Bottom Line First: The good guys won—and lost (the judgment depends on your perspective).
The 2009 Election
This slow-motion nomination/self-nomination process contrasted with AFSA's Election Committee (EC) which issued its basic alert message on 14 November. On 23 January, in the absence of significant response, AFSA issued another notice inviting, indeed urging, candidates for positions since, ostensibly, the deadline for nominations was nearing. It was not quite a “Help, will somebody please run!” epistle; however, it was an unusual appeal. And it prompted me to respond. Although I had not run for any office since (losing) an election for 9th grade homeroom representative, I inquired about the status of nominations for Retiree Representative. AFSA responded that there were no nominations; so, sensing competition might be modest, I nominated myself as an “independent” and awaited developments.
Indeed, the next several months were the proverbial “education.”
First, in what can be regarded as, if not a violation of the AFSA election rules, at least a vigorous variation from the norm, the EC extended nominations until 25 February, significantly beyond the original 2 February closing date. This recalibrating the clock gave Firestein's opponents time to assemble a Slate designated “Team AFSA 2009” headed by senior FSO Susan Johnson.
During this “overtime,” both AFSA 2009 and the somewhat pretentiously titled “CLEAN (COURAGEOUS LEADERSHIP, EFFECTIVE ACTION--NOW) Slate” raced to fill every slot in foreign affairs agencies and active and retired candidates. Additionally, Johnson and Firestein examined self-nominated, independent candidates to see if they fit their slates.
In my personal case, it meant that Firestein telephoned me on 1 February, discussed the evolution of the nomination process and the creation of CLEAN Slate, and suggested I join him as one of his four candidates for Retiree Representative. Since AFSA campaign circumstances had changed from when I volunteered (no formal slates; few nominees), I accepted his offer, appreciating that independent candidates usually failed when confronted with slates. So, I figured, “in for a dime; in for a dollar,” and working with a slate would be more interesting than campaigning blindly as an independent.
But confirmation is not deification, and while experience has its utility, sometimes it only serves to inform that you have now made the same mistake twice. More importantly, with seven members of the AFSA 2009 campaign team eligible for social security retirement, the 2009 foreign service was not their foreign service. Their (and my) foreign service is book-ended by the Vietnam War and the collapse of the USSR; it is not the post-9/11 foreign service where the scenario holds over 900 unaccompanied positions and two dozen unaccompanied hardship posts. While AFSA 2009 candidates could understand the challenges of this scenario intellectually, they had not lived day-to-day with terrorism; had not evacuated posts; left families in Washington; manned PRTs in Iraq or Afghanistan. Several had not been assigned overseas in the 21st century. Thus, the question for AFSA members was whether they were better served by officers who were not only older than President Obama, but also older than the Secretary. CLEAN Slate, while attempting not to alienate Retirees by dwelling on this point (and prompting backlash against “snotty young whippersnappers”), tried to galvanize active duty FS personnel within and outside State.
Substance and Style—Opening Rounds of the Campaign
Moreover, there was CLEAN Slate's intimation that AFSA needed more vigor with senior State officials and other FA agencies regarding members' rights and needs. Its implicit point was that AFSA 2009 wanted credit for experience while avoiding the onus for having failed to secure key AFSA objectives. In response, AFSA 2009 members charged CLEAN Slate was “angry” and confrontational—and such an approach would be counterproductive—essentially “undiplomatic.”
The “Air Game” and the “Ground Game”
Thus CLEAN Slate focused e-mail to AFSA's electorate, active duty and retired, bringing its message to them immediately and personally. CLEAN Slate directed its candidates to send out notifications to “Fifty Best Friends” (or all friends/colleagues that would respond positively to the candidate) seeking their votes. With 18 candidates, they hoped individualized messages of the “Support me, I’m running for ‘xyz’ on CLEAN Slate” could reach upwards of 1,000 AFSA-ites.
Initially, CLEAN Slate anticipated access to the AFSA membership list to send messages; such was the practice in the 2007 election; however, the AFSA EC reversed its 2007 precedent, denying access to the membership list. The EC also contended it was impermissible to send messages to AFSA members at work e-mail (.gov) addresses. This was a debatable reading of regulations that government resources could not be used for election activity. As the normal interpretation of that restriction was that one could not use government-paid work time, equipment, and/or office supplies to campaign, the interpretation that receiving an e-mail from an outside-the-government source would be a campaign violation raised eyebrows. In the end, senior State Department management never delivered written interpretation of this point.
CLEAN Slate combined its tactics with a sophisticated Web site that out-paced AFSA 2009’s initial efforts; a decision to take out a well-placed campaign advertisement in the May Foreign Service Journal; and some nicely designed handouts and banners providing early tactical advantages normally unavailable to a challenger.
Indeed, this 21st century approach appeared to disconcert AFSA 2009. Unable to match the IT challenge initially, AFSA 2009 fulminated that CLEAN Slate was running an “expensive” and “slick” campaign—perhaps seeking the sympathy vote of those who believe that being cheap and clumsy is the AFSA standard. In fact, CLEAN Slate simply used the volunteered skills of its candidates, family members, and friends with 21st century IT knowledge. The reality remained that so far as financial assets were concerned, AFSA 2009, replete with well-cushioned senior retirees and senior active duty officers, far surpassed financing available to CLEAN Slate.
