Critics Slam ‘Demzilla’
DNC Defends Vast Voter, Donor ID Project
An ambitious project envisioned as a centralized voter contact and fundraising tool for the Democratic Party has drawn criticism from a variety of interest groups and sparked new complaints about operations at the Democratic National Committee.
The huge database, containing an estimated 150 million voters and known within the party as “Demzilla,” has become a sore spot for some state parties and interest groups who say they were not adequately consulted during its development.
Questions have also arisen in the consultant community and on the staff level about the system’s cost and its ability to produce accurate voter contact information in a timely fashion.
“Demzilla is an idea that on paper makes a lot of sense,” said one Democratic consultant. “The problem is that they took the idea and let the technology run ahead of their relationships with the people who had to participate in it.”
Deborah DeShong, communications director for the DNC, insisted that “we are very encouraged” by the response so far to the program.
The harshest critics of the DNC refused to be quoted by name about the alleged inefficiencies plaguing it. In some cases, those critics are also competing with the DNC for fundraising dollars.
Complaints about Demzilla come on the heels of a controversy regarding the minority hiring — and firing — practices at the committee.
In the past week, the organization has been battered by allegations from within the party about the planned layoff of 10 black staffers and a general lack of Hispanics in key positions.
Those layoffs were never seriously contemplated, insist DNC officials, although they did acknowledge that the staff will be pared in order to conserve money for the 2004 elections.
But the controversy is sure to land in the lap of Democratic leaders in Congress when Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) convenes a meeting of prominent black officials June 17, although the gathering is not specifically geared to address concerns about the state of the DNC.
And, while former Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) had a close relationship with DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe, Pelosi does not share as intimate a connection, sources familiar with the situation said.
The sharp debate over the effectiveness of the project to date underscores the extent to which the DNC — and McAuliffe — are staking their future on the success of the program.
The key element of the plan, and the aspect critics and supporters disagree most vehemently on, is the willingness of state parties to “buy in,” or make their voter lists available to the DNC, which would then be expected to update and add information to them.
DeShong said that 30 states have volunteered to provide the DNC with their voter contact lists, which can be used for a variety of purposes including fundraising and voter turnout efforts. DeShong said she did not know whether the states participating in the program had actually transferred the data to the DNC.
At the base of the problem with Demzilla, charged a number of knowledgeable sources consulted for this story, is not the idea to vastly expand the Democratic donor base by tapping state party resources, but the lack of significant outreach done to ensure that each state party and key interest groups were willing to participate.
“There wasn’t enough of an investment with the people selling it to do the hard politics,” said one Democratic consultant. “It was presented as a done deal, so it raised hackles.”
One state party chairman who has signed on to the project admitted of the experience so far, “It has been bumpy.”
Washington state party Chairman Paul Berendt said that “other states are more proprietary with these kinds of files,” but predicted 40 states would eventually sign on for the 2004 cycle.
As for his own reasons for accepting the proposal, Berendt said “the DNC has been extremely generous over the years in helping to fund our get-out-the-vote efforts and strategic plans. I felt we needed to reciprocate by participating in this.”
In order for the database to perform effectively, argued one party consultant, the DNC must acquire up-to-date voter files from each state party as well as a variety of interest groups.
That acquisition process is based on a trust agreement that, for the most part, does not exist between those groups and the DNC, said the consultant.
“It takes a tremendous amount of trust from state parties, committees and groups to get the buy-in needed,” said one Democratic activist, who noted that organizations are concerned the DNC will take the lists they provide and harvest them for its own fundraising purposes, draining donors who might otherwise give to their state committees.
“No one trusts the DNC to not steal stuff from their lists,” the activist added.
Another Democratic consultant made it more personal: “There is an inherent distrust between state parties and the [DNC] and some real distrust between the states and the party chairman.”
There are other concerns about the DNC’s emphasis on Demzilla being voiced within the party as well.
Some question a $3.7 million soft-money payment made on Nov. 5, 2002 from the DNC’s Building Fund to QRS New Media.
One of the partners in the firm, Laura Quinn, oversaw the presentation selling Demzilla to party officials and third-party groups (as well as the press) and is currently a consultant to the DNC. In February, March and April, QRS received $20,000 payments for “computer consulting” from the DNC’s federal campaign account.
DeShong said the $3.7 million payment to QRS was a “master contract to provide, acquire and install furniture, fixtures and equipment for telecommunications,” and was not related in any way to the Demzilla project.
As for Quinn’s current consulting contract, DeShong acknowledged that Quinn does work on issues related to the project, but said she is also handling a number of other tasks for the DNC.
Another Democratic strategist said that early reports on the accuracy and efficiency of the results produced by Demzilla have been less than favorable. Certain searches with a number of moving parts can take weeks to complete, alleged the source.
“The system architecture is overly cumbersome and the result is that the data is not easily retrieved,” the consultant said. “Worse, the quality of the data is far from a level that would make it immediately useful.”
One point that all sides agree on is that the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in the previous Congress, which banned national party committees from raising and spending so-called soft dollars, necessitated a sea change in the way the DNC conducted business — particularly on the fundraising front.
Democrats had grown increasingly dependent on soft-money checks to fuel their election efforts. In the 2002 cycle, the DNC, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised $217 million in hard, federal money compared to $246 million in soft money.
The three Republican committees combined to raise $442 million in hard dollars last cycle and $250 million in soft money.