A strong statewide coordinated campaign, political directors working on the ground across the state, and an expanded finance operation to pay for it all — those are just some of the projects the Texas Democratic Party is already working on under the leadership of Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa and Executive Director Will Hailer.
It's certainly an exciting time to be at the TDP — Hailer reports that we now have the largest state party in the country, staff-wise, and hints at exciting developments in candidate recruitment for 2014. Above all, it's clear that the TDP is working really, really hard to provide the infrastructure, trainings, and services that candidates need to be able to make the leap and run for office in Texas.
Recently, I sat down with Hailer to talk about the party's work since the special session ended. Read Part I of our latest interview here.
Below the jump, read about the TDP's work to expand their staff and fill up a slate of Democrats for 2014 — and what has surprised Hailer the most so far.Interview lightly edited and condensed.
Katherine: The TDP has been staffing up a lot. How many full-time employees do you have?
Will: We're up to 17 around the state with more coming on board, so we've been ramping up really quickly. From what I've heard it's the largest off-year staff the TDP has ever had. In fact it's probably larger than a lot of on-year staffs that they've had in the past. We're the largest state party in the country staff-wise at this point. Some of our colleagues around the country just can't believe how many people we have here.
Katherine: So what has some of the hiring emphasis been on? What specific areas of staff have you really worked to flesh out?
Will: We now have three people on our finance team and need to continue growing that so we can continue growing our operation. We have a political shop of four regional political directors on the ground, and our political director and our training director and our political assistant in the office.
Our communications shop grew – we added Tessa Simonds, our digital strategist, who's awesome. Our whole team is awesome, but Tessa really did a lot of the online stuff around what was going on at the rally. One night Tessa said hey, we should see if people are hungry, let's just ask if people will send pizzas, and food started showing up at the Capitol.
Katherine: For folks who aren't familiar with these kinds of staffing roles, what does the political shop do?
Will: Our political team is focusing on three essential things at this point: candidate recruitment, training, services, and development; county party building; and club building. We want to take counties across the state who are performing really well and figure out how we can help take them to the next level. We want to work with counties that don't have a strong apparatus and help them build that infrastructure. and we want to address clubs that don't currently work well with their county parties and figure out how to create synergy and do some forward thinking.
And at the end of the day, the chief job of our political folks is to recruit good candidates across the state and help train up those candidates and really let those folks know that the party is here to help them in everything that they're doing.
We haven't always made friends in doing this because there are some consultants out there that may lose some business, but the party's job is to serve our candidates and we should be doing that for free for our candidates. There's a lot of folks in Texas who have made a lot of money off of candidates for a long time and we think that's a job the party should be doing, and it's a job the parties do in most states.
Katherine: So what are you seeing on the ground in some of these counties? Everyone likes to talk about how only a handful of our 254 counties went blue in 2012, ignoring the fact that those counties are where the bulk of the population lives.
Will: Our strategy — what the chair really wants — is truly a 254 county strategy. And our political folks who are going to be on the ground are going to cover every county in the state.
And there are certainly going to be some counties where this time next year, the amount of attention we're providing them is a lot different than what's happening now just because now is a good time to build that off-year infrastructure, and help put more counties on the right path.
We know that there are some counties that we will not turn blue anytime soon. There are some counties where we're losing 90-10 or 80-20. But if we can go from 80-20 to 64-36 in that county and we can do that in 100 counties across the state, and if we can turn 100 counties which are now like 60-40, if we can turn those to be 52-48, and if we can win the other 54 and keep them permanently blue, we will win a statewide race.
Also, the party historically has been “hands-off” with the big county parties and just let them do their own thing, and that has not really good for our county parties or the state party. We've been working really closely with a lot of the big county parties. It was exciting — we just did a county chair training in San Antonio and we had the El Paso county chair, the Travis county chair, Bexar county chair — seeing some of our larger counties show up and integrate with some of the smaller counties is really helpful. There are many services that the state party can be providing to our big counties that they aren't getting now. The more that we're working together and collaborating on stuff, the better off we're going to be.
Katherine: So thinking ahead to 2014, I'm optimistic that we'll have a good candidate for governor and a good slate of folks to round out the ticket. What is the TDP looking to do in terms of running about a statewide coordinated campaign?
Will: I think that if Senator Davis runs, our slate of folks is going to be incredible. We have been in dozens of conversations with folks all across the state, both the chair and myself and partner organizations. We're going to have a great slate of folks. The conversations that we have had with all of the folks who we're really serious about trying to get to run includes a really strong coordinated campaign. Any state that I've worked in that has been successful has had a coordinated campaign and I think that here we have the opportunity to coordinate even more strongly than in other places.
Our motto at the TDP is really two things. We say to ourselves a lot, “It's the base, stupid,” so we have to think about how we get out our base. And the second thing is we're really a customer service organization and our customers are voters and candidates and counties and clubs. The best way to do that is kind of help facilitate that coordination and so I think we'll see a very strong coordinated campaign.
Katherine: How has the recruitment conversation changed from late May to now, where it looks like we may actually have a really strong candidate running for Governor — not just for filling up the statewide races, but people's willingness to consider jumping in further down the ballot?
Will: There are definitely more candidates thinking about it now than were thinking about it when I first started.
Here's the thing: obviously Senator Davis hasn't made up her mind yet, and we will support the Senator in whatever decision she makes. So if she decides to run for her seat again I think we're still going to have a really great slate of candidates regardless of what the Senator's decision is. However, having her at the top of the ticket just makes for a much stronger slate of folks. She's a tremendous contrast to Greg Abbott in his extreme policies, and Wendy just has this incredible personal narrative. She has been a champion for folks across the state for so long.
Katherine: In all of this, what has surprised you the most?
Will: How big Texas is! You know I saw the quote before I came down from Ann Richards that you really just don't know the size of Texas until you campaign it and I knew Texas was going to be a big place. But it is just such a big place and honestly there's so many folks around the state that haven't been talked to for so long. I told a lot of folks that working here was like drinking from a fire hydrant. Now we're like drinking from a dam that's completely blown up!
We've set expectations for what it is that we want to accomplish, there are a lot more folks reaching out to us, and as we've been doing trainings around the state, we've met with close to 150 of our county chairs about programs that we're going to do to help them. You know, it was interesting — I walked into the county chairs meeting and I could tell that the segment that just finished was social media because I had seven new invites to new county party Facebook pages that people had set up in that training. That type of stuff is really exciting.
The other surprise has been just how strong Texans are and how much they care about their state. As I've gotten out and met more people, it's clear that folks are just so tired of what's been happening in their state. I'm actually a little surprised at how easy it is to talk about our values with folks across the state. People in Texas are tired of the Republicans, they're fed up, and they agree with what our party stands for and what we're trying to do.