He Also Ran: A post-mortem on my first run for public office.

I had not intended on running for any political office in Alabama. Why would I? I am a relative newcomer to the state, my political roots are elsewhere, and the prospect would have been difficult enough as a pretend socialist, to say nothing of being a real one. But as 2013 continued to unfold and I watched the Alabama Democratic Party lurch from screwup to screwup, I started to give the idea more thought.

“I mean, it ain’t like I would have to campaign campaign. I would simply place my name on the ballot, create a design for ‘signs’, and see where it takes me. And it’s a run for the State Democratic Executive Committee; how hard can that be?”

Anyone that knows me could tell you that this sort of minimalist thinking was not bound to last very long. But nevertheless, on January 28th, I announced that I was in it to win it:


After I decided to run, I thought I needed to try recruiting a team of progressives and young folks to run along with me. So I went to College Democrats meetings and tried to give as fiery a speech as I possibly could to get people motivated to join me on the June ballot. I ended up recruiting three other young Democrats to run for seats in either Tuscaloosa or their home counties and, after collecting their $50 filing fee and paperwork, I headed off to the state party headquarters in Montgomery to officially file the paperwork to run.

The paperwork that I filed on February 6th to run for the SDEC.
The paperwork that I filed on February 6th to run for the SDEC.

My brief time spent at headquarters crystallized all the reasons I had decided to run in the first place.

I had decided from jump that I would drive my filing papers down to Montgomery. It is only two hours away, and I had very little faith in the state party’s ability to handle the paperwork of someone who was not in the leadership’s magic circle. So off I went, arriving to what can best be described as slightly controlled chaos. The office was fairly crowded, which is to be expected of a state party headquarters the day before the filing deadline. I walk in and see three Black guys checking out the maps of the legislative districts, with another one standing next to the front desk with a pen and pad. My first thought was the correct one, “These are ADC folks.”

When I hand in the filing documents, Pen and Pad Guy asks me the same questions every time:

(hands in paperwork, clerk announces name of person on the filing form)

Pen and Pad Guy: “Is she Black?”

Me: No.

(hands in another form, clerk again announces name of person running)

Pen and Pad Guy: “Is he Black?”

Me: No.

Afterwards, I get into a conversation with one of the guys looking at the maps. I told him that I was living in Tuscaloosa while I was getting my degree; he said that he was from West Blocton, a town in Bibb County that is about 45 minutes from my house. We talked a little bit about my filing for the SDEC, and then I asked him if he was from the ADC; he replied that he was not. I was willing to let it go at that point, until….

Maps Guy: “I bet I can figure out where you’re from.”

Me: Nobody sent me here.

Maps Guy: “Bradley (the executive director of the Alabama Democratic Majority) sent you here.”

Me: He didn’t send me here.

Maps Guy: “Whoever sent you here was told by Bradley to send you here.”

At this point, I am getting kinda pissed off because a) I have been talking to you for about five minutes and you are already assuming that I am some sort of plant and b) you are obviously here at the behest of Joe Reed, so it is a little much for you to be accusing others of being spies for someone else. I brusquely let him know that he was crossing a line, and then bounced after the paperwork was certified.

As it would turn out, the person who I had the tense conversation with was the former voter file manager for the state party who did not show up to work the day before, the day of, or the day after the presidential election in 2012. Essentially, the person who did not show up for work on the biggest three days of the state party’s election cycle accused me of not having the party’s best interest at heart. It was as mindboggling as it sounds.

(Felix Parker, by the way, was the only person to file for the SDEC in District 49, so he was elected by acclimation.)

It took nearly a week before the list of candidates for the SDEC came out, which gave rise to concerns that folks were being illegally placed on the ballot past the deadline. I have no reason to doubt that this probably happened, but without any hard evidence, there was not really anything that could be done about it. I figured that between the confrontation at the state party headquarters and the ADC chair for Tuscaloosa County asking about the house district I was running in, I would have at least one opponent.

After filing, I decided that I would fundraise for some signs closer to the election. But for the time being, I went about my regular schedule. After all, I had a class to teach and comprehensive exams that I needed to study for. One of the commitments that I made to my wife before she would agree to this was that the election would only have a minimal impact on our lives, and I set about keeping that promise. Besides, the county Democratic chair (who was also running for the SDEC from another house district) had assured me that no one would actively campaign for any of these seats.

