The Texas Democratic Party's new executive director, Will Hailer, has been on the job since the first week in May. Since then it's been a pretty exciting time for the TDP, due in large part to the filibuster by Senator Wendy Davis that ended the first special session.
However, a newly invigorated TDP has been hard-charging since before Hailer came on board, and his efforts as ED — along with a growing staff of great political talents — has pushed the TDP to play a major role in not just supporting the organizing that led to that epic night, but also making the party a bigger, more action-oriented presence in Texas.
But before we get to that, let's back up a bit. I sat down with Hailer before the epic filibuster happened to talk about his efforts to revitalize our state party. Our interview lasted over an hour and was a really great discussion of where the TDP needs to go and how Hailer plans to get there. Over the next few days I'll post a lightly edited transcript of our conversation to help our Democratic readers get to know the new ED of the TDP a bit better.
Join me below the jump for a conversation with Will Hailer. Today's section focuses on building infrastructure and recruiting candidates.Below is our (lightly edited) interview. Again, this took place before the epic filibuster that ended the special session. All bolding, emphasis, etc. is mine.
Katherine: So far what have your impressions been from your time here on the ground here in Texas?
Will: Things are going really well. Most of the folks that I've had a chance to meet with are really fired up about where the state is going and the direction that we can take it, and the combining of outside-Texas knowledge with institutional Texas knowledge to really build the capacity to kick ass and take some names.
Katherine: What have your efforts been so far to develop the basic party apparatus here at the TDP?
Will: There's a lot of things that Texas does that other state parties across the country don't do, which is really I think positive for Texas. And there's a lot of things that the Texas Democratic Party wasn't doing that other parties do — again combining that outside of Texas experience with inside of Texas experience has been really helpful. You know, we've been making a few institutional changes to reduce some costs, increase efficiencies, things like that.
We've brought on some additional staff, we're really excited. We have a political assistant who is starting to lay the groundwork for our larger political program, of getting out and building strong support for candidates and strong support for county units. We have two new finance staff, which we're really excited about, you know it's the first time in a while we've had some finance staff here, and we really need to raise resources to be able to do not only we want to do but what our folks are expecting of us to do. We also brought on a new communications staffer, a digital strategist who's going to help not only internally figure out how we best can communicate online to folks and get our message out but also how we can best help other people out there figure out how to do that.
A lot of the foundation stuff is figuring out how we become a lot more of a service-oriented party. Because that's at the end of the day what our function is, is to service the people that we represent and make sure that we are communicating effectively with those folks.
Katherine: You mentioned that there's things that TDP does particularly well as compared to other state parties. What are some of those thing from your perspective?
Will: You know, the structure of the SDEC — in having a really involved kind of activist wing — I think is really good. There's multiple committees of the SDEC — there's a campaign committee that is engaged in figuring out what we do campaign wise. Getting buy-in from these key stakeholders is really important.
The reason why I've really loved Democratic Party work is because we're the only Democratic institution left. That's what parties are: activists and donors and supporters coming together and electing folks and talking about a platform, and that's something that I think is done pretty well here. I think we always could do a better job of it, but you know, I think having more than just the political insiders doing it is certainly helpful.
Katherine: What do you think some of the areas where TDP is not up at the leading edge of state parties?
Will: You know, to some extent I think it's thinking about how things have worked outside of Texas and how that can complement what has worked inside of Texas. You know most of my political work has been in Minnesota, where we're first in voter turnout and participation. Texas is fiftieth. I wake up every day and I think about how to engage voters and think about how we message and bring that kind of culture into this state. We're trying to get the best folks to work on behalf of the party. We care that they're passionate, they're fired up, and they're ready to turn Texas blue, and that they have the skills to be able to help us to do that.
Katherine: Candidate recruitment obviously is going to be a big focus as soon as the session winds down, so what are your thoughts on when you're embarking on candidate recruitment, what are you thinking about?
Will: I already started. When I was in Dallas I talked to a couple folks who are thinking about running. I'm looking forward to talking to people. I've met with someone who's interested in running for Congress up in that area against a Republican. It would be a hard district, but I think our focus on candidate recruitment is we need to find the best candidates that make sense in the district that they're running in, and we need to find as many candidates across the state as possible.
