Now that the dust has begun to settle from the 2012 General Election, political activists can look towards three big races that are on the horizon: 2013 Municipal Elections, 2014 Democratic Primary, and who will replace County Chair Darlene Ewing. Huh?
Darlene Ewing has served as County Chair for the Dallas County Democratic Party since her election in 2005 after what many observers consider the disastrous tenure of Susan Hays. During Darlene's tenure, the DCDP has gone from a county party mired in financial problems to one that controls all 60 countywide offices plus a super-majority (4 out of 5 seats) on the Dallas County Commissioner's Court. In early 2012, Darlene announced at a County Executive Committee meeting that this would be her final term.
Many party insiders have suspected that Darlene would resign her position sometime in early 2013. This would lead to Precinct Chairs electing a new County Chair who would then serve through the upcoming 2014 Democratic Primary and possibly beyond. The goal would be to give the newly elected chair time to settle into the position and get their staff onboard before either the Primary or General Elections begin. This is the same path that Dallas Republicans chose in 2011 when former County Judge candidate Wade Emmert took over as County Chair.
Dallas is the second largest Democratic county in Texas with 52 local countywide offices (47 of them judges) up for re-election in 2014. All held by Democrats. The chief concern among party insiders is that a potentially contentious County Chair primary battle and subsequent turnover of county party staff in May 2014 could negatively affect the DCDP's ability to run an effective Coordinated Campaign in the 2014 General Election. These were similar concerns voiced in 2010 and 2012 when Sean Hubbard and Lymon King were respectively considering a run for County Chair.
What does the County Chair do in Dallas?
For those unfamiliar with local county party politics, the County Chair acts as the head of the local Democratic Party. In Dallas, there are several important functions that the County Chair performs that can have wide-ranging consequences for the DCDP. These functions include:
1) Hire or fire the Executive Director who oversees day-to-day functioning of the local county party
2) Hire or fire the Campaign Manager who oversees the Coordinated Campaign during partisan election cycles
3) Run the County Executive Committee meetings that meet once every quarter
4) Run the local Democratic Primary election for Dallas County
5) Be the face of the DCDP to local media and county functions
So how will this County Chair transition work?
The first order of business is when Darlene will announce that she is stepping down. It is likely that this County Chair election will follow the same path when Ken Molberg (now Judge of 95th Civil District Court) and Lisa Payne respectively resigned as County Chair in the 1990s. In each case, the County Chair issued a statement that they were resigning their position effective upon the election of their successor. A date would then be set, likely within 45 to 60 days from the announcement, for Precinct Chairs to meet and elect a new County Chair. Gromer Jeffers of the Dallas Morning News mentioned in his article “Dallas County Democrats closing gap in early voting, a sign of another sweep” that Darlene may resign in March 2013.
If Gromer is correct, it is likely that would put the election in either May or June to give candidates time to campaign among Precinct Chairs, Democratic clubs, and organizations. Once the new County Chair is elected, they will then hire an Executive Director, which is currently an open position after Steve Tillery resigned in September 2012. The DCDP also employs a Bookkeeper and Office Manager who work at the pleasure of the County Chair. The County Chair and their staff will then have roughly 6 months to settle in before filing begins for the 2014 Democratic Primary.
The County Chair who wins must then also run in the 2014 Democratic Primary, ironically, also while running the Primary itself. If there is a contested Primary and the newly elected County Chair loses, then the DCDP gets to have the transition of office staff all over again, but this time taking place in the middle of the 2014 General Election while also trying to heal possible wounds opened from a contentious primary fight.
What about past County Chair elections?
The last transition of a Democratic County Chair in Dallas was a less than stellar experience. In 2005, local Precinct Chairs openly revolted against then County Chair Susan Hays (see CIVIL WAR AMONG DALLAS DEMOCRATS?). Susan had angered many local Precinct Chairs and other activists by endorsing a Republican candidate using DCDP letterhead and not holding a County Executive Committee meeting for a year. It was also later discovered that the DCDP under Susan's stewardship was not only broke, but also owed roughly $25,000 in unpaid federal payroll taxes and related fines.
An argument can be made that changing demographics and anger at Republicans on a national stage helped local Democrats win in 2006. However, the fact that Dallas Democrats have expanded that initial success, even in disastrous years like 2010, shows why having a strong and competent County Chair is important to future successes in Dallas County. The election also has wider implications for Democrats across Texas. Statewide candidates need the strong turnout of Democrats in Dallas to have a chance at winning. If Dallas is disorganized and uncoordinated in its GOTV efforts, then up-ballot candidates for statewide office will feel the pinch just as badly down-ballot candidates do.
So what comes next?
In my next article on this subject, I look forward to talking about potential County Chair candidates as well as more news as this election develops.