WAGNER: In praise of Parker, leader of Democrats

December 24, 2011

Jennifer WagnerElection night in 2004 might as well have been yesterday; I can remember it that clearly.

I stood in the ballroom of a downtown Indianapolis hotel, watching as the media called the governor’s race for Republican Mitch Daniels.

At the time, I was working as communications director for a small state agency under Democratic Gov. Joe Kernan. I was a Democrat, but I was not particularly partisan, just a 24-year-old recovering reporter excited about public service.

The electoral outcome meant not only that a man I deeply respected lost; it meant I also would be out of a job.

Tears streamed down my face.

Kernan left and I was replaced a few months later.

At the same time these transitions were occurring, a sea-change was underway in Democratic politics.

Shortly after Kernan’s loss, the Indiana Democratic Party elected Dan Parker as its state chairman. Then 34, Parker was the youngest state chairman in the nation, a fresh-faced leader who’d worked for Evan Bayh and Bart Peterson and served as the party’s executive director.

I had no idea who Parker was—and vice versa—but in November 2005, a snarky political blog got me in the door as the party’s first full-time communications director.

I’d covered politics and government for a newspaper, but I didn’t understand the first thing about its practice.

So I watched Parker as he negotiated tricky situations, avoided pitfalls, identified top-notch candidates and—against all odds—kept the party financially stable when critics proclaimed us dead in the water.

Dan personally recruited candidates, such as then-Vanderburgh County Sheriff Brad Ellsworth, to run for Congress, and he worked hard to make sure the many factions that exist within a political party had their say while simultaneously taking our political opponents to task.

Parker outfitted the party with professional staff to oversee voter engagement, fundraising and event planning. And he did it all with a steady, decisive hand.

Under Parker’s leadership, Democrats didn’t just stay afloat: We surged to huge Congressional and Statehouse victories in 2006 and turned Indiana a stunning shade of presidential blue two years later. It’s true that 2010 was none-too-kind to Democrats in Indiana and nationwide, but we’re well positioned to win back a statewide office in 2012 and make gains where we lost ground last year.

Parker recently announced that he would step down from his position after seven years, but party leaders, elected officials and candidates asked him that same week to remain on the job, a testament to his track record.

As Democrats head united into 2012, I offer this column as a long-winded “thank you” to someone I consider both a friend and mentor by sharing some of the political lessons I’ve learned from him:

• Don’t swing at every pitch. Especially when you’re negotiating from a position out of power (i.e. not holding the Governor’s Office), make sure you strategically select your goals and plot out a path to attain them. You don’t have the time or resources to fight every fight.

• Focus on what matters. Politics is sometimes an emotional business, and people can lose all perspective. Your family and friends are your support network. Cherish them.

• This is a science, not an art. President Obama didn’t win in 2008 simply because he had an amazing message. His political operation was second to none—and built on decades-old campaign fundamentals. Infrastructure, discipline and planning are critical to victory.

• There are good people on every side of the aisle. When you work in politics, it’s your job. Don’t take the attacks personally, and don’t let the combative nature of the business prevent you from finding friends with whom you disagree.

• Put party before self. Leaders worth following can subjugate ego to do the right thing. Nowhere is that truer than in politics. If you’re doing it for selfish personal reasons, you shouldn’t be doing it at all.

Thanks for seven great years of leadership, Dan. Here’s to a successful 2012.•


Wagner is a lifelong Indianapolis resident who served as deputy director of public affairs at the National Nuclear Security Administration. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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