt supported a similar non-discrimination changes in Charlotte over two decades ago - and it's surprising that the vote is going to be close when Raleigh's city council voted unanimously, Republicans included, for trans protections.

While opposition from hardline fundamentalists is to be expected, I think the opposition from Democrats on the City Council comes down to a misunderstanding of gender. While the idea of gender as a spectrum and non-binary is actually quite ancient at this point, it's new to many people - including many Charlotte City Council members. However, the scientific and social consensus is that biological sex may be between your legs, but gender is between your ears.

I don't want to get too distracted by talking about this in political terms, because this isn't an esoteric exercise. Trans folks suffer every day because of our society's legal and political framework.

Nevertheless, the Charlotte City Council has the power to change that framework tonight; if they don't, voters like us have the power to change the Charlotte City Council in September and November.

When Digital Goes Wrong: February Email Edition

EMAILSLast week, state Senator Jeff Jackson (D-Mecklenburg) won the Internet by pretending to pass all of his legislative priorities through a vacant North Carolina General Assembly during a "snow day." He expanded Medicaid, increased education funding, and made national headlines.

This isn't Jackson's first time in the limelight; he lucked out last year when the progressive Internet curators at Upworthy made a video of a floor speech go viral (one more miracle and Jeff is eligible for digital sainthood). However, people tend to create their own luck on the Internet: Jackson's video had an interesting hook, and his team put in the groundwork so the video could go viral.

Unfortunately, one of the reasons Senator Jeff Jackson's "snow day" got so much traction is because very few politicos in North Carolina are doing digital engagement right. Campaign digital - websites, emails, paid engagement, and social media - has taken a backseat in the Old North State. Our "digital" bench is so weak that Jackson has been mentioned as a possible candidate for Lt. Governor simply because he knows how to use a computer and a smartphone.

This is an even bigger disappointment since our campaigns should have learned how to do this by now. Kay Hagan's campaign raised over $4.6 million in small-dollar contributions last cycle, and much of that came from one of the most effective email programs in the country.

In this edition of "When Digital Goes Wrong," I'll critique some of the emails I've received from North Carolina campaigns in 2015.

Why emails? Every campaign does them, and they're an increasingly important source of revenue for campaigns.

Below are some of the worst offenders. Specific campaigns and subject lines won't be discussed because we're all on the same team:

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A Missed Opportunity

ParkerSpencerOne of my aims with the "Five Thoughts on the North Carolina Democratic Party" series was to talk about the very real problems facing the party, and divorce the conversation about NCDP's future from the personality conflicts and infighting that are a product of the party's failures. I think I did a pretty good job with the former, but one glance at my Facebook feed tells me I've failed at the latter.

When I wrote, "I have pity for those who are so consumed with vitriol over something as cosmically insignificant as a Democratic Party chair election," I sincerely meant it. Being consistently negative isn't an effective strategy for advancing a point of view, so the people who put all of their time and effort into six-page screeds and conspiracy theories are not only too consumed by anger, they're also not convincing others to support their argument. Making a demonstrable impact, creating meaningful change, and treating others with compassion are three things I try to do daily, and while I don't always succeed, I pity those who don't know where to begin.

Granted, the leading candidate for NCDP chair, Patsy Keever, was absolutely in the wrong when she misgendered one of her opponents, and when she characterized the incident as blown out of proportion. Though many people who support the status quo at the NCDP have taken to Facebook, Twitter, and their personal blogs to take advantage of Keever's gaffe and make the race as vitriolic as possible, too many others thought it would be a good idea to engage them. 

Pro Tip: 9 times out of 10, the most rational action to take in response to being libeled on the Internet is to ignore the unemployed trolls who will always have more time to libel you than you have to defend yourself.

The people who post the same argument over and over again in every forum they find aren't going to engage in constructive conversation, so don't engage them. That being said, there are many people in the party who want to reconcile, who want dialogue, who want solutions. That requires the hard work of calling people up, engaging them, giving them another chance, and starting conversations.

Starting a dialogue also requires vulnerability. I served on the party's executive council from 2011 to 2014, and during that time I made a lot of mistakes. Though I never started a cult to try and take over the party (yes, that's an actual conspiracy theory), there were times when I was involved in the party that I lost my cool. I assumed I could win over others simply with the veracity of my arguments, and I didn't take time to engage enough people who thought differently than I did. I held grudges sometimes, and I could be mean-spirited. To anyone I treated unfairly, I apologize.

One of the lessons we learn sometime in our twenties is that very few people "have it together" and the world simply doesn't work as it should, but that's no reason to give up (those who don't learn that lesson become angry online commenters). I think for many of us, our largest source of frustration at the Democratic Party never had anything to do with the people who were leaders, but with the dysfunction and organizational decay that elevated leaders who we thought weren't up to the job. I don't have animus for anyone in the party, but there were times the frustration at the system was overwhelming. That's where I'm coming from.

