As the cartoonish, rancid reality of a Donald Trump administration begins to set in, an even worse actuality for the Buckeye state also kicked in at the same time. Ohio House Republicans gained an all-time supermajority number of seats in the legislature, increasing their share of seats in the 99-seat statehouse to 66.

The loss last month was across the board for Democrats. But if we are to snatch long-term victory from this temporary setback, it is time to do some long overdue and deep introspection. And then get down to work.

Because there is no other time but now.

If Democrats are not able to make a serious dent in legislative offices in 2018, it could be a long time before we ever have a chance to undo GOP gerrymandering, and thus, our two-party system will be closer to a locked-in map of guaranteed one-party rule.

I had an inside look at the Hillary Clinton campaign, worked for months on the grassroots Bernie Sanders effort as a volunteer and Sanders delegate, and helped run a grassroots campaign as a candidate for state representative here in Ohio. I think I have a decent, yet always expanding, view of what is working, and what is not.

To me, the pivotal point in this past campaign was not in the glow of the national media or any of the back and fourth campaign declarations between either presidential campaign; It was in a speech that a local county Democratic Party official gave at a dinner I attended running up to the campaign.

I won’t mention his name, because I don’t think that its important to highlight him, as to keep this discussion disengaged from personalities. But what he told the crowd that night gathered was that after he had had a fruitless conversation with his Trump supporting neighbor earlier in the day, that one thing was clear. And that one thing was that Trump voters were beyond attempting to reason with, and that the Democratic Party needed to concentrate on getting out its base, and concentrate on only that task if we were to win in November. While my campaign manager and I looked at each other in disappointment at what we had just heard, we knew deep within that his words belied a more fundamental rot within our party: the rot of giving up on convincing anyone outside of our political worldview that our policies are the best for the country.

Time after time during the campaign there would be invitations to different events, and the question I would always raise was: is this going to get us more voters? Usually the answer was no. This is because most of these events consisted of the appearance of a national politician or surrogate at a rally, where everyone there, if they actually did live in my district, would be likely voting for me. Our aim was to reach the undecided middle. The already partisan will come. That was largely the strategy of the Sanders campaign.

While we didn’t achieve our ultimate goal in getting elected to the Ohio Legislature, there were several lessons learned from our campaign:

You don’t need big money to compete. Our campaign raised less than $7k before the fat lady began harmonizing, and still outperformed campaigns in similar districts that received substantial financial assistance from the Ohio House Democratic Caucus. While Mrs. Clinton failed to win Montgomery County, we did. I was a first-time candidate who faced what was arguably the dirtiest and most dishonest smear campaign in Ohio political history, but, in the end, the hundreds of thousands of dollars in negative advertising was money thrown into the toilet by my opposition. The national tides carried this election, not negative advertising.

In our new political atmosphere of anti-establishment sentiment, Democrats must renounce big-money politics in favor of down home, grassroots political efforts that welcome all and not only speak to the struggles of working people, but offer them concrete proposals to make their lives better.

Yes, political campaigns take money to finance, but not the gigantic sums that are spent today. Broadcast advertising has become almost useless due to the orgy of negativity and ridiculousness that has been poured into the campaign process. Face-to-face grassroots politics is where it’s at, and it doesn’t take gigantic sums of money. It takes hard work.

In a presidential election year, top of the ticket is everything for down ballot candidates. While I don’t intend to use this space to bash our party’s nominee, it’s safe to say that her campaign did not generate the excitement necessary to drive the voter turnout necessary for Democrats to win up and down the ticket.

If we are honest, for too many Americans, fair or not, our presidential candidate represented to them everything they opposed:

  • Favoritism towards Wall Street over Main Street, and promoting global transnational corporate outsourcing via free trade agreements
  • Giant money dictating all in politics
  • An entrenched political establishment more willing to stymie the grassroots than to empower it
  • A perceived sense of entitlement

In 2020, we must not only nominate a candidate that the grassroots is willing to back, we must nominate a candidate that the grassroots is excited to work for because the policies that they back will obviously improve the lives of citizens.

We must go where others don’t. Time after time during my campaign, especially in poor urban areas or more remote rural communities, I would hear from people, “I’ve never got a visit from a politician until you knocked on the door.”

We must not only be in these communities during election season, we must be in them year round. That means we must not invest in millions of dollars for television advertising public relations, but instead invest in a party organizational infrastructure that ensures that there are no forgotten areas or people. We need offices staffed in every rural county in our state with able and motivated organizers who can be the force of change that will turn the tide of the Buckeye State away from the regressive politics of Republicans, whose policies have weakened our public education system, increased poverty, and weakened the infrastructure of our state.

Politics has to be fun again. The biggest difference I noticed between the excitement infused Sanders campaign and the more machine like Clinton campaign was fun. One Sanders delegate from Columbus summed it up quite well when she told me that “getting involved in the Sanders campaign was like finding my tribe.”

The Democratic Party must become a party where, when someone attends an event for the first time, it will be like finding their tribe. In order to do this, we must stand up loud and clear not only for progressive values, but for making the party a party.

Instead of fundraising events filled with stuffed suits awkwardly mingling about, we must transform our events into the kind of events that humans actually enjoy attending.

This is where a re-connection with the arts community is vital in making our party new again. We must transform those stuffy fundraisers into events like concerts that resonate with the public, are actually fun to attend and are accessible to the average person. There are many other examples to help make this happen. Not only are events like these fun, they can also be fantastic organizing tools, connecting political organizations with the general public in a way that a stuffy fundraiser never can.

These are but a few of the lessons I learned from this campaign. I will be writing more about them, and current issues and always appreciate your responses.

In solidarity,

David Sparks
2016 Democratic Candidate For State Representative
Ohio District 43

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