As members of the Democratic National Committee gather this weekend in Phoenix to hear from the candidates seeking to be the party’s new chair, there will be a lot of talk about how the party needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. That is, after all, the only way it will be able to reverse the devastating losses suffered in state houses across the country, to reclaim control of Congress and to win back the White House with an Electoral College victory to match its 2016 popular vote win.
But, if we say we’re going to rebuild from the ground up, let’s actually do that. I can think of no better way for the DNC’s new chair to signal a fresh start than by setting up the party’s headquarters in Detroit, Michigan—not Washington, D.C.—in the heart of the industrial Midwest, where the now-shattered Big Blue Wall once stood as a symbol of Democratic strength.
There are some who will argue that the party can prevail in the years ahead without a concerted effort to win back the support of disaffected voters who deserted the party on Election Day. But it’s folly for Democrats to think that demographic winds or more sophisticated data analysis alone will power a resurgence. To prevail, we need to fight with renewed intensity to earn the trust of American working families, including those left behind in the wake of the global economy and those who fear they are next to fall behind. From day one, we need to mount an offensive to defeat Donald Trump’s impending assault on American democracy, the environment, civil rights, healthcare and the safety net Democrats have labored so hard to build. And, to wage these fights and to forge our party’s future, the national party must work hand in hand with state parties and progressive allies to build a nationwide grassroots organization, fueled by the passion of our ideals and millions of volunteers and contributors.
The road to political redemption will be a hard slog—successful party building is gritty work. We face a daunting climb, particularly at the state level, where Republicans control 33 of 50 governor’s offices and 67 of 99 state legislative bodies and have used that control with brutal efficiency to gerrymander congressional and legislative lines and pass voter suppression measures to maintain their grip on power.
But the difficult task of once again becoming a truly national governing party is more likely to succeed if the effort is anchored in the heart of the country. After all, if we’re going to pursue a 50-state strategy to restore Democratic competitiveness, then what better place to establish our battlefront headquarters than in a region that will see a slew of competitive congressional and state races in 2018 and that we need to win if we are to have any credible chance of taking back the White House in 2020?
Setting up shop in the heartland would also speak volumes about what the Democratic Party stands for and for whom it is fighting. It would send a strong signal that the party is serious about devoting resources to organizing efforts in all those states and communities across the country where Democrats need to get back in the game.
And it might just help shake the Democratic Party out of its post-election shock. Where an organization is headquartered matters—how we see the world is no small part shaped by the people with whom we interact and the communities in which we live. A little more heartland and a little less Beltway would be good for the soul and perspective of the Democratic Party.
Some may worry about the logistics of moving the party’s headquarters out of the nation’s capital. But phones and the Internet work just fine in Detroit. Plus, the city is within easy driving distance of key states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin; and its airport has flights to cities across the country, including 26 non-stop daily flights to Washington, just 95 minutes away. Party operations that need to be located in D.C. can stay there; and any space freed up in the current headquarters can be leased at Washington’s premium rents to help pay for the Detroit office, where rents are one-third to one-half of what’s charged in D.C.
It’s time to change the culture of our party from top down to bottom up—it will pay dividends for years to come. When I was elected chairman of the California Democratic Party in 1991, Republicans had won six straight presidential and three straight gubernatorial contests in our state. We committed ourselves to rebuilding our party neighborhood-by-neighborhood, city-by-city and county-by-county. Working together with local Democrats, we opened 100 local headquarters; registered over 1.2 million new Democratic voters; increased the percentage of state party delegates under age 30 from 4 percent to 17 percent; and fielded an army of 50,000 precinct volunteers. On election day 1992, our United Democratic Campaign turned California from red to blue, electing two women senators—Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein—for the first time in any state’s history, and carrying the state for the Democratic presidential nominee, Bill Clinton, for the first time in 28 years. We’ve never looked back.
With our nation’s future at stake, Democrats need to hit the ground running now— starting in the heartland and working from there.
Phil Angelides served as chairman of the California Democratic Party, California’s elected state treasurer, and chairman of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which conducted the nation’s official inquiry into the 2008 financial crisis.