Friday, February 24, 2023

Now Is The Time For Democrats

Now Is The Time For Democrats
Nicholas Johnson
The Gazette, February 24, 2023, p. A6

“Now is the time for all good Iowa Democrats to come to the aid of their party” is more than a keystroking exercise. Iowa Dems’ best and brightest are planning the party’s future. Now is the time to give them our ideas.

Here are three suggestions involving neighbors, civics and finances.

Neighbors. The current issue of Jim Hightower’s “Lowdown” ( skins alive the party’s national and state leadership for their dismissal of Republican small towns and counties. Even last-minute email and other technology contacts won’t do. “Being there still matters most. Constant in-person connections at ball games, bars . . . just showing up where people live.”

Hightower notes that John Fetterman spent months in Pennsylvania’s small towns, getting to know people, and helping with their challenges. Only later did he campaign there. He didn’t win those counties, but he won three percentage points more than President Biden. Not much? Only until you realize that was 110,000 votes. [For the source, credits, and story accompanying this photo see the first entry under "SOURCES," below.]

“It’s hard to score points if you don’t have a team on the field.”

Civics. Earlier in our nation’s history, civic education was broadly seen as integral to the purposes of public schools and universities. Now, not so much.

What’s even tougher to find are civics courses that include students’ experience with “talking truth to power,” bringing about change – even if just their cafeteria’s offerings. Given the current attacks on public school curriculum, libraries and teachers, this might not be the best time to campaign for civics return.

But there’s nothing to prevent the political parties taking on this responsibility – ideally jointly. Community organizing and campaigning techniques are relatively content neutral. Survival of our democracy depends on millions of young people developing a passion for political action.

Finances. Over 50 years ago California Speaker Jesse Unruh coined the expression, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” Today that mother’s milk has gone sour.

Federal candidates spend a half or more of their time in Washington dialing for dollars, millions of dollars, instead of legislation and constituents’ needs. Most of my candidates’ emails last year were a daily drumbeat of requests for money. Years ago my research revealed that the payback on contributions ran $1000 to $1 or more. Contribute a million, get back a billion.

Are there no alternatives to this rotting cancer? Of course there are.

Overturn Citizens United. Impose limits on length of campaigns. Build teams of self-motivated, trained volunteers; cut paid staff. Follow Congresswoman Katie Porter’s example: regularly email thoughtful ideas, not constant begging for dollars. Ban corporate PACs. Create free media worthy of coverage, not paid media viewers shut out.

Cut costs for candidates buy buying for all – stock radio and TV commercials, yard signs with space for personalized stickers.

These are neither the only, nor the best, ideas. But if every Iowa Democrat who cares about our state’s future – or even half of them – would give it some thought, and share those thoughts, we could reshape our party and state.

Nicholas Johnson lives in Iowa City and thinks about Democrats’ days gone by.

Photo credit. This photo by Jim Zons appears at the top of an online story in the Washington Monthly by Robin A. Johnson, "How Democrats Can Win in White Working-Class Districts; Let them control their own messages - and give them the resources they need," Washington Monthly, Jan. 17, 2022, I only discovered this photo and story after my column was being published by The Gazette. Had I known of it earlier I would have given it equal, or higher, prominance along with Jim Hightower's take on these issues.

The caption on the photo in the story reads, "Road work. Democrat Jeff Smith (right) outperforms his party in rural Wisconsin by building close personal relationships with voters."

Excerpts from the first few paragraphs:
Ever since he narrowly won his race for the Wisconsin State Senate in 2018, Democrat Jeff Smith has never stopped campaigning—though he does so in unusual ways. For instance, he regularly parks his trademark “big, red truck”—a 1999 Dodge Ram pickup—on the side of a road, plants a six-foot handmade sign that reads “Stop and Talk With Senator Jeff Smith,” and engages with his constituents on whatever topics are on their minds. These “Stop and Talks” help him in his role not only as a candidate but also as a policy maker. “Every conversation sparks a new idea,” he told me.

