Tall in the saddle: Will Hailer reflects on 20 months astride the Texas Democratic Party

Will Hailer
(RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Good morning Austin:

Will Hailer is a stand-up guy, and when he stands up, he is six-foot, eight-inches tall.

“It take a big man to do a big job,” Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party would say. It was Hinojosa who hired Hailer as executive director of the state party in May of 2013. As the bio put out by the party at the time described Hailer:

Will Hailer (RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Will Hailer
(RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Will comes to Texas from Minnesota where he served as Campaign Manager and later District Director for Congressman Keith Ellison (MN-05). Will got his political start doing grassroots community organizing with the late Senator Paul Wellstone. He has been active in the campaigns of hundreds of Democratic candidates in Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota and Virginia. Will has fundraised for candidates in 25 states and is a veteran of recounts of Al Franken and Mark Dayton and has done caucus-organizing work for the Dean, Edwards, and Clinton campaigns as well as several gubernatorial and congressional candidates.

Hailer left the job at the end of last year, to move to Arlington, Virginia, and join BerlinRosen Public Affairs as a vice president in their campaign and creative services division. Last week, the party named Hailer’s successor, Crystal Kay Perkins:Crystal Perkins

A native of San Antonio, TX, and veteran of numerous statewide and local campaigns, Crystal Perkins returns to Texas after serving as the National Financial Director for Mark Schauer for Governor of Michigan. Crystal worked in numerous states for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) and on campaigns in Texas, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Michigan. She graduated from Texas State University.

On the eve of that announcement,I sat down with Hailer last week to talk about his 20-month tenure as executive director of the state party, which he is still advising during the transition.

Our conversation began as follows:

Q – Why did you decide to leave before your mission was accomplished?

A- Like George Bush I hung the Mission Accomplished banner too soon. It was three days before the election. We hung the banner after the Battleground/Jeremy Bird memo that everything was right in the world.

That is a very droll answer, very funny, a reference to what may have been the low point of last fall’s campaign (at least until the votes were counted) –  the election eve memo from Battleground Texas founder Jeremy Bird suggesting that the Wendy Davis campaign was in a “fight to the finish,” when every indication was that it was already finished. It made national headlines when Bird had to almost immediately send out a revised memo acknowledging he had got some of his numbers wrong.

From  Karen Tumulty in the Washington Post:

At a minimum, Battleground Texas — the data-driven operation founded by Obama campaign veterans — appears to have some trouble with numbers.

It suffered an embarrassment on Friday after it circulated a chest-thumping memo claiming that early-vote totals in the Lone Star State showed turnout running 36 percent ahead of the same period during the last governor’s race four years ago.

In the memo, Battleground Texas senior adviser Jeremy Bird, who was national field director of President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, wrote:  “The early vote numbers this year are very encouraging for [gubernatorial nominee] Wendy Davis and the Democratic ticket – and all signs point to this being a fight to the finish.”

A few days later, Davis lost to Greg Abbott by 20 percentage points.

{I pause here to provide Will with an opportunity to critique what’s above. On reading it this morning, he wrote me:

I don’t think it is a fair characterization to say that the mission accomplished mention was about Jeremy Bird or the memo at all. More an internal joke/reflection about our hope to have spurred the demographic changes and buck the voting trends earlier than the several cycles we all showed up knowing it would take. Throughout the conversation I talked about the successes of Battleground’s work throughout this cycle. The millions of canvass attempts, the fact that everyone worked together on targets and prioritization of turf and that we were all using the system. The energy that was created this cycle started with Jeremy and Jenn and was rounded out by a great slate, great partners and thousands of volunteers. Battleground Texas, in my mind, is critical to the future efforts in Texas and an essential component to that work.}

(Meanwhile, for a critical in-depth look at what went wrong with Battleground Texas and its fraught future in Texas politics, read Christopher Hooks, Losing Ground, in the Texas Observer.)

Nonetheless, Hailer said, “Everything we set out to do as a state party except for statewide wins we were able to accomplish in 2014.”

Of course, that would make for an unwieldy banner. And it is easy to roll one’s eyes at a political operative who says that, aside from the part about winning, he did a great job.

But Hailer says, it’s true, and the Texas Democratic Party is in immeasurably better shape than it was when he arrived.

That includes raising money, dramatically staffing up, better coordinating Democratic efforts, and re-establishing the party’s credibility as a force to be reckoned with

“A huge goal was to make ourselves relevant to the conversation where we were able to put pressure on the Republicans and what they were advocating,” Hailer said.

Of the 2014 statewide campaign, he said, “There was a real excitement about Wendy and Leticia. The chair and I were certainly big proponents of it and we thought there was a real chance for them to win. I don’t really regret that we were kind of cheerleaders for that because there were pathways for those candidates to win and I thought we had a really, really strong ticket for the first time in a long time. But I think a lot of what the party was hoping to accomplish, and I thought other organizations too – Battleground Texas, the Texas Organizing Project – was pinned on the idea of wins and the reality is that Texas is going to take a couple of cycles in order to be able to move in a good direction.”

But, he said, “the thing that people are going to fail to realize is just how much was accomplished.”