After classes ended on May 3, I had to start making some plans. It was exactly one month until the primary election, and I had to figure out what the plan was going forward. When would I fundraise? When would I have my signs made? Was there a risk to doing all of this too early and spooking the ADC into action? Where would I put up signs in my district? That last one was tricky, because the district is massive:

District 62 covers southern and eastern Tuscaloosa County.
District 62 covers southern and eastern Tuscaloosa County.

As you can see at the bottom, the district is overwhelmingly white. Considering the number of white people who would be showing up for a largely uncompetitive Democratic primary was likely to be low, it meant that the likely universe of voters would be limited. So I had to figure out who, where, and when voters would show up; to do that, I compiled general election statistics from 2010 and 2012. Judging from the statistics, I figured that there would be no more than 500-600 people voting in the Democratic primary across the district.

Top of the ticket numbers from 2010 and 2012.
Top of the ticket numbers from 2010 and 2012.

The two most heavily Democratic polling places in the district, McFarland Mall and McAbee Community Center, were also places that contained voters from several other area districts. Since I had to figure out where putting up signs would be likely to get me the most votes, I had to strike those locations right away. That left the Bobby Miller Center and Big Sandy Baptist Church as having the most promise of any polling place. Both of those voting precincts are located along Highway 69, so I had decided to put up a bunch of signs along there.

There are three other major highways that run throughout my district: U.S. Highway 82, which runs in my district from just outside the city to the Bibb County line; U.S. Highway 11, which starts in Cottondale and goes to the Jefferson County line; and Alabama 216 (also known as Miners’ Memorial Highway), which runs from the east end of Tuscaloosa out to Jefferson County. All told, you are looking at about 70 miles worth of driving one way. And that is exactly what we did: after fundraising $300 for signs on May 18 and getting the signs on May 30, we drove to every corner of the district that weekend putting up signs.

The first sign that I put out, of course, went in my front yard. My grandmother and father were present, even if only in spirit.
The first sign that I put out, of course, went in my front yard. My grandmother and father were present, even if only in spirit.

The one place I did not put up signs was the UAW organizing center in Vance. I had considered asking them to put my signs up in their window since they knew that I was pro-union. But seeing as the workers no longer want them to organize the plant, I figured that putting signs up there would cost me more votes than it would earn me. So even though one of my opponents was an organizer and legislative liaison for the teachers’ union, I sped on by their office.

Map of the district, with areas for sign placement in red.
Map of the district, with areas for sign placement in red.

A foil in my plan came about when I went to an emergency meeting of the Tuscaloosa County Democratic Party’s executive board the Sunday before the election. When I walked through the door, our secretary Katherine looked at me and said, “I heard about New South. Bummer, dude.” I gave her a quizzical look and asked her what she was talking about. She said, “New South endorsed your opponent.”

After some digging I found that, sure enough, the Alabama New South Alliance had endorsed one of my opponents.

Now my mind is turning.

“Shit. I was gonna save some signs, put them out at the polling places that morning, and go out to the polling places myself on Election Day. Maybe take Sarah. Now? What the fuck am I gonna do now? I have no volunteers, and it’s summer; who’s even gonna be in town still? Fuck.”

I had to leap into action quickly; the election was in two days and our friends are typically busy. We hit the horn the next day, and much to our amazement:

Sign-up sheet for election day.
Sign-up sheet for election day. Two more people ended up volunteering as well.

We ended up having nine volunteers, plus Sarah and myself. We had our hotspots well enough covered for Election Day. At that point, there was not much more I could do besides go to the polls and work the next day.

My only endorsements in the race for the SDEC.
My only endorsements in the race for the SDEC.

It was hot on the morning of the election. Why would it not be; this is Alabama in early June, after all. Also, I was hot; a hot mess. A nervous wreck heading into the first election where my name would appear on an actual ballot. For those of you wondering, “Why would Douglas be nervous? I mean, it’s just a run for the State Democratic Executive Committee. It’s not like he’s running for governor; he should just go out and have fun!”, it is sufficient to take you through my mindset.

