A primer in political party organizing

let-them-howlLet ‘Em Howl: Lessons from a Life in Backroom Politicsby Pat Sorbara. (Gibsons, Nightwood Editions, pb $22.95, ebook $12.79, 252 pp)

In October, 2012, a little over six months before he passed away, a dinner was organized as a Dean Martin-style “roast” to honour the late Doug Finley, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s national campaign director for the general elections of 2006 and 2008, and who constructed the 2011 campaign before it was turned over to others. That night was a celebration of a key organizer whose skill made Stephen Harper’s three minority and majority electoral mandates possible. For once, elected officials were not the focus of attention. Vicariously, the contributions of all backroom organizers were acknowledged.

The long-time Liberal Party organizer Pat Sorbara came up through the ranks of riding-level campaigns, stuffing envelopes and dropping literature, making coffee, pounding signs, and talking to voters on the phone or at the doors, culminating in her serving as campaign director for Kathleen Wynne’s 2014 Ontario general election campaign. The following is not an endorsement of Sorbara’s policy commitments. But as described in this political autobiography, Pat Sorbara is my kind of political organizer:  smart, not arrogant; tough, but fair; policy driven, but vested in people; and confident, but vulnerable.

Let ‘Em Howlis structured as a series of lessons with anecdotes illustrating each lesson. Sorbara offers a brief statement of the lesson in bold type, and proceeds to tell a story that led her to that lesson. I want to highlight a few I found particularly noteworthy.

Sorbara is a feminist who does not deny or downplay her womanhood. She points to the examples of women who were riding-level volunteers working away while the men met briefly and held forth as to what should be done. The women recruited, organized, directed and fed volunteers and got the job done, putting their candidates’ messages out, identifying supporters and getting them out to vote. Sorbara points to these riding-level “generals” as the examples from whom she learned effective political organization. I, too, knew those women, or women very much like them – and men – from whom I learned so much about politics, and whom I counted among my closest friends.

Sorbara notes the absence of recognition given to these women, and she is vulnerable about her own struggles to insist that she be given recognition by way of job title that accurately described the tasks she had taken on. The cliché is that success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan. Too often in party politics, people do not know who really got the job done because someone else who had little to do with the outcome got the fancy title. Too often when the next campaign rolls around, the person who got the résumé-building title on the last campaign gets the job instead of the person who is best qualified to deliver the desired result.

As with so many organizations, on campaigns often eighty per cent of the work is done by twenty per cent of the people. Another way of putting it is that in politics, there are ‘talkers’ and ‘doers.’ Too many people in political circles are ‘talkers.’ Sorbara exemplifies the doers, and she insisted on being designated with titles that were immediately indicative and clear about the responsibilities she had taken on.

Sorbara makes much of the importance of lines of responsibility, about the need to keep the team informed about objectives and progress toward fulfilling them and about the need for order in a campaign. Whether an unpaid volunteer or a paid staffer, those who worked for Sorbara were expected to show up on time and be willing to do the grunt work, but they were given credit for jobs well done. Herein is implied advice that Preston Manning gave explicitly to aspiring political organizers in his The New Canada: “If you want to get a start in party politics, don’t try to be ‘a strategist,’ ‘policy adviser’ or ‘communications consultant,’ especially if you have never worked on a campaign. Instead, volunteer on a campaign including for the grunt work, and soon people will notice a ‘doer.’”

Recruiting and nurturing ‘doers’ and organizers to take her place is a key feature of Sorbara’s narrative. She intentionally sought to bring younger, less experienced people alongside her to learn by watching, absorbing, and doing. To those who complain about the dearth of qualified leaders in party politics, Sorbara’s story shows how leaders are made.

As can be the case, at least one of those she recruited and nurtured launched a campaign to keep Sorbara from coming back to a position from which she had taken leave. This, too, is not unique. Too often, loyalty in politics is a one-way street. As with Sorbara, when your reputation is under fire, that is when you discover your true friends.

When asked about how to get involved in party politics, I often describe one leadership campaign I volunteered on, sitting at two o’clock in the morning around two long, portable tables pushed together. With others leading that campaign, I stuffed envelopes, affixed address labels, and licked stamps because the postage machine had run out of postage, all to meet Canada Post’s deadline for a last mailing to supporters. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the glamour of politics.

Pat Sorbara tells it like it is, warts and all, about how the sausage is made in party backrooms, getting those who speak for us on principle and policy elected to high office. For those who aspire to what the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre calls “the practice of politics” in hisAfter Virtue, I could point to very few better primers on the honourable vocation and calling of party politics than Pat Sorbara’s Let ‘Em Howl.

Read. And learn