Patsy Keever will probably be elected chair tomorrow. She's the only candidate for chair who's ever done heavy lifting in the fundraising department, and the party desperately needs that. However, the status quo at the North Carolina Democratic Party won't automatically change. Whoever wins will have to start a dialogue while they work to raise the money to keep the party afloat. They'll have to ignore the trolls, but engage people they disagree with. They'll have to build a coalition to change the party to be relevant in an out-of-power, post-Citizens United world.

It's not going to be easy, but I hope the new chair's team can do all tat. As for the rest of us, if you truly believe the party has value and still serves a purpose in the political arena, please don't miss the opportunity this weekend to start a conversation and start fixing the party.

In The Arena

CMS SquareWhile attending today's "State of Our Schools" speech at East Mecklenburg High School, I was reminded of Teddy Roosevelt's "Citizenship in a Republic" speech:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Few of us are in the arena day in and day like the teachers and administrators who lead our schools. I no longer teach or tutor, but if there was ever something I did that was worthy of my best efforts, it was teaching.

When you're an educator, it can feel like everyone's a critic. Parents can pick apart lesson plans, students can disengage, legislators can do everything they can to discourage teachers to leave the profession. Many are critical of schools in an effort to make them better; others are critical of schools because they expect perfection and haven't yet learned the lesson that all of us must learn, that nothing can ever be perfect. Not every child is going to learn what they need to learn to be successful adults. Still, teachers walk into the arena 180 school days a year.

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The Democratic Party is Only as Good as the Work It's Accomplishing

Thanks to Tim Boyum and Capital Tonight for having me on last night to talk about the "Five Thoughts" on the North Carolina Democratic Party. The segment starts at 17:30.

You can watch the video here.


Five Thoughts on the NCDP: Big Idea

NCDP Square.jpgI've outlined a path forward for the party, but what if a path forward isn't enough to save the party? What if those changes prove impossible, even after a new chair does everything they can to get the party off life support? Just in case, I've been keeping a big idea in my back pocket.

A well-managed Democratic Party that impacts elections should be the goal, but it hasn't been a reality for years. Instead, the Democratic Party is a dream kept alive by people who are willing to shut their eyes and imagine What Could Be instead of What Is. Party members dream of their party's glory days, they dream of their donation winning an election, they dream of their debates having meaning in the outside world. As it has ceded power and faced administrative and financial challenges, NCDP has found it harder to ask people to join in this dream. Facing reality has proven equally difficult.

To change the party, an idea as big as that dream may be necessary. Alternately, a big idea may be able to act as a rhetorical device to demonstrate how far away NCDP is from what it could be.

So here's my thought experiment: If the North Carolina Democratic Party wants to be relevant and effective again, it should consider moving to a system of nominating conventions wherein party activists choose the Democratic nominees.

The Democratic Party brand is the most valuable resource NCDP has aside from its people. Putting the Democratic Party nomination back in control of the party will make NCDP relevant overnight.

This is not unprecedented. Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party holds nominating conventions, and they’re easily one of the strongest state Democratic Party organizations in the country. In some cases, candidates who lose the DFL endorsement still run in the primary, but most candidates respect the party endorsement, avoiding costly primary battles in the process.

Think about it: instead of culminating in party officer elections and platform fights, the precinct organization process ends in the nomination of Democratic candidates. Instead of fighting over resolutions, the most important agenda item at district, county, and state conventions is the nomination of candidates. Participation will skyrocket.

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What Kind of Blog Has It Been?

Sorkin QuoteIn part one of my "Five Thoughts" series, I promised to present the following thoughts on the North Carolina Democratic Party (NCDP): an absolution, a mea culpa, a path forward for the party, a path forward for Democratic campaigns, and a big idea. Since then, I added a path forward for party leadership and a couple of other thoughts here and there. That's a lot of content, so here's a summary of the series. As some of my friends in other states have noted in their feedback, many of these thoughts are relevant to the Democratic Party at every level.

  1. The Democratic Party has problems that run much deeper than the current leadership. These problems include legal, financial, and civic environments that aren't favorable to the traditional party structure. Bad party leadership in recent years has been the product of a weak party, not the other way around. NCDP needs significant changes to be able to adapt to its new environment and win elections again. The way the party operates is unsustainable.

  2. The party's leadership and governing committees haven't been convinced en masse that the Democratic Party exists to elect Democrats, and many party members lack the "campaign literacy" to know how to win elections. If an organization doesn't agree on a clear goal and doesn't know how to get there, it will never be successful. However, campaign professionals and elected officials can't be dismissive of activists. The party has to have conversations and trainings that demonstrate why an electoral focus brings value to party work and gives Democrats at every level the tools to understand campaigns and succeed in a campaign environment.

  3. The Democratic Party is only as powerful as the work it accomplishes. The organization should be changed to eliminate redundant positions, inefficient dinners, and unnecessary meetings. Participation in the party must create value for volunteers and donors, not bureaucracy. The party has to hire a professional staff that's large enough and local enough to help manage and train a party with 100 counties, over 10,000 positions, and 2.6 million registered Democrats. The party has to be goal- and metrics-driven so that important work is accomplished. The party has to demonstrate a causal relationship between what it does and what happens at the ballot box.