Smith represents Wisconsin’s 31st State Senate District in the western part of the state, which Donald Trump won twice. . . . It is emblematic of the kind of geography Democrats have been losing in recent cycles and need to get better at to avoid being wiped out electorally in 2022 and 2024.

To win reelection . . . [is] tough, though, because the Democratic brand has become so toxic in the rural and small-town parts of the district. . . .Voters there, he says, identify the party with unpopular policies, like “defund the police,” that he and most other Democrats never supported. They also increasingly bring up their belief that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election. His best hope, he told me, is to build enough trust with enough individual voters in rural counties that they will overcome their partisan leanings. That’s why he lets those who stop to chat lead the discussion. “If you listen to voters long enough, you can find something we agree on,” he observed, pointing to negotiating down prescription drug prices as an example. “That starts the process of building trust.” If he can engage with voters before the party label comes up, their response is often “You know, you are the only Democrat I can vote for.”
The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969, about halfway through my FCC term, and very much a part of my life at that time. If you are not familiar with its origins, personalities, influance and impact on Washington, you will enjoy, and be impressed by, a high quality, short video documentary. Go to, and at the bottom of the page click on: "How Washington Really Works: Charlie Peters and the Washington Monthly."

I believe the use of the photo and these paragraphs is well within the law of "fair use," given the subject matter, the amount used, the total lack of any economic benefit to myself, and the positive (and de minimis) economic impact for the magazine, author and photographer. Objections to this conclusion can be sent to:

Now is the time. J. Ajlouny, “Who Said That?” Feb. 28, 2016, (“Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party.”

Charles E. Weller (1840–1925)

Scarcely anyone who learned to type before 1960 is not familiar with this “little finger exercise” created by New Jersey typewriter salesman Charles E. Weller. The phrase was composed to help learners become accustomed to the rigors of typewriting. It was used by millions of typing students until the newer, less political “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” was coined by an instructor whose name has been forever lost to posterity. There was an advantage to the new phrase, however; in using each letter of the alphabet at least once, it also served as a quick test to determine if the machine had any broken or missing keys.”)

Iowa IDP Reformers’ proposals. Laura Belin, “New Iowa Democratic Party chair Rita Hart has her work cut out for her; Iowa Democrats at lowest ebb in decades,” Capital Dispatch, Jan. 30, 2023,

“Hart Vision for IDP,” 2023, 11 pp., pdf,

Brianne Pfannenstiel, “Tired of losing, big-name Iowa Democrats forge new groups looking for long-term gains,” Des Moines Register, Oct. 3, 2022,

(“The work has evolved out of a group called The Hughes Project, which launched in the wake of the 2020 elections. . . . [Jack] Hatch banded together with . . . Fred Hubbell, Democratic donor Harry Bookey, former Gov. Tom Vilsack and Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn — to launch the Hughes Project in early 2021. . . . Out of that work, Hatch said, came a plan to launch a donor group called the Alliance For A Better Iowa, a research hub called the Heartland Research Project, a communications hub and a nonprofit hub — all individual organizations that would be part of a broader political constellation with a shared progressive agenda.

Though the goals align with those of the Iowa Democratic Party, the groups operate as separate organizations.

“Likeminded Iowans and donors have come together to build an offensive, long-term strategy and create change,” said Jamie Burch Elliott, the executive director of Alliance For A Better Iowa. “… This type of work is new for Iowa, and we’re still in the startup phase.”

The changes mirror projects in other states. But Burch Elliott said Iowa's efforts are not aligned with the Democracy Alliance, a national organization that pools money from Democratic mega-donors to fund ‘the infrastructure necessary to advance a progressive agenda for America,’ according to its website. . . . “[Jack] Hatch said one of the groups the Alliance is helping to fund is Progress Iowa, a progressive issue advocacy group that has been operating in the state for about seven years and is part of the larger Progress Now network.