Among the accomplishments, Hailer said, was getting rid of some of the dead wood of Democratic Party politics in Texas.

This cycle, he said, “folks who  did good work in Texas were rewarded for doing good work. Folks who  historically have done bad work in Texas, regional consultants that had never won or people who had made bad mail products weren’t really part of the equation any more.”

In the weeks leading up to Election Day, the party fielded a staff of some 350 people, he said, compared to “15 maybe 20 people” in the past.

He said they succeeded in thwarting some of the Abbott’s campaign’s grander ambitions for the Rio Grande Valley.

“Abbott had set a goal to win Cameron County and get 45 percent in Hidalgo County. The state party and Battleground worked incredibly closely there and Abbott did not meet those goals in the valley.”

Hailer said that while the Bill White campaign boasted about knocking on the door or calling some 700,000 Texas voters in 2010, in 2014 the field effort led by Battleground Texas made more than 10 million contacts.

But Steve Munisteri, the Texas Republican Party chairman, has said those contacts were too indiscriminate and their tracking indicates it boomeranged in his party’s favor.

In a piece in Politico Magazine – How We Won Texas – Abbott adviser Dave Carney said their campaign’s watchwords were “measure outputs, not inputs.”

Munisteri is about to relinquish the reins of the state party and go to work for Rand Paul’s presidential campaign.

“I really like Steve,” said Hailer, who was often paired with Munisteri in media appearances. “I think he did a really good job. I think Republicans are going to be weaker without him as chair  I think the Republican Party really is dead in Texas, even though they are successful at winning elections.”

“What I mean by that, I think it’s really controlled by a group of mostly tea party folks and I think there are a few kind of establishment Republicans left, but the tea party is alive and well in Texas and controls the Republican Party, and I think if Texas had compulsory voting, if everybody in Texas had to vote, Texas would be a blue state, and I think at the end of the day, our failure was not to communicate a message that drove people out to vote, to take time off from the  second shift or stop by the voting location before they picked up their kids from soccer, or not watch the newest rendition of The Voice. You know, Texas is a place where voting opportunities are fairly open – minus voter ID –  but if you’re eligible and able to vote with an appropriate ID, you can vote for two weeks before. I know I voted at the grocery store two blocks from my house, so I think, there was kind of a message failure.”

But Hailer said the cracks in the Republican Party will become more apparent with Munisteri’s departure. “He’s very smart, he’s very good with numbers, he’s very good at looking at data and understanding the data and I think he put together a program that kept the far right from going too crazy. I think he ran a good shop here in Texas.”

Of the results in November, Hailer said, “It  was definitely a wave election and there are some times where there are things entirely outside your control. I do think to a decent extent – and I know that a lot of folks don’t like to say this publicly – but a lot of the anti-Democratic fervor is because we have a black president and I think it’s disappointing to see.”

He said he felt that President Obama especially hasn’t gotten enough credit for the nation’s economic rebound. “The president had inherited one of the worst economic times in history from George Bush and has really done a good job and I don’t think Democrats did a good job of talking about that.”

“Democrats failed in the South, and I don’t think it’s just Texas, but Democrats failed in to have an economically populist message that inspires people to go out and vote. If you’re working two or three jobs, if you’re a rural Texan who has seen  your wages slashed, you needed someone to come out and talk about your pocketbook and talk about how you are doing to make sure wages are going to continue to increase in Texas. I think that one of the unfortunate things about some of the economic growth we’ve seen from Rick Perry in Texas is that some of those jobs he has created are so low paid, you need two or three of them to earn a decent living.”

The party, Hailer said, needs to stress issues like the minimum wage, utility rates, property taxes. He said that polling the state party did immediately after the election “found that Democrats weren’t as strong as Republicans on pocketbook issues,” that even on once bedrock Democratic issues of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, “we weren’t as strong as Republicans, and that’s terrifying”

street_02

SABO’s Abortion Barbie street art

“We need to reset the Republican frame on Democrats.” He said that Republicans had succeeded in casting Davis as “abortion Barbie.”

“Republicans did a good job of making it seem like her agenda was a pro-abortion agenda. I think Republicans did  a really good job of putting Democrats in a social issues fame. I think for Democrats to be successful long term in the South we have to recapture that frame, and I don’t think that’s all that difficult. A lot of Texans,  they are very libertarian on these issues. They don’t want the government interfering in the bedroom. They  don’t want the government in their medical decisions.

“If we reset that frame, I think we’re going to end up being very successful.”

Hailer also said it would have been better for Davis if the state party or other groups outside her campaign proper, had shouldered more of the burden of running the negative ads against Abbott.

“I felt it was unfortunate that Wendy felt that all the negative ads had to come from her campaign. At the very end we did an attack on ad on Dan Patrick on behalf of Leticia Van de Putte’s campaign, and I think more of that coming not from the candidates would have been very helpful. In most states, the most   negative ads come from a party or outside organizations, and the most positive ads from the candidates. I also think Wendy didn’t define herself through paid communication early enough to contrast with the Republican frame of who she was. I would have loved to see an ad early on with Wendy and her two incredible daughters. There needed to be some positive framing, but when you start out several million dollars behind you had to make risky decisions and they probably made the best decision at the time that they could have made.”

