When you think of “local politics,” what image is conjured in your mind? Maybe it’s a candidate talking to people in a local diner, or perhaps debate night being held in a public gymnasium. For the more cynical among us, maybe it’s “debates” in local Facebook groups, or politicians making deals in smoky backrooms. While there may be truth in each of these stereotypes, the answer I fall back on comes from my time in Connecticut: political parties’ town committees. Having recently moved to New York, I have spent some time thinking about my experience with Democratic Town Committees, specifically what tactics brought them success – and which did not.
If you’re uninterested in electoral organizing or not from Connecticut, this article is still for you. Most, if not all, of my takeaways can apply to all sorts of other organizations, groups, workplaces, and maybe even interpersonal relationships. For the uninitiated: like in most other parts of the United States, the Republican and Democratic Parties are the two main political parties in Connecticut. Each of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities has at least one Republican Town Committee (RTC) or Democratic Town Committee (DTC), which engage in local organizing.
(Calling these all “Town Committees” is a bit misleading, given that they are still referred to as such in Connecticut cities or in Naugatuck, which is technically a borough. I suppose “Municipal Committee” doesn’t have the same ring to it.)
While the state government and each local government organizes elections themselves, Town Committees are responsible for finding candidates to run, organizing volunteer efforts, fundraising, keeping members of the community informed, and other relevant responsibilities. As one might expect, some Town Committees are more effective than others, but then again not all municipalities face the same challenges.
Although I now live in Manhattan, my work over the years has taken me to nearly all corners of the state – although I must admit that I have spent the least amount of time in Litchfield County. I have seen this work from the lenses of politics, journalism, organizing, and non-profit work. As a registered member of the Democratic Party, my experience with Town Committees comes solely from DTCs, although friends across the aisle have told me that, politics aside, RTCs operate in similar dynamics.
These ideas are not listed in any particular order. I have also made the decision to identify DTCs that I believe are doing good work; on the flip side, I have avoided naming ones that have room for improvement.
I hate to say it, but I have seen far too many DTCs disproportionately prioritize seniority within their ranks. There is nothing wrong with showing some deference to people who lived in a locale for a long time and who have put in years of hard work with their local Town Committee. But recruiting new members and creating an environment that makes them feel welcome are crucial to longterm viability.
If you ever attend a DTC meeting in the town of Groton, you will see a good example of this in action. If you are an newbie at one of their meetings, you can barely catch your breath before being met with a smiling face introducing themselves to you, engaging you in friendly chit-chat, and–crucially–collecting your contact information.
The best part about this approach is that it’s possible to immediately form new connections. “Oh, you live on Main Street? Well then you must meet Roberta, she’s just down the road from you!” “If you went to elementary school in town, then you probably had my uncle as a social studies teacher!” “You work at that new restaurant? We were thinking of hosting an event there, what do you make of the space?”
This sort of banter isn’t just friendly and good for the DTC, but it also builds community. Especially after the COVID-19 global pandemic, fighting feelings of isolation can be incredibly powerful – and keep people coming back.
I was once at an event where a member of the Cheshire DTC remarked, “most people in town would have no idea what a ‘DTC’ is, let alone care who the president of the DTC is.” The others sitting at the table–all members of their own respective DTCs–seemed shocked at the comment. How could residents not know about their municipal political parties’ Town Committees!?
When you are really interested in or dedicated to something, it can be hard to realize that not everyone is. Just last week, a friend who watches baseball had to explain to me what the “playoffs” were after he casually referenced it in conversation. It happens.
While it may feel disheartening to realize that most people in your municipality don’t know the long hours you put in, it’s also a teachable moment. People are naturally curious, especially when it involves their community. Don’t treat people like idiots, but also don’t assume that they how local politics functions.
When you meet people who likely are unfamiliar with what the DTC does, tell them! They might even be interested in volunteering. (Don’t roll your eyes at that! The more people aware of the good work that DTCs do, the more potential volunteers there will be.)
Many DTCs have up-to-date contact lists for their members. This is a more powerful tool than many know. Given that DTC members are usually the sort of people who are interested in spending their free time helping local causes, it’s a shame to see many DTCs underutilize their contact lists.
Ideally, DTCs would establish a regular meeting time and location that stays as consistent as possible, held when the highest number of people can come. Given that no time will work for all members, it can also be smart to have other events (not regular meetings) at times that can accommodate people with demanding schedules.