‘This year, we've been able to expand our staff, expand our capacity to do the work that we've done for years, which is to organize and connect Iowans with their local government and tell their story,’ Progress Iowa Executive Director Matt Sinovic said.

He said the group regularly works with Iowans to help connect them with their local elected officials, post on social media, write letters to the editor and engage in public advocacy efforts.

‘When you talk to people around the state, they’re just living their life and doing the best they can,’ Sinovic said. ‘All they want is for the political process to help them out a little bit. And when you give people the opportunity to share that, that is incredibly powerful.’”)

Brianne Pfannenstiel, “Iowa Democratic heavyweights joining forces to figure out how to win elections again,” Des Moines Register, March 3, 2021, (“After a round of ‘heartbreaking’ losses in 2020, a group of Iowa Democratic heavyweights are banding together to take stock of what went wrong and how to bring the party back to relevance in 2022.

Former Gov. Tom Vilsack, first lady Christie Vilsack, former Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, former state Sen. Jack Hatch, 2018 governor candidate Fred Hubbell, Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn and Democratic donor Harry Bookey are leading the effort.

The group — which is calling itself the ‘Hughes Project’ after former Iowa Gov. Harold Hughes — is circulating a survey to Democrats at every level of state and local politics to gauge what went well and what fell flat. . . . ‘We are listening and learning from unions, community leaders, candidates, elected officials, volunteers and all those who care about Iowa's future,’ [Fred] Hubbell said in a statement.”

Ellen Goodmann Miller, “Iowa Democrats: It’s Time to Challenge Ourselves,” Bleeding Heartland, Jan. 27, 2022, (“I’m concerned that if we only invite people who can afford a seat at the table to decide who is worthy as a candidate in our party, we’re not only losing our way, we’re forgetting who we are.”)

The Hightower Lowdown. Jim Hightower, “Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?” The Hightower Lowdown, vol. 25, No. 1, Jan. 2023, (“Casey Stengel spent over 50 years in baseball as a player, manager, and colorful raconteur, capping his Hall of Fame career in 1962 as manager of a brand-new major-league ball club, the New York Mets. The start-up team was, in a word, terrible. It lost 120 of its 160 games that first year, the worst pro team since 1899. Exasperated by the players’ almost comical ineptness, Stengel threw up his hands: “Can’t anybody here play this game?” It’s my New Year’s wish that the national Democratic Party establishment will quit playing the momentous game of politics as though they’re the ’62 Mets, muffing easy ground balls, dropping pop-ups, and botching scoring opportunities.

. . .

Start with a basic: GET THE HELL OUT OF WASHINGTON! Not just organizationally, but politically, ideologically … attitudinally. The once-proud Party of the People has become (in the public mind and in fact) a corporate-serving Washington party of aloof, well-off insiders. Today’s entrenched Democratic establishment of high-dollar donors, lobbyists, consultants, and old-line politicos regularly opposes The People, especially you “outsider” democratic champions who dare challenge the plutocratic status quo. The party’s Washington club has become particularly aggressive in mounting negative campaigns against strong progressive Democrats running for Congress and other top offices. The insiders’ electoral strategy is to recruit and finance candidates in their own image–urban, urbane professionals who try to tiptoe into office with bland, middle-of-the-road policies of pretend reform that preserve all the abusive power of the existing system.

. . .


But in the past year or so, the party’s strategic thinkers have formulated a plan for these alienated constituents. It’s called “Adios.”

Yes, believe it or not, they’ve actually decided that the smart thing to do is just kiss-off entire swaths of the country–especially the farm counties and factory towns of rural America. Forget the “Give ’em hell” scrappy spirit of Harry Truman, these geniuses are surrendering those millions of voters without a fight, labeling them a lost cause, unworthy of expending political money and effort.

. . .


Despite today’s emphasis on high-tech, low-touch campaigning via Zoom, cell phones, email, TikTok, instant polls, robocalls, etc., being there still matters most. That means constant in-person connections with people at backyard barbeques, ball games, places of worship, community events, bars, farmer’s markets, festivals … and, well, just showing up where the people live. This is especially true for progressive efforts to build grassroots trust, defeat lies, and develop long-term political relationships with voters. And it’s truer yet in smaller communities where word-of-mouth support is invaluable.

