CLEVELAND, Ohio – Looking to bring themselves back to the relevance they once held, Ohio Democrats elected Liz Walters as state party chair on Thursday, hoping she can navigate them out of their bleakest political time in decades.
Walters, a Summit County councilwoman, won unanimous support from the party’s executive committee, running unopposed and garnering endorsements from factions that typically find themselves in competition. She is the first woman to be elected chair of the state party.
Democrats are at a low point in their history in the state, following several cycles of defeat at the hands of Republicans. That dynamic has eroded Ohio’s former status as the pre-eminent battleground, with many viewing it as less competitive than the former Republican strongholds of Arizona and Georgia and some Democrats considering it less of a prospect than Texas.
Walters discussed her vision for the Ohio Democratic Party in an interview with cleveland.com/Plain Dealer, the transcript of which is below. It has been edited for clarity and grammar.
Why did you want the job?
I’m not naïve about the work and task ahead, but first and foremost I wanted to because Ohio is home. I’ve lived in this state my whole life. I’ve lived in Summit County most of my life. I was raised by a single mom and have seen firsthand how failures of leadership can leave communities vulnerable. At the same time, I’ve really seen the impact of strong leadership and where leadership starts from a place of service.
I think that’s who Democrats are and the kind of leader I want to be. That’s the same spirit that brought me to my decision to run for party chair. No matter what part of the state people live in or what color their skin is or how much they make, we all want to know there are leaders fighting for us and not just for themselves or special interests. Too many Ohioans get overlooked and left behind by people in power. As party chair, I think I can work to change that.
What are the three biggest challenges facing the party right now?
Rebuilding our infrastructure. We still have some really strong county party operations, but that is not universal. We have a lot of really talented, smart people in our different caucuses and infrastructure and county parties. We have to be more deliberate about how we’re helping them build and how we’re organizing people and putting people at the center of our work. That’s our biggest challenge. Really, the core work ahead of us is to get back into communities, to be present, to hear them and to organize.
The second would be really building a meaningful accountability communications shop to hold Republicans accountable for their failed policies at the state and federal level, and doing that in a way that’s modern and meets voters where they are and breaks through our social media bubbles. We’ve all been stuck in those bubbles where we only hear one thing. So how are we getting into the space where voters who don’t normally hear from us start to hear from us.
Then I think the other piece of the work ahead is keeping together our coalition as we find the best ways for our candidates to run at the local level, but, more importantly, to keep us together to fight redistricting. That’s really our next big fight and we’re going to play a strong role in that, to make sure districts are fair and Ohioans get to pick their elected officials and not the other way around.
How do you envision rebuilding in places that have drifted away from Democrats over the past decade?
This is an answer that sort of contradicts itself, but there’s no one approach for a single county party, but there are some consistent practices we have to get back to all over the state.
Each county party is going to be different. They have different types of leaders, different levels of engagement from precinct committee members. In that way, we’re going to have to take a one-by-one approach. We do have some county parties who are really strong and that’s great. How do we start to pull everyone else in that space and recognize that strong leadership that might be there but needs some support.
Then on the universal side, we have to get back to having one on one conversations with voters that are volunteer driven and that center people at the middle of our work. Far too often in recent cycles, a lot of folks kind of make an assumption about what’s really going on in the lives of Ohioans, so our messaging doesn’t quite hit or we’re not addressing the fundamental concerns and needs we have. The only way we get to know that better is to be there with them and be there with a genuine desire to learn and hear from them. That’s the work ahead for all of us in every part of the state.
What does a rebuild look like when you’re trying to take into account the concerns of so many constituencies?
Let me start by saying how excited I am about having (interim Executive Director Malik Hubbard) on this journey with us. He is incredibly talented. He’s a son of Ohio, a son of Cleveland and has been one of the best operatives around the country. (Hubbard is the first Black executive director of the Ohio Democratic Party.)
