When I was elected Chairman of the Atlantic County Democratic Committee in the summer of 2016, I spent the next few weeks and months meeting with fellow chairs, community activists, and volunteers from across the state to gather ideas on how to reinvigorate the Democratic Party in Atlantic County, a county where we have historically performed well in presidential years but have gotten clobbered in the off-years. My goal was to get us in a position to hit the ground running for the 2017 elections, which would see much lower turnout for us than the presidential election.
My meetings and discussions yielded two common threads for a successful organization: candidate recruitment coupled with strengthening local Democratic clubs. Fortunately, timing was on our side, for after the election of President Trump many people wanted to get involved in politics and even run for office.
Capitalizing on the groundswell of activism, we decided to publicly advertise for candidates for elected office, something we’ve never done but has proven quite successful in other counties. It turned into a very labor-intensive process, with our team spending long hours poring over resumes and interviewing candidates. However, our efforts were well worth it. We were able to recruit top-notch, quality candidates to run for office. Our efforts produced two new Freeholders and a new Sheriff, as well as playing a small role in electing a new Assemblyman. Locally, Democrats took control of Absecon and Atlantic City as well as achieved upsets in Northfield and Galloway Township. While having Governor-elect Murphy on the ballot undoubtedly helped us, our candidates outperformed the top of the ticket in many of our precincts, exemplifying the results that can be had when great candidates localize elections.
Recognizing that growth starts from the bottom-up, we doubled-down on our efforts to support our local Democratic organizations, recruiting about 5 new municipal chairs over the past year and a half and instituting a municipal chairs training program to educate municipal leaders on best practices as well as how we can help them grow. We’ve also been much more active in municipal races, providing local clubs and candidates with financial and logistical assistance to achieve victory. Just in the way that Howard Dean pioneered a 50-state strategy, we firmly believe that our long-term growth relies on a 23-town strategy.
Let’s not kid ourselves: the Democratic Party in Atlantic County has a long way to go. Republicans still control county government and a majority of municipalities. However, the takeaways from our story are twofold. First, if the Democratic Party can be revived in Atlantic County, it can happen anywhere. When we localize elections and recruit great candidates, our message can resonate with the broader electorate. Second, the strategies that we’ve implemented in Atlantic County are nothing new. They were passed on to me by brilliant women and men who know how to win elections and get people involved. As the Democratic Party begins to rebuild all across the country, we shouldn’t overthink things. Quality candidate recruitment and local organizing are two straightforward ways that we as Democrats can survive and thrive during the Trump presidency and beyond.
Michael Suleiman is the Chairman of the Atlantic County Democratic Committee.