Of separate interest was neglect of the official AFSA forum for dialogue with candidates. The 55 candidates each had a site for posting questions/responses; however, only 16 had more than two entries and only five reached double-digits. Moreover, there were fraudulent (but never traced) "attack" messages. Lesson learned? Future campaigns must employ security measures to limit access to the site. Essential conclusion? The site simply didn’t interest Foreign Service personnel.
Role of Retirees
For example, in the last month of the campaign, CLEAN Slate struck an innovative note.
A significant number of Retirees do not have e-mail addresses. They had received only the turgid, basic campaign literature cum ballot mailed by AFSA's EC. Consequently, CLEAN Slate believed many Retirees had not voted, either setting aside the literature in a “get around to it” stack or consigned to the circular file. To reach this group, which might still be open to CLEAN Slate's message, it purchased the AFSA address labels for the Retiree cohorteliminating the tedium of addressing the equivalent of a huge Christmas mailingand constructed a message specifically for them.
Security Clearances and Their Relevance for AFSA Work
The security clearance topic was not of blithe indifference to me. For 46 years, I’ve held a security clearance and been proud of the trust that the USG confides in me. An FSO without a clearance is akin to a de-feathered eagle with clipped wings. Had I made a gruesome error in supporting CLEAN Slate? I reached two conclusions:
Having made these judgments, I deliberately avoided information on individual circumstances. I regarded them as “personal” and not a matter for prurient interest; perhaps I lack the voyeur instinct. My concern was whether they could serve AFSA effectively, and I concluded they would.
Nevertheless, AFSA 2009 sensed it had an issue with the security question and persisted like a Rotweiller with a grip on your groin. Harris contended that “sensitive legal classified case work” pointed out “at times” problems for AFSA to address. However, Louise Crane, AFSA’s State VP 2001-05 and CLEAN Slate’s candidate for Secretary, rebutted the argument as the only candidate having post-9/11 negotiating experience with State. In a 13 May circular e-mail, she said that as AFSA VP
Tex Harris (AFSA candidate) did not respond.
The Legal Battle
Essentially, each slate adopted a separate approach: AFSA 2009 charged CLEAN Slate had obtained and illegally exploited AFSA's online membership directory to send campaign literature. Ostensibly, EC-revised rules prohibited either Slate from using the lists; however, since senior AFSA 2009 members had gathered massive “personal” e-mail lists from years in AFSA, the ruling was the equivalent of forbidding bankers and bankrupt from sleeping on park benches.
On 15 May and again on 28 May, the EC demanded specifics from Firestein regarding his use of e-mails. Firestein rebutted EC accusations; however, on 10 June the Committee rejected his explanations and declared CLEAN Slate had violated AFSA election rules.
For its part, CLEAN Slate believed the existing AFSA establishment was exploiting AFSA resources to support AFSA 2009's campaign. CLEAN Slate documented these alleged violations, submitted their essence to the EC on 26 April and, following EC rejection, delivered a 77-page complaint to the Department of Labor on 6 May. The most prominent complaint element was that AFSA's State VP used internal, official AFSA membership databases and AFSA time and equipment to campaign for AFSA 2009; and that he also had sent explicit campaign messages from his .gov account.
Separately, during the 12 June vote counting, an AFSA staffer told a CLEAN Slate candidate that AFSA 2009 "hacked" into AFSA's internal database and mined the database for e-mail addresses Team AFSA then used for campaign mailings; this alleged Team AFSA action was also reported to DOL.
Ballot Counting and Aftermath
Fight after the Fight: Appeals to Election Committee and Department of Labor
At the 5 August GB meeting, the EC reviewed complaints filed during and after the campaign. The EC confirmed its decisions but noted it could not determine whether campaign violations affected the election outcome.
The DOL Review Ground Exceeding Slow
As its foremost objective, AFSA must convince active FS personnel it is useful and relevant. Delivering on commitments will galvanize AFSA members and attract nonmembers.
More generally, AFSA must rebrand. New, younger GB leaders can engage active duty officers through innovative IT and greater institutional openness. Committee members should regularly change. Term limits for AFSA officers promise generational renewal; retirees should not dominate AFSA.
At the same time, AFSA should recognize that up-or-out rules have created a tranche of “young retirees." AFSA should engage these veritable youngsters both for operational insights and to promote FS interests in government, on the Hill, and elsewhere in the U.S energetically.
Moreover, the election is agonizingly long. Months of extended voting need shortening. AFSA should implement electronic delivery of election material and design secure electronic voting for outside U.S. mail. Providing return envelopes with a standard "No Postage Necessary if mailed in the United States" (not a 44 cent stamp) might also encourage participation. Additionally, for future elections, AFSA e-mail membership lists need be open to all contenders. If recipients don't wish further e-mail, "Unsubscribe" is the solution.
Even more basically, AFSA's elections must return to diplomatic civility rather than channeling canines contending over hunks of meat. The Foreign Service faces wide challenges as the second decade of the 21st century begins. Key to attacking these challenges will be vigorously engaging the Foreign Service community with creative imagination.