Monday, June 18, 2018

Grassroots and Rules

I’m back. I spent all of last week in San Antonio, at the Republican Party of Texas convention. The main convention was Thursday through Saturday, but temporary committees handle much of the business—of rules, credentials, platform, and legislative priorities—before the body convenes. I had a behind-the-scenes assignment with the Platform and Resolutions Committee, editing and getting ready for print.

The convention logo, on the big screen

It may take me some time, over two or three blog posts, to debrief. Let me just say that, although it’s a messy process, Texas does grassroots better than maybe everywhere else.

“He who knows the rules rules the world.”

That was said by our senatorial district’s Rules Committee member, Clint Moore, on Thursday, during our senatorial district caucus Thursday morning. I wish I’d recorded his speech, but one thing that struck me was the comparison to Florida and Ohio, both battleground states, neither of which has a state convention—because they don’t have a rule that calls for a convention. That means the state party, whatever that consists of, has all the control over what the party does.

That’s not how we do things in Texas. We do grassroots.

Here in Texas, we have a precinct convention, after the Primary Election, in which our business is to choose delegates to the next level up, the Senatorial District Convention, and we put forth resolutions for the platform. That is, we submit ideas that we would like to have in our platform. At the district convention we put together a list of platform planks to pass along to the state. I have twice worked on the district level platform committee, putting together the resolutions we receive from all the precincts into a form we can submit to the state Resolutions and Platform Committee. At the district convention we also choose delegates to attend the state convention.

It may be different in some places around the state, but where I’ve been, if you show up at your precinct convention and want to be a delegate to the district convention, there will be room enough for you to do that; you won’t have to run against anyone for the privilege. Depending on how many attend the district convention, you can fairly easily become a delegate to the state convention, although there are fewer places available as you move up levels. For each delegate, however, you’re allowed an alternate, who only votes if a seated delegate is away during a vote. Chances are good that, most people sent as alternates will become delegates once at the convention, because of people who were elected as delegates but ended up not being able to come. So, if you’re only an alternate at the district level, you should still come to the state convention and plan on full participation.

During presidential years, we choose delegates to the national convention, in a Congressional District Caucus (all delegates who live in a US Representative’s District). But we didn’t do that this year, because it is an off-year election. We did, however, choose a state party chair, which is a story for another day.

Anyway, you can see that platform ideas really do percolate up from the grassroots. And nearly anyone who wants to participate can come and have a voice. During a presidential year (maybe any year), the Texas Republican State Convention is bigger than even the national convention. This year well over 8,000 delegates attended. That’s a pretty big army to spread across the state and spread the word.

Our rules guy was saying that, in Florida and Ohio, imagine how much more likely they would be to turn strong Republican, if the people had a process for having a voice. Here in Texas we have general rules that pertain to all conventions and meetings, general rules pertaining just to conventions, more rules that pertain specifically to precinct level conventions, district level conventions, and then related specifically to the state convention. Forty-four rules in all with a lot of sub-rules and details. It’s like a small code of laws that we are required to live by as a party. Because these rules exist, we have a process for connecting the grassroots to the state party and what it does.

The Rules Committee added a point under general rules for the state convention, inventing a new committee encompassing what I did: State Grammar, Spelling, Formatting, and Punctuation Committee. This committee is appointed “for the purpose of reviewing non-substantive grammar, spelling, formatting, and punctuation of the language included in the Reports and shall incorporate the necessary corrections.” That’s what we had been doing unofficially. But suddenly we were official, with this added requirement: “Upon completion of their work, the committee will report back to the chair with their revisions for vote by the convention.” This was announced Saturday afternoon, during the Permanent Rules Committee Report. I put a little star by it in my printed copy. Interesting, I thought. For next time.

But then, during the Permanent Platform and Resolutions Committee Report, which happened next, and is where there is actual debate before the body concerning the various planks in the platform, this rule was called to be in effect right then. So, in front of the 8000+ people, I and my editing partner were called by name to be on that committee. We had intended to do one more final final edit, after the close of the convention. But at that point we were both sitting out in the convention hall with everyone else. We didn’t have access to our computers, or the live file that was being amended or approved by the body.

So, right after the platform business, during discussion of the Permanent Legislative Priorities Committee, we met with the Platform Committee Chair at a little cafeteria table, and took notes as people brought editorial issues to our attention, which we listed to handle on the computer later. And then the Chair reported back those changes to the body, as required.

There we are, the new State Grammar, Spelling, Formatting, and Punctuation Committee,
learning from a delegate that the same plank appeared in two sections,
which we were able to correct, thanks to her.

That was a surprise. There’s not usually a lot of drama in the life of a wordsmith. And certainly not a lot of notice by name.

I’ll have more about some of the details of the platform another day, but there were a couple of innovations this year that I think worked quite well.

Transparency was big. Six weeks ahead off the convention, the resolutions were available for study online—even the scans of the original documents. And two weeks ahead they were listed on a spreadsheet for easier organizing. In past years, the committee didn’t get access to the resolutions until they arrived at the convention. There are thousands of resolutions submitted from around the state. That’s a lot of reading to comprehend, digest, recognize duplicates, and identify new ideas. The process was also online throughout the week. More on that below.