The chairman [Gilberto Hinojosa] has made a really strong priority to make sure we're fielding candidates everywhere, and there's nothing that this party can do that would be more effective than finding strong candidates everywhere.
Katherine: Like a 254 county strategy, basically?
Will: Yeah, that's right. I'm a huge Howard Dean guy — I worked for Howard Dean and I believe that the 50 state strategy is the best thing to happen to the DNC nationally. And with 254 county strategy — where we're not just thinking about the traditional recruitment for the legislature and statewide candidates, but the need to grow our farm team — we need to grow so that in two, four, and six years we're promoting these local Democratic elected officials for higher office and lifting everyone up.
You know, the other thing is that you could walk into a town and with little to no effort you could figure out who are the five people who are thinking about running. Right? The broader question in a lot of these communities is who are the five people who should run. Who is thinking about running and who should run are two different things, and we have a lot of folks that I think would be really excited about running if they have the support.
If the party isn't providing support for these candidates in really meaningful ways, we're not going to be able to do our job. That's not to say that the party should run everybody's campaign all across Texas because we'll never have the resources and that would be crazy. But, you know, like doing strong candidate training, providing strong candidate resources where we're teaching folks how to use the voter file, how to write a field plan, all of this stuff, are services that are pretty easy for the party to provide and things that we should be doing.
Katherine: You're going to be running a primary in the spring. What's your plan to marshal institutional knowledge, to make sure the primary and the convention go off well?
Will: I have never run or been a part of a Texas primary operation, so I think we need to have folks who have been a part of that process before spearheading that. I think one thing that's really important as a leader of staff is to figure out what your weaknesses are and make sure you're compensating for those. I've met with folks to talk about the convention, and we're already thinking and planning for the 2014, and actually we're having a conversation about the 2016 convention as well. We're bringing folks together that have done it before and figuring out what the plan is, what our needs are.
Katherine: In terms of setting goals, thinking about the end of 2013, hopefully the legislature will leave us soon and we'll have some local and statewide elections in November. What improvements do you want to see the TDP have made by the end of the calendar year?
Will: First and foremost, we should have a slate of really strong candidates all across the state, and we should have started to provide quality services for those folks, routine trainings. To do that we need to bring in a fairly large political staff, and that staff has to not be based in Austin and drive or fly out to El Paso once a week or something like that. They have to be in El Paso, they have to be in Lubbock. Folks have to be there, and whether they're from there or whether they're from somewhere else, they're making relationships, building strong connections.
I think we need to get really aggressive about our messaging. I think that's one thing the party has been consistently performing well at, but I think we need to kick it to the next level. More than just saying “Ted Cruz is out of touch with mainstream values because he said this crazy thing,” we also need to highlight when Ted Cruz isn't voting for the Violence Against Women Act, and when Republicans like Louie Gohmert are blocking those issues from even being discussed. We need to not only highlight the crazy things that are symbolic of where some of the Tea Party Republicans are at, but we need to reach out to the moderates who have been voting Republican and used to vote Democrat and I think are just tired of it. I think one reason why you see voter engagement being pretty low is folks here are just tired of the vitriol and we haven't done a good job of connecting to their values.
Katherine: So if the Republicans don't offer moderates anything, and you're not a Republican primary voter, you're out of the conversation right now.
Will: And you also hear there's not a lick of difference between Democrats and Republicans, right? I personally don't think that's true, I've spent my life fighting that idea. But when folks say that, it's because we haven't effectively communicated and I view all of that as a new opportunity. By the end of the year our frame here needs to take advantage of those opportunities. So when we hear things like “both parties are the same,” it's a new opportunity to engage a voter in a different way.
And then, you know, we need to be raising enough resources to be able to cover what we're doing, which means we need to develop programs that have folks buy into what we're doing. Candidate training, recruiting a diverse staff, working with county clubs and constituency caucuses to grow those, having communication programs that are targeted at Hispanics and African-Americans and women — all of those are programs we need to start building.
We have a decent amount of work done to figure out what our goals are not only between now and November, but the other thing we're really working on putting together a plan through 2018. Because if all we're thinking about is the 2014 election, the investments that we make in 2014 aren't the same strategic investments that we would make if we're also thinking about 2018, and so that's I think a key priority for us.
Stay tuned for more of our conversation tomorrow!