In particular, part of Malik’s talent that he brings to the table is his work with an organization called Inclusive. He actually helps to run it. Their mission is to ensure staff of color are found in every level of the political sector.
That kind of expertise is really going to help set the tone to answer and hold ourselves accountable to the asks of Ohio Young Black Democrats and other Black leaders in the party who have asked that the party truly becomes not just a representation of the diversity of our state, but the representation of the diversity of our party. I’m committed to that. We’re going to have a process. We’re going to pull as many people into that as possible as we do a national search and interview candidates.
To be quite frank, I’ve had the job less than 12 hours, so I don’t know what a restructure will look like on the staff side. But Malik and I are committed to ensuring the process is inclusive to all the voices, particularly of our Black leaders and that the end result is a truly diverse staff.
Are you committing to hiring a Black executive director?
Yes, I’m committed to hiring a Black executive director and an incredibly diverse senior team.
The Democratic Party has been somewhat fractured over the past decade. How do you plan to bring the activist wing into the party?
I really think it’s important we recognize as a party, as an organization, that all of these folks from across the spectrum, whether they’re the progressive activists who work in their own spaces or within the party, all of their activism has value. Because ultimately they’re trying to work for a better outcome for Ohioans.
I think it’s really important that we listen to them, let them know that they’re valued and open up a dialogue that maybe hasn’t been there in the past so we can work together moving forward.
Ultimately, the frustration sometimes comes down to they don’t feel valued, they don’t feel seen, they don’t feel heard. But also what we have, and we often forget what we have in common, is our shared values about what we think Ohioans deserve from their government. The more we can focus on their shared values, the more we can come together and focus on the work ahead.
Do you have any plans for how you want to initially reach out to these groups that have been operating outside the Democratic Party infrastructure, including some who’ve been critical of the Democratic Party itself?
I’ve already done that. A couple groups hosted forums for the candidates for the chair process. I was happy to participate in those because their perspectives and their questions are super important. Those channels are open. Really thinking ahead about how we engage them is going to involve more formalizing our plan for transition and how we solicit stakeholder input and do those conversations. I don’t have enough detail on that yet. Hopefully within the next couple weeks.
What were the biggest failings of the Democratic Party over the past decade? Why was the Democratic Party seemingly unable to adapt to demographic shifts?
There’s a couple of things. Ultimately, at the core of this answer, is that Ohio is not a red state, it is a rigged state. Republicans have deployed suppression tactics, tactics meant to disenfranchise voters and suppress their voice for years. Some of those tactics, whether it’s the way they drew the lines in 2011 to the way they suppressed the vote through the last two cycles to the ridiculous policy changes and not consistent application of the law or opportunity for folks, that is what’s coming home to roost here. We’re going to have to work our butts off to overcome that and get out there to re-register our voters and have meaningful conversations with them.
I think there’s an opportunity for the party here to examine the broader progressive ecosystem. States that are doing better and are making big strides in their outcomes are places where they kind of see the full picture. Beyond just the work of the party, there’s a progressive ecosystem out there. How do we align ourselves in that ecosystem and how can we work with them to figure out how we’re using our resources, how we’re working together to accomplish goals. And that’s something the party has not been as active in over the past few years.
Why was 2020 so rough for Democrats given what seemed like an ideal political climate?
Ultimately, there were more Democratic voters that came out this cycle than came out four years ago. The Trump surge was just more than that. That is a reflection of what no investment looks like from national partners. For the first time in a long time, Ohio really didn’t get that place at the battleground table and it showed.
As a state, we can learn a lot from our partners in Wisconsin who kind of went through a similar cycle and built back, focused on the internal work, brought together the coalition of financial support they need to do that work on their own and come back to the table of national partners and say, ‘We’re ready. We’re a real battleground.’ That’s part of our work ahead.
How do you go to a national donor and convince them to invest in Ohio Democrats given there are potentially more fruitful avenues such as Arizona, Georgia or even Texas?