A party or campaign that only passes through town with a get-out-the-vote crew in the last month of an election does not count as being there. People need to feel that the party is a living presence –with ears as well as a mouth–committed to being a helpful participant in the whole of community life.

. . .

It’s hard to score if you don’t put a team on the field!

. . .


. . .

The Rural Democracy Initiative reports that several 2022 campaigns that openly defied the party strategy of ignoring rural areas turned small gains into vital Democratic victories. For example, prior to running for US Senate in Pennsylvania, John Fetterman had spent months visiting the state’s many small communities, getting to know the people and working with them on their various needs. He established a personal link and some level of trust that Democrats generally didn’t have. Then, as a candidate, he came back and actively campaigned for support. As a result, even though he didn’t win the red counties, he increased the Democratic share there over Biden’s 2020 run from 26% to 29%. Although the increase looks small, the impact was huge: By “showing up” in rural counties that the national party says to abandon, Fetterman pulled in more than 110,000 extra votes.

. . .


A tangible indicator of the Democratic Party’s withdrawal from the rural landscape is that local party supporters in many states literally can’t even get an allotment of yard signs for distribution. GOP banners for statewide candidates crop up like weeds in many small towns and along country roads, but there’s often no visible trace of Democrats contesting for the area’s votes.

. . .


This is not a population that is squeamish about confronting the moneyed powers, about fighting repressive Republican authoritarianism, or about embracing laws and programs that help workaday people get a fair shake. Economic inequality is not a theory out here–it’s personal experience, and the term “1-percenter” to refer to the entitled rich is a common expletive. Yet, viewing the hinter-land from their lofty Washington perch, party consultants have proclaimed that “rurals” might once have been FDR Dems, but now they’ve indelibly turned into blood-red Republican Trumpers, opposed to all things Democratic, from candidates to policies.

Uh … no. Even in states that are now largely run by Republicans, rural voters want aggressively progressive democratic reforms:

Two of the biggest issues in the farm country of the Plains, upper Midwest, and South are stopping destructive pipeline profiteers and breaking up the monopoly power of industrial meat factories that routinely exploit workers, farmers, and the environment.

. . .

Democrats are not losing rural elections because their ideas are radical or too anti-establishment, but specifically because party leaders are too timid and unwilling to fight for those ideas (and too often maneuvering behind the scenes to kill them). People see this. Longtime activist Matt Hildreth, who heads, says the result of the hypocrisy is inevitable: “The number one question that we lose rural voters on is ‘Are Democrats fighting for you?'”


Are the Democrats going to be a national party, seeking a governing majority that unifies the full progressive potential of America’s diverse people around our ideals of equal opportunity for all? Or not?

Yes, the party must mobilize and increase the base of tried-and-true Dems, for their activism, leadership, and votes are the bedrock of the party’s success. But that focus does not require any compromise of party principles, nor does it limit reaching beyond that support to bring home alienated voters who both hold deep democratic values and embrace bold Democratic policies. To the contrary, such outreach strengthens the party’s numbers and its political credibility as an unflinching champion of “little-d” democratic progress.

Also, getting there is doable, for a nucleus of tenacious, gutsy, smart, passionate, energetic, and optimistic grassroots progressives abides in these counties. There might only be two of them in a particular town, or they might constitute a latent majority, but however many, they represent potent potential, eager to battle anti-democracy elites and organize locally for policies and candidates advancing the workaday majority.

Rather than keep paying $500-an-hour fees to its flock of old-line Washington consultants, the national party apparatus should be sending $500-a-month to each of these scrappy groups of rural Democrats. With even the slightest wherewithal and long overdue moral support, they will build a grassroots election infrastructure that, in conjunction with metro Democrats, can actually produce a government worthy of the American people’s progressive aspirations.

