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One of the most embarrassing things about me on the internet is this post I wrote in 2004 after George W. Bush won reelection against John Kerry, human Ent. After Scott Walker's reelection earlier this month, amid the general pounding Democrats took at the polls this year and deep in my sorrows, I re-read that post thinking about how to write a response to this year's results.
That post does not hold up well. It deserves to be, I say as someone a decade older and further removed from the state Democratic party, cut and pasted into all of the dictionaries right next to the phrase "sore loser."
I'm not saying 2004 wasn't legitimately frustrating. Having recently moved house, I had occasion to dig through memorabilia I kept from back then and flood myself with memories of the time I made my serious entrée into politics by de facto running the local campaign for Howard Dean during 2003 into the 2004 primaries.
I was an amateur collecting names and email addresses, ginning up local media coverage, and organizing the "Meet-Ups" that were all the rage back then. I booked the band for the Big Rally and I even got to drive Howard Dean himself to the airport one morning in my trusty old Saturn. I was pretty good at it, and developed a lot of relationships, political and personal, that are still important to me ten years on.
But I was not a professional. I was not about to quit my job to take on any kind of official role with the campaign doing things I simply didn't know how to do. And the campaign was not about to make me that kind of offer, because they were not stupid. At least, not about things like that.
No, when it came time to establish a professional and state-wide presence for the campaign in Wisconsin, team Dean hired Mike Tate.
Tate had worked on Kathleen Falk's failed run at the Democratic nomination for Wisconsin governor in 2002. After Dean's massive Wisconsin primary loss in 2004, Tate went on to lead the campaign opposing Wisconsin's anti-gay marriage amendment in 2006, which passed by a lopsided margin despite the strong Democratic wave that year. Soon after, and despite his record, Tate was elected to chair the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, a position he still holds.
Which brings us to the present day, when here I am staring at my Sunday newspaper (metaphorically; I read it online) and who is staring back at me? Mike Tate.
That link is to Eugene Kane's column this week, with the pull-no-punches headline, "White Democrats botched midterm election." I resemble that remark, as does Tate, Kane's poster-boy for the problem.
"White Democrats blew it," Kane's thesis goes, "by running away from President Barack Obama during a time when unemployment was down and most economic indicators were up, along with a promising health care law that actually was accomplishing many of the goals it promised."
Kane doesn't come down as hard on Wisconsin Democrats for that ("White Democrats in Wisconsin didn't run away from Obama as much as in other states," he says) but he should: Mary Burke did indeed campaign with Obama in the closing days of the campaign, but avoided him at Labor Day and never once openly embraced key parts of Obama's agenda and record.
Burke's campaign pitch could have been, "Let me do for Wisconsin what Obama has done for America" -- that is, turn the economy around and boost economic and health security for everyone.
After last week's column on how Walker's narrative, combined with our natural desire to see and follow familiar narratives, helped put him over the top, I had to respond to some critics on Twitter by pointing out that Burke could never seem to develop a narrative of her own. "I'm not Walker" could have been "I'm Obama," and perhaps turnout, not to mention the ultimate result, might have been different.
Now, I like Mike Tate personally. My relationship with him is one of those I mentioned earlier, one that I still consider important ten years after first working with him.
But Kane is right to fire this shot: "I hear almost no criticism of Tate from African Americans in Milwaukee who always vote Democratic; most have never heard of, met or talked to Tate. These black voters aren't really involved in state party politics at a discernible level." I would offer that Milwaukee's Latino community is similarly disengaged from the day-to-day business of the state's Democratic party.
This year, though vote totals suggest Wisconsin turnout wasn't down for a mid-term election, my anecdata do: every election I give my students bonus credit for bringing in "I Voted" stickers. This month I collected fewer than I ever have from my overwhelmingly black and Latino students, suggesting they, their families, and their neighbors just didn't vote. Even in the "99 percent Obama" ward where Burke and the president appeared together, turnout was down from the last gubernatorial contest.
In 2010, as Milwaukee's murder rate was spiking back up from the near-record low achieved in 2008, I was talking to another one of those friends from the Dean campaign, an African American woman, about the killings.
"You know what the difference is?" she asked me. She told me that in the summer of 2008 she had seen something in Milwaukee's black community she hadn't seen in a long time or since. "Hope," she said.
Now, her criminological analysis may be suspect, but her political analysis was right on: In nominating and embracing the politics of Barack Obama, the Democrats had engaged and energized the African American community in a way that two years later (and two years after that, and two years after that) they failed to do.
Was Mary Burke's loss Mike Tate's fault? No, or at least not entirely. You can't blame Tate for a Democratic loss on a night when, nationwide, even wealthy incumbent Democratic US Senators succumbed to the Republican wave.
But does Mike Tate -- and the rest of us white Democrats, dues-paying party members or not--have work to do to rebuild the 2008 Democratic coalition? Yes. The professionals and amateurs alike need to embrace proven winning messages and the strength that lies in Wisconsin's non-white communities.