Thursday, January 15, 2015

WisDems Chairman Mike Tate makes correct call in choosing to step down

A series of electoral defeats and party mismanagement signals it's time for a change at the DPW

I first met Mike Tate in 2007 during the Democratic Leadership Institute, a workshop of sorts for young and aspiring Democratic Party operatives in the state of Wisconsin. Tate was a co-manager of the program and he did a great job organizing the event with many wonderful speakers.

In the fall of 2008 I again crossed paths with Tate when I worked with Advancing Wisconsin, canvassing across several communities in the state in order to get then-candidate Barack Obama elected president, as well as several Assembly races in the areas we were walking. Tate was head of the organization at that time, and I’ll admit I took some pride in being able to say I knew who he was to several of my fellow canvassers.

In 2009 Tate became the youngest state party chair of the nation, at age 30, when he won control of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. At that time I was excited about Tate’s promotion. A younger guy myself, I figured a generational transition at the party was beneficial, especially if we were to engage Millennials in the democratic process.

Today, Mike Tate has announced he won’t seek another term as head of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. And he’s right not to seek it.

What has changed since 2010? Why don’t I sing Tate’s praises, and bemoan this announcement?

A plethora of missteps, electoral defeats and mismanagement has caused me to lose faith in Tate’s leadership. Tate took office right before the Tea Party wave of 2010, and it’s hard to blame him for the losses we saw in that year. However, a compounding number of events following that wave -- a fumbled opportunity to recall Gov. Scott Walker and further losses of state legislative seats in 2014, in addition to another gubernatorial loss (the third in 4 years), among them -- makes it clear that Tate hasn’t done his job very well.

An interesting article in this week’s Capital Times takes a close look at two very similar states. In Minnesota, where Democrats won and held most of their offices from 2010-2014, things are looking pretty bright. Same-sex marriage was passed legislatively, the Affordable Care Act was implemented fully and taxes were raised on the wealthy. The minimum wage was raised and a fair wage law was enacted.

In Wisconsin, we went the other direction. Gov. Walker refused Medicaid dollars, and kicked tens of thousands of families off of BadgerCare. It took a court ruling for us to accept same-sex marriage (this in a state where worker rights for homosexuals were first recognized in the 1980s). Our governor has called raising the minimum wage a “political stunt” and refused to consider its necessity. Taxes were cut, and as a result education saw its largest cuts in our state’s history. And lest we forget, a law strengthening a women’s ability to seek redress after discovering she was paid unfairly was repealed.

(These are just a handful of stories that highlight Wisconsin under Walker’s rule. Many more dismal stories could fill this page.)

To be sure, these events aren’t the fault of Mike Tate. Scott Walker and his Republican-led legislature enacted these laws. But the state Democratic Party is in disarray; we’ve seen more defense and not enough offense from our side. Tate is responsible for that.

Think about it: how much of the 2014 gubernatorial race was spent defending Mary Burke as a candidate? While the issues of the minimum wage and health care expansion did see some light, those issues and a host of other ones should have been pounded continuously by the party.

We didn’t see that, or at the very least it wasn’t articulated loudly enough.

In many ways the Democratic Party could have capitalized on the public’s attitudes, but didn’t. The last Marquette Law School poll (PDF) before the election showed that Wisconsin still had the flame of a progressive streak within itself.

A majority of state voters supported raising the minimum wage. A majority also supported accepting federal Medicaid dollars. And a majority opposed requiring women to undergo unnecessary ultrasounds before having an abortion. A majority agreed that tax cuts do more to help the wealthy, and a majority believed that the state needed to better fund our state’s public schools.

Yet a majority still voted for Gov. Scott Walker to remain in office. While the state Democratic Party could have taken advantage of public sentiment on all the issues listed above and more, they didn’t. And when an organization fails to perform positively, the head of that organization has to be held accountable for its missteps.

I applaud Mike Tate for making his decision to step down rather than run for another term as party chair. It’s one decision he’s made in recent months that won’t have Democrats split.


What should the next chair do to make things right? He or she needs to enact reforms that make the entire state competitive. Democrats in Wisconsin rely too heavily on the Madison/Milwaukee vote. While Dems will need those voters again in the years ahead, they also need to branch out to other corners of the state. What can the DPW offer to voters in Grant, Shawano, St. Croix, or even Waukesha Counties?

This doesn’t mean we have to capitulate on the issues. Far from it. Rather, it means expanding core beliefs and messaging to include these citizens. It means an effective strategy to convince these voters that the party is going to change things in the state for the better.

It means better funding and use of resources to challenge Republican strongholds, to expand numbers in the legislature. It means producing a “bench” of candidates that’s wider than Russ Feingold (a great politician to be sure, but one whom we cannot rely upon for every statewide race).

Most of all it means winning an election that isn’t held during a presidential election year. Democrats have done it before. They can do it again.

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