This is a big part of our work ahead. The reality is there is a path in this state and we’ve seen it play out over the last few cycles. Not to oversimplify, but the three points: Democrats need to do as well as Hillary Clinton in the cities, as well as Rich Cordray did in Appalachia and as well as Joe Biden did in the suburbs.
That is our path. So it’s there. The votes are there. We have to get together to do the work. The key to engaging national partners is to be really transparent about where we are in that rebuilding process and reporting back with the successes we have. That momentum builds on itself and brings people back to the table.
One thing that’s talked about in Democratic circles is an inability to capitalize on scandals. During the chair’s race, some Democrats brought up your possible support of House Bill 6. Did you support HB6?
This is so interesting that you bring this up, because this is one of those things where I heard rumblings, but I’ve never taken a vote on HB6 or made a public stance or been asked to.
I signed on in October of 2018 to support an organization called the Ohioans for Clean Energy Jobs Alliance that was started to be the advocate to save union jobs at Perry and Oak Harbor. That’s what I signed on to in October of 2018.
There were a lot of people on that list who did not support HB6 in the end. Somewhere along the line, someone took the list off that website and started passing it around as support for HB6.
I still believe that saving those union jobs is the right thing to do. The final version for HB6 is something I never supported. Also, I think it’s worth noting that as a Summit County elected official, I’ve never taken a dime of FirstEnergy money. There’s no conflict here, and that’s a point for me to make. Frankly, the accountability part of the party is an important piece of our work moving forward and I’m going to have no hesitation in taking it to Republicans for the way they’re stealing from Ohioans.
Why haven’t Democrats been able to capitalize on political scandals involving Republicans?
I think this gets to the other question, the core of the work ahead is having a strong, well-funded accountability program. That’s key to ensuring that voters know exactly how corrupt the Republican Party is. That is maybe something the party hasn’t been doing well for the last few cycles. That has to be part of our role moving forward.
Will you be staying on the Summit County Council?
The Summit County Council is part time, so I’m going to stay on the council.
Given the losses over the past 10 years, what would you say to a Democrat considering running for office looking at the current political landscape with Republicans in firm control? How do you go about promoting your bench to higher office?
I absolutely believe we have an incredible bench. We have so much talent in the state legislature, in the cities. We have great members of Congress. We have great members at the county level.
I think the trick is that we’ve got to focus, on a party, as building an organization they can rely on. That starts with organizing and it starts with communicating. That has to be the core of our focus. That’s how we get our best and brightest to run.
The other part of that is really lifting them up and helping to share the stories of the great work they’re doing. Throughout different levels of government, there are good stories to tell, and that’s something we have to do moving forward.
There’s been some clashing of egos or ideas, whatever you want to call it, within the party over the years, but you managed to get endorsements from multiple wings, such as Sen. Sherrod Brown and influential labor leader Joe Rugola. Does it say anything about where the party is at?
Chair races are never easy. They’re inside baseball in a lot of ways. But one of the most exciting things about this for me was coming through this process, we have all of these partners at the table ready to get to work. We have Sen. Sherrod Brown. We have Joe Rugola. We have (Ohio AFL-CIO) President (Tim) Burga. We have all the other amazing labor leaders. We have Congresswoman (Joyce) Beatty. We have President (Thomas) West from the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus. They’re all here and ready to move forward and work together. That is so exciting and if that tells you anything about where the party is going, I think it’s nowhere but up.
What are the immediate term goals of the party?
Our immediate goals are getting through a positive growth through transition with all of our party stakeholders, taking a realistic look at where our organization is and putting together the right strategic plans to move us forward.
I think in the next 6 to 8 months it’s picking those right fights that we use to build support for Democrats and also build the organization. We’ve got some great mayors’ races happening, competitive partisan mayors’ races. For example, there’s an amazing one running in Lima. So how do we support that work and how do we work effectively in redistricting to ensure there are fair districts going into 2022.