That’s a party worth fighting for.”)

Civics education/Earlier in our history. Integral to K-12 and higher ed. Lisa Guilfoile and Brady Delander, “Introduction, Guidebook: Six Proven Practices for Effective Civic Learning,” Education Commission of the States and National Center for Learning and Civic Engagement, Jan. 2014, (“Earlier in our nation’s history, civic education was broadly seen as integral to the purposes of public schools and universities.”) Education Commission of the States, (search: “civics”) Educating for American Democracy,

Attacks on schools, teachers. Chelsea Sims, "GOP bills attack Iowa school libraries, librarians," BleedingHeartland, Feb. 21, 2022, ("Coordinated political groups around the country have decided that school libraries are a threat to their children, rather than a safe haven filled with wonder and connection.

The Iowa GOP has joined this effort to discredit and defame the incredible work of educators and librarians, claiming we are distributing obscene materials or teaching a false version of history. Although we can't help taking these attacks personally, we also know they are part of a decades-long effort to defund public education and funnel public dollars to private schools and the corporations that benefit.")

Money is mother’s milk of politics. “Jesse M. Unruh,” Wikipedia, (“Quotes On campaign contributions: "Money is the mother's milk of politics." 1966[9] 9. Lou Cannon. Ronnie and Jesse. p. 99.)

Elected officials fundraising. "An Inside Look at Congressional Fundraising," The Government Affairs Institute, ("[R]aising campaign money involves a lot of . . . time. Incoming lawmakers are instructed to spend upwards of four hours per day raising money, which is time taken away from the legislative responsibilities of being an elected official. . . . [W]inning a congressional seat is not cheap. According to data compiled by MapLight, successful House members in the 2012 cycle raised an average of $1,689,580, while winning Senators, on average, raised $10,476,451.")

$1000-to-1 return. Nicholas Johnson, "Campaigns: You Pay $4 or $4000," Des Moines Register, July 21, 1996, p. C2, ("We could pay about $4 apiece in direct federal funding of campaigns. That's $1 billion from us, and $1 billion for the campaigns.

Or we could end up paying $4000 each. That's what happens when we sit it out, and let America's wealthiest individuals pay the $1 billion. That's $1 trillion from us to get $1 billion for the campaigns.

The $3996 difference? That's what we'll pay in increased prices for food, insurance, gasoline, bank interest rates, and bills from doctors, telephone and cable-television companies, among others.

The choice is yours. Tell your elected officials you want federal funding of campaigns and pay $4, or stick with the present system and pay $4000. Which will it be?" Supporting sources included.)

"Politicians & Elections," OpenSecrets, ("[A] campaign contribution may carry an expectation that the money will get repaid in the form of favorable legislation, less stringent regulations, political appointments, government contracts or tax credits-to name a few forms of payback.")

Citizens United. Adam Schiff, "Congressman Schiff Introduces Constitutional Amendment to Overturn Citizens United," Press Release, March 24, 2022, ("Today, Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) introduced a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, and once again allow for reasonable restrictions on corporate campaign contributions and other spending.

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations and special interest groups could spend nearly unlimited funds on election campaigns. In the decade since, outside groups spent more than $4.4 billion in federal elections – nearly $1 billion of which was untraceable “dark money” – with some of the biggest contributors coming from Wall Street, the pharmaceutical industry, and the NRA.

'Thanks to one disastrous ruling, wealthy megadonors, corporations, and special interest groups have been able to influence elections when that power should belong with the American people. This has eroded faith in the government’s ability to deliver for the people and their families,” said Schiff. “Dark money should have no place in our democracy. It is time to return power to the people, and overturn Citizens United once and for all.'

Specifically, the amendment would make it clear the Constitution does not restrict the ability of Congress or the states to propose reasonable, content-neutral limitations on private campaign contributions and independent expenditures. It would also allow states to enact public campaign financing systems, which can restrict the influence of corporate and private wealth.")