  4. The Democratic Party needs qualified, diverse leaders and a professional, metrics-driven staff. These leaders have to raise money and manage it responsibly or the party will die. The next NCDP board is going to have to do a lot of call time to be able to raise the money to sustain operations. Our leaders need to use a modern, integrated approach to fundraising, and they have to be accountable to the rest of the party organization so that the work gets done. They have to inspire confidence with donors. Unfortunately, most of the candidates running for NCDP chair don't have the experience to be up to this task.

  5. We have to treat campaign workers and party staff better and develop them as leaders and operatives. Democrats don't use all of their resources efficiently because the aggregate demand for campaign work is too low. If campaign work becomes a full time job, we have more people working full time to help build the party. People who work on campaigns aren't in it for the money, but they should be paid a living wage and treated like the professionals they are. If North Carolina Democrats want professional, winning campaigns, they have to professionalize the political labor force in North Carolina.

  6. Aside from its people, the party's most valuable resource is its brand. Let's use it. NCDP should continue to repair its brand by electing new leadership and proving it can make the changes needed to win elections. However, it can leverage the power of its brand in ways that will immediately increase its relevance and bring new people into the party. One idea: letting the party endorse in primaries.

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Five Thoughts on the NCDP: The Path Forward for Campaigns

NCDP SquareYesterday, I explained how campaigns could benefit from a professionalized political labor market. While that is a priority, there are other actions the North Carolina Democratic Party can take to help win campaigns. Additionally, campaigns can be more successful by being better partners.

For the party to be able to make a difference in campaigns, we have to increase "campaign literacy." I define campaign literacy as a basic understanding of how modern campaigns operate in order to win elections.

At the risk of being didactic, we have to start this conversation from the premise that many active Democrats aren't familiar with what goes into the modern campaign. This unfamiliarity goes all the way to the top. 

At a forum held in Charlotte today, I asked the candidates for NCDP chair about their experience doing campaign call time (dialing for dollars). At least four of the candidates for NCDP chair have been candidates for federal or state office, so I thought it was a fair question. Even though call time is the backbone of the modern campaign, three of the four candidates present had not dialed for dollars before.

I quickly realized that the conversation that needs to happen in the party is so much more fundamental than most operatives and campaign workers understand. If the party wants to make a difference on campaigns and elect Democrats, they have to elect leadership that understands campaigns. For party regulars to want to elect those kinds of leaders, they have to understand what goes in to modern campaigns.

So, instead of getting into a discussion of tradecraft, I'm going to keep this thought simple: we have to do more to train party members on the basics of modern campaigns, and campaigns have to be a part of this effort.

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Tapping the Left

CivitasTomorrow, I'll release Part IV of my "Five Thoughts" on the North Carolina Democratic Party. Before I do that, I wanted to focus on a key point from piece: treating campaign workers better, and developing them as leaders and operatives.

This week, the conservative Civitas Institute published its map of the people and organizations that make up the center-left progressive coalition in North Carolina. If you take a look, you see a lot of people who work in various organizations and non-profits, but what you don't see is a network or list of partisan campaign operatives.

Why? That network doesn't really exist. However, if we want better campaign workers and better campaigns, it's desperately needed. 

It's hard out there for a political operative. Most operatives get paid a couple grand a month for their first two cycles. A +70/hr work week is standard; that means someone in their mid-twenties making $2500/mo on a campaign is being paid about $8.33 an hour (no overtime, of course). Expenses don't always get reimbursed, the last paycheck doesn't always come, there aren't always health benefits, and it's hard to have a normal life. Most workers don't get paid after November 15th.

Let me get this out of the way right now: people don't work on campaigns to make money. The vast majority of people I've worked with on campaigns do it as a labor of love, and have skills that could make them a lot more money in the private sector.

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Pan Am

Pan AmPan Am has an instantly recognizable brand. It's known throughout the world as the de facto flag carrier airline of the United States. It has a storied history, it's responsible for numerous firsts in the airline industry, and it founded the global airline industry association. It dominated air travel in the 20th century.

In spite of all of that, Pan Am doesn't fly planes anymore.

Like Pan Am forty years ago, the North Carolina Democratic Party is facing legal and financial realities that challenge its dominance. However, the NCDP brand hasn't failed yet. That brand still a valuable asset that can be leveraged, even if the infrastructure isn't there right now. In Part V of my "Five Thoughts" series, I'm going to introduce an idea that leverages the NCDP brand in a way that makes participating in the party exponentially more meaningful.

Nevertheless, a brand isn't everything. Companies have tried to revive the Pan Am brand six times, but it's hard to bring a company back after it fails. There are NCDP members who still believe that candidates, donors, and volunteers are going to participate in the party just because it's called the Democratic Party, even if it doesn't add any value to the lives of its participants. If they think everything will be alright just because they're members of the Democratic Party, they're wrong.

The Democratic brand is still strong, and it's stronger than the Republican brand. If NCDP uses its brand as a tool instead of a crutch, the party will carve a path forward.


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