The Sessions Where Working-Class Democrats Learn to Take Down the GOP
The National Democratic Training Committee offers assistance to people who want to run for office, but aren't sure where to begin.
Left: Photo of training session by author. Right: Photo of Darcelle Slappy courtesy of subject
Darcelle Slappy got crushed in 2018. Republican incumbent Aaron Bernstine defeated her by 56 points in the Tenth District race for Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives. Slappy, a lifelong Democrat, is a member of the Big Beaver Falls Area School Board, but she didn’t know how to make the transition to a higher office, and only had a few months to learn.
She got schooled by Bernstine, who in an unusual move won the Democratic primary through a rare write-in campaign, meaning he had the nomination of both major parties. He was going to run unopposed in the general, but in June, at the urging of local Democratic leaders, Slappy jumped into the race as the Green Party candidate. However, because she had switched affiliation, the Democratic Party in her suburban Pittsburgh district couldn’t help her. That meant no money and no assistance with campaign infrastructure, and the result was the kind of shellacking that would turn some away from politics.
Determined to rebound from her landslide defeat, Slappy attended an all-day course held by the National Democratic Training Committee (NDTC) earlier this month.
Founded in 2016 by longtime Democratic operative Kelly Dietrich, the NDTC is a hybrid PAC that aims to deepen the Democrats’ bench by providing free online and in-person classes to activists, campaign volunteers and staff, and candidates. The NDTC has 55 trainers spread across the country, with years of experience as political consultants, field directors, and community organizers. Last year, the organization held 64 free events in 46 states, and Dietrich said he hopes to schedule 80 more and hit all 50 states in 2019.
VICE shadowed Slappy during her training to understand how the NDTC intends to help keep the blue wave of 2018 rolling. Sixty-six people from western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio attended the event, held at the Community College of Beaver County, a 45-minute drive northwest of Pittsburgh. They were divided into four groups—volunteers, staff (campaign and local party infrastructure), and two classes of candidates—and each took four 75-minute courses on fundraising, communication, field work, and social media.
Heading into the day, Slappy, 43, was planning to run for Beaver County controller, a position that oversees the county’s financial affairs, instead of challenging Bernstine again in 2020. “Maybe I’m more suited for a smaller office right now,” she said. But Slappy began to doubt this idea during the first course. Titled “How to Develop Your Story of Self” and taught by Brittny Baxter, a coordinator for Maryland Working Families, the session focused on articulating “who you are and why you’re running.”
As Baxter used Stacey Abrams as an example of a politician who explained why they were seeking office through their personal story, Slappy questioned if she could relate to people looking for a controller. “I’m not passionate about being a controller,” Slappy said. “Education’s my passion, and I could improve schools in my district from [the state] house.”
Here’s Slappy’s story of self: Growing up in Beaver Falls, she dreamed of attending Georgetown University. But she dropped out of high school during her senior year because of an at-risk pregnancy. Doctors diagnosed her with twin-twin transfusion syndrome, a rare condition that occurs when identical twins share a placenta and blood flows unevenly between the fetuses. Slappy gave birth four months prematurely and one baby died. Over the next decade, Slappy earned a GED, attended a culinary school and then a beauty academy while raising six children with her husband, whom she had started dating at 13. In her 30s, she received an associate’s degree in criminal justice from community college and was offered a scholarship to finish her bachelor’s degree, but she had to turn it down. It was too much time away from her family. Slappy said that when she was a teenager and in her 20s, she didn’t receive guidance about continuing her education. She got into politics to make sure working-class students like her are aware of their options and to create more opportunities for them.
“I’ve been at the bottom,” Slappy said. “I can help because I know what it’s like to have people think you’re not worth their time, to have to do twice as much to prove yourself.”
Still, she was on the fence about what to run for. She could be county controller. She once owned a beauty salon. But the next course, “How to Fundraise Effectively,” convinced her to run for the state house again. Trainer Dallas Thompson, a political consultant who founded Bright Compass, an organization that advises campaigns on workplace policy and campaign operations, emphasized why potential donors need to hear why you’re running for office and what makes you uniquely qualified for that position. As an example, Thompson talked about how she responds to candidates who call her for a donation but fail to sell their vision.
“I’m like, ‘OK. Good luck with that,’” Thompson said to the class. “Maybe, ‘Here’s 50 bucks,’ but I know they’re not going to win.”
Thompson continued to lecture about organizing donor lists and practicing how to ask for a donation over the phone, but Slappy dwelled on that anecdote. She felt that if she ran for county controller, she’d receive a lot of “good luck with that” wishes. The realization that she should challenge Bernstine again in 2020 combined with the course material made her grateful she had signed up for the training.
“I wish I’d had something like this last year,” said Slappy during a break. “I was basically on my own and got over 20 percent [of the vote]. Imagine what I could’ve done if I knew what they’re teaching here.”
The NDTC is not the first organization created to groom Democratic candidates. Democracy for America and Re:Power, formerly known as Wellstone Action, offer similar services. But the NDTC is the only one that provides free in-person training, which is crucial considering many participants are working-class and lack the connections wealthier candidates have.
“Free in-person in states where it’s needed. That’s the golden parachute,” said Sarah Scanlon, an NDTC trainer who worked as the national LGBTQ outreach director on Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign. “We’re no longer allowing [operatives] to anoint somebody to run.”
Scanlon said Democrats have to take this approach to compete in rural areas, where church-based groups and Republican organizations like the Family Research Council have been grooming conservative politicians for decades. Slappy agreed. As a third-party candidate, she was invited to a few Republican events in 2018. “They operate like a machine,” she said. “Everyone knows their role and communicates.”
The NDTC’s afternoon courses, “How to Identify and Persuade Voters” and “How to Effectively Tell Your Story Online,” reiterated something Slappy had learned the hard way: the importance of campaign staff. In her 2018 race, she led a three-person staff, with a few volunteers who joined near election day. Each staff member shared in social media duties, and they didn’t have enough time to canvas and figure out turnout estimates or identify low-frequency voters, which NDTC trainer Joshua Norris said is crucial information.
When Slappy knocked on doors, she spent half of each conversation explaining why she was a Green Party candidate. “When I run as a Democrat, if I have a staff doing all the little things, then I can go out and meet people and talk about my vision,” she said.
She hasn’t wasted any time since the NDTC training ended. Slappy said she called her former staff and volunteers and started forming a new team the following week. And Slappy has already assigned their first assignment: opposition research on Bernstine, particularly his voting record. She also is filling her calendar with community events she plans to attend. “Church functions, school functions—I don’t care if it’s a yard sale, I’m going to be there talking to voters about my story and my vision.”
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