While you do not want to send too many messages to your contact list, in my opinion the bigger issue is not sending enough. Informational messages, recaps of meetings, and email blasts for breaking news items are some key examples.
Of course, the primary purpose of the contact list is let people know about meetings, events, and volunteer opportunities. I’d recommend sending an initial notice or invitation about one to two weeks before a meeting or an event, and then a follow up one to two days before.
While the Milford DTC doesn’t follow this exact schedule, they do maintain active email lists. Their emails are succinct but contain all of the pertinent information. They also make all members–even ones who cannot make an event or meeting–feel included in the process. I don’t think I’ve seen a DTC better utilize an email list.
(And keep your website and social media up-to-date as well! Freemium tools like Buffer can be easily set up to schedule social media posts across different platforms.)
Include Everyone in the Process
According to a report by the State of Connecticut’s Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, “Connecticut is one of the most racially segregated states in the nation.” There are a number of reasons for this, such as historical factors like racial segregation pacts or redlining, or contemporary ones, such as overly restrictive zoning rules due so-called “home rule” policies.
Although we tend to think of municipalities as whole entities, the results of racial and economic segregation can leave communities divided. I was very impressed to witness members of the Windsor DTC considering these issues before the start of the COVID-19 global pandemic. They openly acknowledged the underrepresentation of the town’s Black residents, and strategized ways to fix that.
It is important for DTCs to consider how they operate. For example, are meetings and events consistently held in parts of your municipality that are inconvenient for members of underrepresented groups? Are meetings or events scheduled at times that would make it difficult for working class people to attend? Are meetings or events handicap-accessible?
Different municipalities will have different needs, which means that the solutions may look different. But asking these questions can be crucial to bringing underrepresented voices into the fold.
Age is just a number
Most local politics is an old person’s game. That is not a swipe at older generations. There is something to be said for the idea that experience begets wisdom. Furthermore, retirees typically have more time to devote to their local communities than people with full-time school, childcare, or employment do.
However, for DTCs to remain functional over the long term, younger members are absolutely essential. The purpose of the DTC is to create an organization that has long-term viability, not to consolidate power into the hands of a few senior members. Not to mention that younger members often bring fresh ideas and perspectives to the table. (And, more often than not, technological prowess.)
Sadly, not all see it this way. Younger members’ ideas are all too often drowned out by “we’re going to keep doing things the way they’ve always been done”-ism.
I was at an event in Hartford County a while back, where I expressed concern about young people’s voices being dismissed. As if to prove my point, I was interrupted by three people, all of whom were not exactly in the first bloom of youth. One of these interruptors, a woman, retorted, “Well, don’t you think I’ve been ignored as a woman!?”
(To this day, I am not sure why she believed her experience of gender discrimination in any way justified young folks being silenced due to their age. I would hope that DTCs–or any group–would engage in neither discriminatory act.)
It’s no secret that younger people vote less consistently than older folks do. Maybe listening to what younger voters have to say may better inform DTCs’ outreach to younger demographics. Policy concerns and media consumption habits ebb and flow with younger folks; giving them a seat at the table can be invaluable.
Some older people will fit “OK boomer” stereotypes, and not all young people are going to lead your DTC to victory with younger voters. However, don’t count people out just due to their age. Age representation is important. We all have something to learn from each other.
Canvassing is more efficient with one driver, one knocker
Getting volunteers to canvass (in other words, to go door-to-door and speak to voters) is typically pretty hard. It can be unnerving for some people to go to complete strangers’ homes and talk to them about politics. Not to mention that, if local Facebook Groups or Nextdoor message boards are any indicator, people are growing less tolerant of unexpected knocks at their front door.
However, it is a necessary and important part of campaigning. Most research shows that the closer you can get to a voter, the more likely they are to vote for you. Canvassing is more effective than calling a voter on the phone; calling a voter on the phone is more effective than texting them; and so on.
I understand that when you do find folks who are willing to help out, it can be easy to let them grab a list of addresses and be on their way. However, there is a better way to do it if you have (at least) two volunteers: have one person drive and one person hop out and knock on doors. Trust me, it is significantly more efficient.
