2004 was a watershed year for Democrats in Connecticut. Record voter registration signaled a resurgent passion for politics, this was the year that Democrats were going to come together and send new Democratic congressional candidates to DC and send John Kerry to the Whitehouse. Democrats were finding each other through meetups and well after the presidential primary, the party was united behind Kerry and the rest of the ticket. Except that it didn’t turn out that way. Although Kerry won CT with 54% of the vote, Shays, Johnson and Simmons retained their seats and Kerry didn’t win nationally.
Heading into 2006, Democrats had more to unite them. The intervening years had provided flashpoints, certainly ignited action, whether it was the supreme court nominees the Bush administration sent, or the conduct of the war, or the push to privatize social security, Connecticut liberals were motivated to do something big.
The aftermath of that something big, is what the big tent party will have to weather after the election. This past summer had the distinction of two hotly contested primaries, one achieving national interest, the other echoing the same split between liberals and moderates. When it turned out that the primary for the senate race only served as a preview of the general election, the stress points of the party had little chance to heal. Nationally, those tugs in opposite directions will play out in public sound bites, but in Connecticut those tugs will be most apparent in the local town committees.
I spent some time with Democratic State Chairwoman Nancy Dinardo to discuss what she saw ahead. While she is enthused with the energy she sees, she's cautious about just how to keep the big tent from ripping apart. The views held by the liberal take-no-prisoners wing are very different from the moderate let's-win-the-election wing. Both sides have an agenda claims the same goal, but different ways of getting there. Dinardo appreciated that there is much passion driving all the campaigns, and said “I hope that passion stays within the party and that people know we have a job to elect Democrats all the time.”
Dinardo will just have to get them to start talking to each other instead of shouting at each other. The harshness of the spat is not unique to the blogs. The first step is to get both sides to acknowledge that they are all in fact Democrats.
“Regardless of who wins the race, I want to make sure everyone stays a Democrat and that we all come together as Democrats and work towards first 2007 and also 2008. I don’t want to lose, in fact I am really thrilled how the party has become energized. And I do really attribute that to Ned. I didn’t think that was going to happen, I don’t want to lose those people, and I don’t want to lose the people who supported Joe Lieberman either.”
But keeping all that passion focused on positive actions will not be an easy task. Some within the party have moved to threaten people with expulsion from the party for reasons as simple as who they supported during this campaign. Dinardo was firm, “Do I feel we should be throwing people out of the party? No. I have always believed that the Democratic party is the party of the big tent.”
Recognizing opportunities and acting upon them is one of the hallmarks of a good leader. Dinardo has been quick to identify party building activities. “When we saw that the primary was starting, we sent out 30,000 brochures to cities and towns throughout the state and wanted people to register to vote. Many people came in because of the war. It’s my goal to encourage local town committees to keep expanding those numbers.”
Despite the high unaffiliated numbers, Dinardo sees opportunities to expand the appeal of the Democratic party at the local level. “A great town committee is active, they participate in their meetings, they participate in all elections, not just presidential and gubernatorial, they participate in local boards and commissions.”
“There’s a lot of momentum that’s happening which is mostly reaction to Republicans, we have a Republican president and Republican congress who have really shaped the direction of the country, and it’s a terrible direction and people are realizing it.”
But momentum alone is not enough to keep party members active. She thinks that more needs to be done to take advantage of technology and to keep communication flowing freely.
She has encouraged local party leaders to participate in forums she’s held to work through the logistics of how to expand the party and how to stay involved. In previous meetings over 120 cities and towns represented, and she hopes to attract more in the next one early in 2007. “It’s important to talk about what is going on and what direction the state party should be taking,” she explained. “it’s all ages and all view points.”
Dinardo encourages communication. “A great town chair is a person who is open to all suggestions, who’s willing to listen but be able to be a leader and willing to do all the jobs in the town committee. Communication and outreach are the two most important part of the job.” Dinardo knows that its up to the local parties to change the temperature of the friction.
As the national spot light fades away, the next campaign season will start without the high intensity of federal races. In 2007, the municipal elections will return the focus to the issues that drive local campaigns, and Dinardo hopes that the passion for politics that engaged so many will carry on.