By Carl Carter, APR
A few years ago, I was doing some work for a defense contractor in Huntsville, and he liked retelling a story about his first meeting with Alabama’s legendary Senator John Sparkman.
The client’s firm had developed some new software for targeting incoming missiles — or, as he liked to call it, “shooting bullets with bullets.” But to have a chance at getting the contract, he had to get the senator behind him.
Sparkman sat quietly through the pitch, then leaned over and asked one question: “How is this going to help me get re-elected?”
My first reaction was disappointment that a senator of Sparkman’s stature would think so small as to say, “What’s in it for me?”
Over time, I started to see it differently. Here’s a senator who got elected four years before I was born, and who managed to stay there four years into my career. Thirty-three years, by my count. And along the way, he ran as the vice presidential running mate for Adlai Stevenson in 1952. Sparkman knew that he had to stay in office to get things done.
As I ponder how Alabama can elect Democrats, that question keeps coming up. Candidates ask it behind closed doors. Campaign managers and strategists ask it every day.
But campaign managers and strategists don’t win elections. Voters do. I’m painfully aware of that today as I sit helplessly out in St. Clair County, waiting for the verdict on a Birmingham race in which I served as a campaign strategist.
Once the Birmingham city elections are settled, we shift our focus back to the Senate election between Democrat Doug Jones and either Roy Moore or Luther Strange. The Jones campaign staff is already working hard on answers to the Sparkman question. I keep in touch with the various candidates who have already announced for next year’s elections. You can bet they’re all obsessed with it as well.
I just wish rank-and-file Democrats would focus on it more. We politically active Democrats in Alabama sure waste a lot of energy and time and energy on activities that don’t help us elect candidates. Here are some things that don’t help and probably hurt our candidates:
- Fighting last year’s battles. Everybody’s going to agree with this up to a point, then they’re going to say, “Yeah, those other fanatics need to drop it.” We need to learn to detach from past campaigns enough to learn the lessons, without dredging up the old hurt feelings and bitterness. Maybe a good way to focus on this is to keep asking, “How will this get our people elected?”
- Intergenerational squabbles. I don’t know who declared this stupid internecine war between Boomers and Millennialists, but I sure wish it would stop. Most of us are past rejecting what someone says because of the person’s race or sexual orientation. But when it comes to age, the gloves come off. I’m a Boomer myself, and I hear myself and others in my generation writing off huge blocks of creative and energetic folks, just because they’re younger than our kids. Sure, they’ll make mistakes. God knows we made our share, and we still do. But the Millennials don’t get off the hook completely. A white man my age can’t offer a perspective without being accused of “mansplaining” — a term that to me is both ageist and sexist. So the lessons that come from experience are doomed to be forgotten. And if we older Democrats don’t take the ideas of our younger friends more seriously, we’re just being morons. I can just hear Senator Sparkman saying to all of us, “How is this going to get Democrats elected?”
- Fragmentation and empire building. One of these days when I have time, I’m going to count up the number of Facebook groups that are all doing the same thing. I’m fine with geographically based conferences. When Tuscaloosa Democrats are rallying the troops for a local candidate, they don’t need those from Cullman or Anniston butting in. My concern is with the number of general-purpose Facebook groups that exist because they’re cheap and easy to set up. And once established, they never go away, even after everybody recognizes their redundant nature. This fragmentation makes it hard for someone to communicate with Democrats statewide.
For myself, I’m asking, “How is this going to get my candidates elected?” And the more I do, the better focused I figure I’ll be.