(On the other hand, I’m not sure how much of an effort Davis made, or could have made, to escape the frame that was established by the filibuster that made her the star that she was. Consider the publication of her memoir last fall, which only served to bring the abortion issues back center stage.

Or this new video,  from her new gig.)

 

The Texas Democratic Party also had a difficult relationship with David Alameel, the party’s self-financed candidate for the U.S Senate.

As the Texas Monthly’s Erica Grieder reported here, Alameel ended his campaign with a flourish of criticism of the state party.

Hailer, in turned called Alameel the “Worst.Candidate.Ever.”

David Alameel at the Democratic State Convention

David Alameel at the Democratic State Convention

With a couple of months distance, Hailer said he respects Alameel’s willingness to put himself out there, and said that, “Alameel actually had a really strong message on economic issues.”

But he said, “I feel like Alameel was misled by his closest advisers. A lot of people in the primary made a lot of money off of David Alameel. He had two consultants specifically who each made more than $500,000 off of David Alameel. One was a county chair (Bexar County Chair Manuel Medina)  and one was a state rep (Yvonne Davis of Dallas),  and I think that was really unfortunate.”

For all his spending, Hailer said, Alameel still couldn’t win the party’s nomination without a runoff against a LaRouchie who was calling for the impeachment of President Obama.

“He was bad for the ticket,” Hailer said.

On the other end of the spectrum, Hailer said he felt that first-time candidate Mike Collier, who ran for comptroller, was a superstar.

“Mike was the least politician political candidate I’ve ever seen but people were always just incredibly excited to see him,” Hailer said.  “I hope Mike Collier would run for governor in 2018. I know he’s not crazy enough to be talked into the idea because he’s a very rational, smart person, but Mike had a message that if we could box up and give it to candidates all across the South, we would be winning back state houses and governors’ mansions. I think Mike has a very strong, pro-business, pro-worker economic message. How he framed economic security was sometimes above everybody’s head in the room, but he was always able to bring it back down in a very simple way. He was approached by Republicans to run as a Republican. This was a guy who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. But he said, `I’m a Democrat, I believe in these core values and that’s where the Democratic Party is at.'”

Hailer, who is a consultant on Van de Putte’s campaign for mayor of San Antonio, said she too is a superstar, a natural campaigner done in by a woefully under-financed campaign for lieutenant governor.

Finally, asked about Rick Perry’s prospects as a presidential candidate, Hailer said, “Rick Perry has a better of chance of going to jail, though he may not go there because, (former Virginia Gov.) Bob McDonnell excepted, most folks don’t like putting politicians in jail.”

“I think Rick Perry’s rebranding of himself has failed miserably,” Hailer said. “He can travel across the world and talk to a lot of smart people but, to use my favorite Texas expression, he’s all hat and no cattle.”

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Gov. Abbott released this list of Grammy winners with Texas roots.

Texas 57th Annual GRAMMY® Award Winners:

  • Beyoncé (Houston)

Best R&B Performance for Drunk In Love (featuring Jay Z)

Best R&B Song for Drunk In Love

Best Surround Sound Album for Beyoncé

 

  • Miranda Lambert (Lindale)

Best Country Album for Platinum

 

  • St. Vincent (Dallas)

Best Alternative Music Album for St. Vincent

 

  • Johnny Winter (Beaumont)

Best Blues Album for Step Back

 

  • Dean Blackwood (Austin)

Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package for The Rise & Fall Of Paramount Records, Volume One (1917-27) (with Susan Archie & Jack White)

 

  • Robert Glasper Experiment (Houston)

Best Traditional R&B Performance for Jesus Children (featuring Lalah Hathaway & Malcolm Jamal Warner)

 

  • Craig Hella Johnson, conductor Conspirare (Austin)

Best Choral Performance for The Sacred Spirit of Russia

 

  • Lecrae (Houston)

Best Contemporary Christian Music Performance/Song for Messengers (Featuring For King & Country)

 

  • Aaron W. Lindsey (Houston)

Best Gospel Performance/Song for No Greater Love (with Smokie Norful)

 

  • Pentatonix (Arlington)

Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Cappella for Daft Punk

 

  • Flaco Jimenez (San Antonio)

Lifetime Achievement Award

 

 

And finally, this, form Michele Bachmann.

 

 

 

Reader Comments 0

1 comments
Antonious
Antonious

Why did the Dems think bringing in a politico who has run or participated in several socialist Democrats campaigns would work well in Texas?  And why bring in people from out of state who didn't know Texas?  They did the same with Battleground Texas, out of staters brought in to tell Texas Dems how to run and win elections.  Silly people, all they did was anger Tx Dems. 


Also this guys only accomplishment was firing several old Dems who had lost elections in the past.  Then he proceeded to lose worse than any of those old guard who he fired.  And then he states, as he flees Texas, that he left the party in better shape than he found it.  I guess it was important to lie about that or he might not have any PAID political work in the future with such a horrible job done in Texas.