Voters read and hear a lot about the Republican and Democratic political parties, but most people have little idea of how political activity actually takes place. So, this month’s commentary is offered as a primer on Clallam County politics.
First, a little perspective. Tip O’Neill, the former Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, once famously observed that “All politics is local.” Secondly, local in Seattle or Chicago or Boston does not mean the same thing politically as it does in Clallam County.
The political parties sometimes achieve genuine grassroots organization in metropolitan precincts or wards. This means that party representatives talk to or meet with the party’s constituents regularly on the streets and in meetings. The same quality of organization rarely manifests in the country.
Clallam County has 67 voting precincts. Ideally, each party would have one organizer in charge of every precinct to communicate with his or her neighbors who support that party. In a perfect world, each organizer would have a precinct committee to help out. In practice, Clallam County’s parties don’t come close to the ideal.
The organizers are officially labeled “precinct committee officer,” abbreviated as PCO.
The Clallam Republicans’ web site lists 29 PCOs and the Clallam Democratic web site lists 35. These numbers have varied little over the last decade. What has changed is that there are fewer precincts. The County Auditor’s office two years ago consolidated some precincts, reducing the county’s voter subdivisions from more than 90 to 67.
This means that the parties actually now have PCO coverage for a higher percentage of precincts than they did before; however, things are rarely that simple. Some of the consolidated precincts are now even more geographically challenging than before.
The reason that’s important is that few precinct officers in large precincts make much of an effort at communication with their precinct’s voters. As a practical matter, only the PCO in a city precinct in Port Angeles or Sequim is likely to do much political organizing and the truth is that few of them do so.
So, what do they do? They attend meetings. If either party has a quarterly meeting and votes on its platform, or adopts resolutions, or endorses a candidate for office, the chances are that 25-35 people are making those decisions.
I doubt that the parties are likely to get stronger, either internally or externally. In Washington state, their role has only been weakened by the establishment of the top-two primary voting system which replaced the system in which the voters of each party selected their own candidate to run in the general election.
The parties continue to have influence only to the extent that they influence voters and direct money to their candidates.
Those two factors must be important, because candidates who have run as independents in partisan races have not fared well. For instance, when Forks Mayor Bryon Monohon opposed Sissi Bruch and Bill Peach in the 3rd District county commissioner’s race, he divorced himself from the Democratic Party and ran a weak third as an independent.
Money is running politics more than ever in this country, and in local politics, party endorsements are worth campaign dollars — from the parties and from party supporters. Never mind that only 30 people anointed the candidate.
A countywide election campaign can now cost up to $50,000. Yet another reason that so few people run for office.
People these days who have been heard wishing that we could just return to “the smoke-filled rooms” don’t realize that those rooms still run local politics. They just do it without the smoke. And they do it by and large without the media, because the news reporters don’t show up for local political meetings and aren’t likely to report anything about them unless something extremely unusual occurs.
Tip O’Neill’s quote suggests the idea that political success is tied to a politician’s ability to understand and influence the local constituency. That’s one reason you will find elected leaders such as Commissioner Jim McEntire and Rep. Steve Tharinger on the lists of their party’s precinct committee officers.
The political parties still work in Clallam County, but they do so only because nothing better has come along.
Voting citizens choose whether to support a party or not. The local parties will grow stronger only if more people decide to participate in their activities and donate to their causes. They will grow weak and risk disintegration if their active support gets much weaker than it is today.
If we didn’t have parties, then what? Every election would be a free-for-all, sort of like non-partisan city council elections.
John Merton Marrs is a retired daily newspaper editor and reporter who writes monthly on politics. He is a past chair of the Clallam County Democrats and the 24th Legislative District Democratic Central Committee.