Although some volunteers prefer the traditional method of walking an entire turf, it is simply less of an effective use of time. I learned this when canvassing in this manner with members of the Norwich DTC. I rode “shotgun” and provided navigation, while the other person drove. At each house, I would jump out and do the leg work. We made a good team – and completed our turf much more efficiently than other volunteers and provided moral support for one another.
This also creates an opportunity for older volunteers who are able to drive, but also have physical limitations that may impact their ability to go door-to-door. Or for volunteers who “want to help” but don’t feel comfortable door-knocking or phonebanking. (We’ve all heard that excuse before.)
Phonebanking made easier
Calling voters on the phone (known as phonebanking) remains a necessary part of campaigning. In recent years, there may have been a lot of debates about whether text messaging will eventually replace calling, but the jury is still out. Receiving an SMS message on your phone is not as effective at turning voters as having a voice conversation, but given the influx of spam callers, many people do not answer phone numbers that they do not recognize. It’s a tough situation.
While some campaigns and DTCs have money for “auto-dialer” software, most do not. As a result, many if not most still rely on paper lists of voters’ phone numbers. As volunteers record responses from voters on the paper, someone will eventually have to go through these papers and enter them back into the system. It’s more work than many people realize.
However, it doesn’t have to be this way. Democratic campaigns almost always use NGP VAN to organize voter information. Rather than giving people paper lists, encourage them to use VAN’s smartphone or tablet app. VAN’s website can also be used for this purpose on a smartphone, tablet, or computer’s browser. Once volunteers record a voter’s response using the VAN app, it is automatically entered into the system. No additional work required! It’s that simple.
When I was doing some voter outreach with the Colchester DTC in January 2020, I was pleasantly surprised that they were encouraging use of the app. In fact, the organizers were even helping people set up the app on their smartphones, which is essential when working with older volunteers. It was fantastic to see such an effective embrace of technology.
(Also, if someone wants to canvass using the VAN app, it will even show you on the map where you need to go. It’s really a game changer.)
GOTV phonebanking made easier
“Get Out The Vote” is the last step of any successful campaign. Unlike usual phonebanking, the idea of GOTV phonebanking is to call prospective voters until they tell you that they’ve already voted.
As a result, traditional phonebanking lists (even when using the aforementioned VAN app) can be ill-fitted to GOTV. That is because phonebanking lists are designed for you to contact each voter one time. However, in GOTV your directive is to call voters until you get a response.
The New London DTC has an interesting fix for this issue. When doing GOTV, post your phonebanking list on the wall. As volunteers work through each list, they completely cross off a name when they get a response. This eliminates any need to print new lists or to get anyone set up. All they need is a phone and a pen!
I not just saw this in action, but participated myself. From what I could tell, it worked like a charm and did not require a lot of extra work. In fact, it seemed to require less work than regular phonebanking! What a win-win.
Connecticut is the smallest state by land area, after Delaware and Rhode Island. But at the same time, Connecticut does not employ any sort of regional or county-level governance. This means that almost all 169 municipalities have completely separate public services, such as schools, roads, public health, or waste management to name a few.
There are some exceptions to this, such as the Amity School Disctrict with Bethany, Orange, and Woodbridge, or the ChesProCott health district between Cheshire, Prospect, and Wolcott. Still, these are certainly the exception and not the rule.
Critics charge that these duplications as a result of localism end up being more expensive and enable systemic problems, such as de facto racial segregation, to flourish. Those who defend the status quo say that Connecticut’s tradition of “home rule” must be defended, arguing that most problems are best handled at the local level.
People on the left should be skeptical of “home rule,” or as I call it “Towns’ Rights,” a nod to the “States’ Rights” movement, which similarly used race-neutral arguments to bolster racial segregation.
While regionalizing Connecticut will not occur overnight, there is no reason that your DTC should not be working together with other nearby DTCs. It can be a great way to pool resources, share best practices, and to community build.
In fact, many DTCs across the state already do so. I saw this first hand when the Old Saybrook DTC, along with the DTCs in Lyme and Old Lyme, formed the Tri-Town Democratic Town Committee, or in witnessing the great successes of the Quiet Corner Democrats, a large collection of 27 northeastern municipalities’ DTCs.
Keep in mind that aside from municipal elections, electoral districts are not necessarily confined to municipal boundaries so collaborations make sense. Furthermore, municipalities in the same general area tend to have unique commonalities. For example, the towns that comprise the aforementioned Tri-Town DTC make up the mouth of the Connecticut River, along with which comes specific political concerns.