I have ADHD and anxiety issues, which might mean different things for different people. For me, it means that I can spend hours poring over every conceivable outcome, strategy, and moving part in a particular situation. When it comes time to execute I can do my thing, but I am usually twisted up in a ball of knots at H-Hour. What is worse is that the ADHD causes the same scenarios to replay themselves in a loop over and over and over again…

“Are all of my people in the right place? Did I raise enough money? What about my signs? Goodness, did I place them in the right areas? The guy at the Ethics Commission said that I didn’t have to file a statement to raise money for this; what if he was bullshitting? What if he was some sort of intern? Or a newbie who didn’t know his shit? One of my volunteers is trans*; should they really be volunteering in front of a church? What if my turnout projections are off? What if the ADC and New South has people handing out ballots in front of the polling places? But they didn’t in 2012….shit, what if they’ve sent out sample ballots by email? WHAT IF THIS THING IS ALREADY OVER????”

Sarah, sensing all of this, says to me, “Why don’t we just go over to the polling place, vote, put out some signs, and see what happens?” I nod in agreement, before putting on my clothes and heading out. We went to the Bobby Miller Center to vote, and there were no ADC or New South people. I went inside, signed my name on the ledger, and then cast my first ballot for myself; I thought of my grandmother and how much this would have meant to her if she could have lived to see this day:

My first ballot. I voted correctly, I think.
My first ballot. I voted correctly, I think.

Afterwards, I started getting reports from my volunteers: Light but steady turnout. It looked like my prediction of 500-600 was probably going to bear fruit. Sarah and I put out signs around the Bobby Miller Center, and then held signs there for about 15 minutes before she departed for Big Sandy Baptist Church to start her shift there (we had switched her around so that Big Sandy always had someone there).

The rest of the day I ran around from polling place to polling place checking on folks and moving them around as necessary. The day went relatively smoothly, and everyone showed up on time and stayed for their shifts. I do not really ask friends for a whole lot, so the fact that these folks showed up for me the way they did meant a whole lot.

Volunteer selfies.
Volunteer selfies.

I went home and prepared to watch the election results roll in on the Secretary of State’s website until I found out that this would not be in the offing. I called around and found that I would have to go up to the county courthouse annex in order to get the results as they were coming in. Just as I began dinner (Papa Murphy’s that Sarah had brought home), I saw this on Twitter:

Courtesy of @MeganMillerUA.
Courtesy of @MeganMillerUA.

It was not in cards for me this time around. While the Republicans have a runoff process for elections to their state committee, the Democrats do not. As such, Curtis Travis would be the one elected from District 62 to the State Democratic Executive Committee.

Final election results
Final election results.

I was bummed for a minute, but then I took a bite of that delicious Papa Murphy’s pan pizza with extra pepperoni and extra topping cheese, looked at my wife, and realized that it was going to be alright.

I knew no more than eight people in the district that had voted for me, and yet I ended up in second place with 210 votes. Curtis Travis, who had previously served on the SDEC, works for the one labor union with heavy ties to the SDEC, and was backed by both major Black Democratic organizations in the state, finished with well under 50 percent of the vote. I held my own with the electorate, and that felt good.

What made me the most proud, though, was the broad cross-section of people who made up my volunteer base. LGBTQ people, progressives, liberals, Southerners, Northerners, working class folks, and people of color amongst others all came out to help me get elected to this position. They looked like the party that I sought to represent. They looked like an inclusive Democratic Party that would always advocate for those who are the most disadvantaged by our political and social systems, and not give up the fight when it became politically convenient to do so. And they looked like the coalition of individuals that would lead the Alabama Democratic Party out of the darkness of conservatism and balkanization that has made them the political laughingstock of an entire nation.

I did not win, and I will not be returning to the Tuscaloosa County Democratic Executive Committee as its Vice Chair of Youth Affairs, nor will I serve as either a youth at-large representative or as a committee member from District 3 in the committee’s next iteration. I am looking forward to being a student, teacher, husband, cat dad, and blogger for a while without any additional responsibilities. But I will never forget this election and those who helped it to be as successful as it was. They say you “learn from the first in order to win the second”; maybe that will also be true for me.

Stay tuned.