Organization of the committee was another innovation. In the past, the platform had six subcommittees. There are 31 committee members, representing the 31 state senatorial districts. They would be divided up into one of the six subcommittees. This year the Chair recommended organizing the committee, and thus the platform itself, into nine subcommittees that relate fairly closely to the State Senate committees—because a major purpose of the platform is to direct the state legislature to enact the will of the people. Each of the 31 committee members was assigned to two subcommittees. It worked out that almost all were able to be on committees of their choice, or at least among their top choices. That helped each committee to be made up of people well versed in the issues it would face, and it gave each of them more issues than in previous years. Four subcommittees met and completed their work on Monday. The next five met and worked on Tuesday. Each committee took testimony pertaining to issues before them—which included the platform planks from the previous platform as well as the resolutions sent in.

Then, they came up with a report—a list of platform planks worded as they thought best. Then, on Wednesday, the Committee of the Whole (all 31 committee members back together) met and covered the whole platform.

The increase in public testimony was another innovation. They had time in every subcommittee, both days (more than an hour per subcommittee), plus more time during the Committee of the Whole on Wednesday, and two or three more hours during the permanent committee on Thursday. Testimony wasn’t just a formality; it was essential to the process.

Here’s more about that online innovation I mentioned above. The subcommittees were all livestreamed. I believe the live subcommittee documents may also have been online for viewing. I know the document was live online during the Committee of the Whole’s work on Wednesday; enough people were tuning in that we temporarily shut down the Google server.

I worked live on Monday in Health and Human Services, and in the background all day Tuesday and late in the night (actually 3:45 AM Wednesday) to edit the document in preparation for the Committee of the Whole. The CofW took more testimony Wednesday, and then finished their report. Our edits were approved by the committee members by the time we began work on Thursday, but we were still working to incorporate approved changes as they got underway.

During the Permanent Platform Committee meeting, Thursday afternoon and evening, I did live work with them, and my partner continued to do work in the background on that file. We were working with Google Docs (new to both of us, so we were suffering from old person learning curve, but doing pretty well, I thought). In Docs, you can have multiple simultaneous contributors. So we used Suggestion mode, which identifies the contributor of the change. That meant our names were all over the place in front of everyone present or tuning in online. Yep, that was really us. 

The Permanent Platform and Resolutions Committee,
getting ready for the meeting to start, Thursday afternoon.
This is one half of the view from where I sat at my computer.

For the live work, I would type in suggested amendments in suggestion mode, until voted on, and then that change was either deleted or accepted and became part of the document. I really enjoyed doing that part. A couple of times I was able to make wording suggestions that made things go smoother. (During the less formal subcommittee meeting, I struggled a bit to keep my mouth shut, but I mostly managed.)

Everything with the whole committee is handled with parliamentary procedure, no direct person-to-person debate. And there wasn’t complete agreement, by any means. I’ll talk about details of the platform, as I said, another day. I just want to say, when you’re dealing with ideas, even when there’s a lot of emotional intensity related, it’s different from the politics of swaying people to one person or another. I really enjoy working in the idea realm, rather than the political realm.

Another innovation, related to those nine subcommittee sections, is that, during floor debate, instead of handling the entire platform as a whole, it was handled section by section. Each section had an allotted time. One issue-related group might dominate that section, but once time was out, they couldn’t dominate the rest of the discussion.

There is a preliminary section, handled by the Committee of the Whole, with a preamble and basic principles. While there were suggested changes, this section remained unchanged from the past couple of platforms, 2016 and 2014. Anyway, because of this segmentation of debate, we had planned to begin discussion Friday afternoon, and maybe get through two or three sections. But that time was preempted by some political shenanigans I’ll talk about another day.

When we finally got to debate on the platform, Saturday afternoon, we got through only the Preamble and Principles plus the first six sections. But, if we’d had Friday, we would have covered the whole thing. As it was, it was the most orderly and satisfying platform debate I’ve ever seen at a state convention. So I’d say that change will continue. Because of the possibility of debate starting Friday, we had to get printing done for Friday—a day earlier than previous conventions. (This required yet another very late and intense night. Sorry for the few errors we didn’t catch.)

Yet another platform innovation, which began in 2016, instigated by party Vice-Chair Amy Clark (term just ended), was to have up-or-down voting on each plank of the platform. After the platform is accepted as amended, all the delegates get a Scantron sheet and a number 2 pencil, and vote “include” or “do not include.” This included voting on Legislative Priorities, the platform planks, plus one resolution included after the planks. Then those were tallied by machine right after the close of the convention, and results were online by the time I looked, after traveling.

None of the planks had a majority of “do not include” votes. But neither did any receive 100% approval. But we can take those planks to the legislature and say exactly what percentage of the delegates really wanted this to be done. That has some power.

Legislative Priorities is a new committee this year. We had been adding a list of legislative priorities at the back of our district platform list, the last couple of times. And that good idea made its way up. This will take some refining, but I think it gives extra power to those issues that we most want to call to the attention of the state legislature.

So that’s how grassroots work. The people together actually do some pretty good work. I was honored to be a part of it. And, for any state that doesn’t have good grassroots participation, I suggest using Texas as a pattern.

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