These sort of partnerships are rarely formed overnight. Start small, and think about both what your DTC is looking for in a partnership and also what your DTC brings to the table.
Keep it social
Keeping members of the DTC engaged can sometimes be a bit of a struggle, especially in years without major elections. One way to keep people engaged is to provide opportunities for people to socialize. It’s also a great way to chat with people from other DTCs or bring in prospective members in a less intimidating setting.
Although I have never been to a meeting of the Meriden DTC, I feel like I have a good feel for the layout of the city after being a regular attendee of the Meriden chapter of Drinking Liberally prior to my move.
Drinking Liberally is a part of a nationwide group called Living Liberally, which aims to create social groups for left-of-center people to meet up, chat, and build a sense of community. Prior to my move out of state, there were four chapters in Connecticut that met monthly–New London, Windsor, Norwich, Meriden–and one that met weekly–Collinsville in Canton. (Sadly, I was unable to visit the Collinsville chapter before COVID-19 hit.) Apparently a New Britain chapter is set to open, and rumor has it that West Hartford will also have a new chapter in the near future.
While Living Liberally is a non-profit organization and thus unable to host official DTC or campaign-related meetings, there’s nothing against unofficial meetups with your friends from the DTC.
Of course, DTCs could always throw their own social events. It might take a bit of planning and money, but the camaraderie and social cohesion could ultimately be worth it in the end.
Education is key
Imagine someone has just moved to your city from out of state and wants to get involved. Or maybe someone has lived in your borough for their whole life, but never took an interest in local politics until now. Or perhaps a high school student in your town is almost of age and wants to learn more.
What typically happens next is well-intentioned DTC members try to quickly catch the curious newcomer up to speed. But more often than not trying to summarize months, years, or sometimes even decades of local history on the fly doesn’t always come across in a coherent manner.
I saved this suggestion for last, as it is something I have seen no DTC actually do: create “explainers” for local issues and history.
A surprising amount of DTC outreach rests on the assumption that the populace is well-informed about whatever election or issue de jour is. While I believe people on the whole are intelligent, curious, and care about their community, the simple reality is that more local you get, the fewer resources exist to educate people about what is going on.
There are also residents who may be knowledgeable about certain areas of local politics, but not others. A young couple with children probably knows more about the school board than about the senior center, or a renter probably knows more about an eviction moratorium than about property taxes when compared to a homeowner.
DTCs can help educate people in a number of ways.
Consider the many avenues that the internet provides. Written explainers on Medium or Tumblr, audio podcasts in Apple Podcasts or Spotify, in-depth YouTube videos, short form TikTok or Instagram videos, or livestreams over Facebook or Twitch are all wonderful ways DTCs can reach out. Plus, all of these websites are free to use.
If your DTC isn’t particularly tech-savvy, then consider throwing regular events where speakers explain the issues of the day. Allow audience members to ask questions and perhaps even provide an option for anonymous question submission.
Adults can become self-conscious if they are asking questions that they think they should already know the answer to. This can especially be true if newcomers perceive that they don’t know something that the rest of the DTC has an acute understanding of. Create an environment where people feel comfortable to ask questions.
Almost all of these suggestions are relatively inexpensive to put into action, but they do require time and expertise. The expertise part is usually easy enough to solve – those who join DTCs typically already have a great interest in their communities.
Not every approach is right for each municipality. While I have done my best to outline a number of good practices that I believe can help most, even if not all, DTCs in Connecticut, it is ultimately up to DTCs to decide what works best for their respective communities.
While Connecticut is an amazing place to live, there is no doubt that significant challenges face the state in the future. To best handle these, we need elected officials who are unafraid to make serious investments in the state, protect the environment, and end systemic inequities.
It goes without saying that, in my view, out of the two major political parties the Democratic Party is better suited for the job. But it’s not just about merely electing Democrats, but rather electing good Democrats – and I believe DTCs have an important role to play in doing so.
I hope that the biggest takeaway here is to perpetually consider new ideas. In my experience, the mentality of “we do it this way because we have always done it this way” are perhaps the biggest impediment to the growth of DTCs. There is perhaps no bigger turn off to new members than the message that fresh ideas are not welcome.