Shorter time for campaigns. Danielle Kurtzleben, "Why Are U.S. Elections So Much Longer Than Other Countries'?" National Public Radio, Oct 21, 2015, ("The U.S. doesn't have an official campaign season, but the first candidate to jump into the presidential race, Ted Cruz, announced his candidacy on March 23 — 596 days before Election Day.

Meanwhile, Canada just wrapped up its latest campaign season. That one was longer than usual — about 11 weeks. To the south, Mexican general election campaigns start 90 days before election day (and have to stop three days prior to the election), with an additional 60-day "pre-campaign" season, in which candidates vie for the nomination.

How do so many other countries keep their campaigns so short while the U.S. drags on so long? The simple answer is that many countries have laws dictating how long a campaign period is, while the U.S. doesn't.

. . .

'Voters in [Canada] would not have the tolerance or would not accept a system where that kind of money is spent on campaigns. There would be a huge uproar,' said Don Abelson, professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario. 'The elections tend to be very short. They don't tend to be terribly expensive.'

Indeed, Canadians balked even at the country's recent 11-week campaign.

And in many countries, there's not room for a massive advertising arms race like the U.S. has, anyway. Brazil, the U.K. and Japan, among many others, simply don't allow candidates to purchase TV ads (but that doesn't mean zero ads — in some countries, like Japan, candidates each get equal, free, ad space).")

Public financing. "Public Campaign Financing; Why It Matters," Brennan Center for Justice, ("Brennan Center for Justice has pioneered the most effective and promising solution to the problem of big money in politics: small donor public financing, a system in which public funds match and multiply small donations.")

Nick Thompson, "International Campaign Finance: How Do Countries Compare?" CNN, March 5, 2012, ("In Norway, government funding accounted for 74% of political parties’ income in 2010, according to Statistics Norway. And unlike in the U.S., where candidates and their supporters can buy as much television time as they can afford, political ads are banned from television and radio.")

"Campaign Finance," Wikipedia, ("Other countries choose to use government funding to run campaigns. Funding campaigns from the government budget is widespread in South America and Europe.[10] The mechanisms for this can be quite varied, ranging from direct subsidy of political parties to government matching funds for certain types of private donations (often small donations) to exemption from fees of government services (e.g., postage) and many other systems as well. Supporters of government financing generally believe that the system decreases corruption; in addition, many proponents believe that government financing promotes other values, such as civic participation or greater faith in the political process. Not all government subsidies take the form of money; some systems require campaign materials (often air time on television) to be provided at very low rates to the candidates.")

Congresswoman Katie Porter. "Katie Porter,", ("[Katie Porter] is the U.S. representative from California's 47th congressional district since 2023, previously representing the 45th congressional district from 2019 to 2023. She is the first Democrat to be elected to represent the 45th district, covering much of south-central Orange County was born on January 3, 1974, in Fort Dodge, Iowa. She grew up on a farm in southern Iowa. . . . In 2005, she joined the faculty of the University of Iowa College of Law as an associate professor,[14] becoming a full professor there in 2011.[19]" Examples of substantive emails received by the author include: "Support 100 Black Men of America" (with an appeal for funds, not for herself, but for that organization), Feb 6; "Beyonce and Ticketmaster," (describing the problem and urging "the Department of Justice to launch an investigation into Ticketmaster after the Taylor Swift ticket mess."), Feb. 4; and "Katie's New Amendment" (congressional amendment to allow Americans to "virtually testify" before the House Oversight Committee), Feb. 1)

Stock TV commercials. No source; personal experience. As a board member of the Democratic National Committee Harriman Communications Center, Washington, D.C., I participated in the effort to save candidates (and states' Democratic Parties) the expense (as I now recall of about $50,000) for the production of a TV commercial. The proposal was that stock footage would be prepared for a list of the issues candidates were addressing. Candidates could buy each commercial for about $500 (rather than $50,000), add a personal touch on the open and close, and have professional quality commercials. Unfortunately, I cannot recall the dates of those meetings or find any records.

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