It's not a lot of fun being head of the state Democratic Party these days. Not that Vera P. Hall, its first black head, is complaining. The first few months were exhilarating. Last November, she and Maryland Democrats helped achieve Bill Clinton's biggest victory anywhere, his native Arkansas excepted. Mrs. Hall and cohorts won kudos. The party was to reap a special financial reward from the Democratic National Committee.
This summer things came a bit undone. Mrs. Hall, to her dismay, discovered an unwanted inheritance from her ousted predecessor, Nathan Landow: $70,000 in unpaid debts she said he had unilaterally incurred -- and almost nothing in the bank.
With mixed results, Mrs. Hall has sought ways to keep the party permanently out of the red. She helped devise a plan to recruit new Democratic members who'll pay $35 in dues, year after year. So far, no giant response. She tried to enlist former Congressman (and party vice-chairman) Mike Barnes as a money-raiser, but his party time has grown scarce as he's pursued his first love, international affairs. She organized a fund-raiser in mid-September that cleared $50,000, but it was just a one-time event.
Several weeks ago, Mrs. Hall went public, lambasting Mr. Landow as a spendthrift and pleading for a financial shot in the arm. Mr. Landow fired back, accusing Mrs. Hall of incompetence and mismanagement, and urging her ouster.
The party's tenuous finances are no surprise. While innovative enough, Mrs. Hall toils as an unpaid volunteer for an organization only sporadically active. In the old days, of course, it didn't take direct-mail drives to get people to join the Democratic party. They paid their dues to be in line for some patronage spot. Nowadays, positioning oneself for a post-election job requires pre-election help to an individual candidate.
When they ran the political show, state parties would decide who would run for a particular post. Today in Maryland, Democratic candidates pay their filing fees, perhaps giving the state party head a bit of notice, and run pretty much on their own. Trying to strong-arm a declared Democratic candidate out of a primary race in favor of a party preference would be an act of futility today. Candidates owe the party nothing, and ignore the party with impunity.
Mrs. Hall has tried to make the party a provider of services to candidates, but that approach has its problems. The state party, for example, will purchase and resell to candidates the district-by-district voter lists that are essential in door-to-door leafleting and direct-mail efforts. But that information is readily available elsewhere, though perhaps more expensively, and elections come around just every four years.
In her quest for tasks the party can perform better than the candidates, Mrs. Hall has stressed get-out-the-vote efforts. But candidates frequently assume they can better control turnout if they themselves man the phone banks and coordinate Election Day assignments.
Mrs. Hall also believes that training new candidates is a valuable and vital party job. Running for public office certainly isn't easy, and training is essential. But the proliferation of consultants, tapes and seminars can crowd out the party's role.
That brings us back to money. Once an individual, firm or PAC in Maryland reaches the legal limit on contributions to a particular campaign, the party, whose ceiling is higher, becomes the fallback. Generous donors can still help their candidates, in theory, by channeling their gifts through the party. But the party's campaign coordinating committee, usually dominated by the Democrat running at the top of the ticket (Sen. Paul Sarbanes in 1994, for example), decides which races need or should get party help, and it may not be the ones the original contributors hoped for. Besides, whatever money comes into the party coffers arrives late, and doesn't stick around long.
So the state party, through Mrs. Hall, searches for ways to finance itself for functions it (and she) can't quite make indispensable. It could try assessing state elected officials, from the governor on down through central committee members, for some small annual amount (they've helped bail the party out so far). It could seek more help from the national party, which is where some of the nation's big money is raised. It could dun Democratic members of Congress, who raise enormous amounts of money every two years. Mrs. Hall already has made a pilgrimage or two to Washington to broach the subject.
A more far-reaching possibility, so far overlooked, is altering state law. Maryland holds statewide elections every four years. In most states they are bi-annual events, and the state parties are more important political players, if only as a conduit for excess campaign funds.
At a national meeting last year in New York, Democratic party heads from other states greeted Maryland's then-chairman, Nate Landow, like a conquering hero. "He actually raises money," one gushed, "and he's not afraid to spend it."
As she carries on with her frustrating, thankless and increasingly inconsequential job, Mrs. Hall may be wondering, "What happens if you have a party and no one signs up?"
Bruce L. Bortz edits The Maryland Report and The Maryland Procurement Report newsletters. He comments for The Sun on Maryland politics.