Activism

Bernie Supporters Aren't Exactly Getting What They Were Hoping for Out of the DNC

The reforms would address most of 2016's anti-democratic features. But there's more vetting before they come before full DNC.

Photo Credit: Photo by Steven Rosenfeld

Like a slow-motion car crash, the Berniecrat wing of the Democratic Party appears to be heading toward a collision with the party’s leadership over adopting reforms that will guide the intricacies of 2020's presidential nominating contest.

The reform slate, negotiated by a Unity Reform Commission created during the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, addresses the most glaring anti-democratic features of the party’s last presidential nominating contest.

These could be very significant reforms. They include cutting by 60 percent the number of superdelegates, the unpledged delegates who accounted for one-sixth of all the votes cast to nominate 2016’s candidate. (Almost all backed Hillary Clinton, despite Bernie Sanders winning 46 percent of delegates from primaries and caucuses.) The reforms would professionalize caucuses, including disclosing vote counts (which didn’t happen in Iowa and Nevada). They would reform primaries to include same-day voter registration and allow independents to participate (unlike New York). They would impose new standards for financial transparency and avoiding conflicts of interest.  

The looming conflict concerns the pace and process for bringing these reforms before the entire Democratic National Committee, which would then vote to adopt or reject them. In short, the grassroots-led Berniecrat wing wants the reforms adopted as a package without further delay or modifications. 

In contrast, longtime party officials say the package is moving through a standard process, and will next be vetted by the party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee. The RBC will decide whether to amend them, before presenting them to the full DNC for a vote. (Any changes by the rules panel will go back to the Reform Commission, which can endorse them or bring its original proposal to the floor. In essence, that means there could be two competing proposals before the DNC when it meets later this year.)

On Friday, Our Revolution, the campaign organization created by Sanders’ campaign leaders, sent out an email launching a campaign and pushing for swift action to adopt the reforms as-is.       

“We’ve come a long way since the Unity Reform Commission was unanimously adopted by 4,500 Democratic convention delegates in Philadelphia,” the e-mail said, signed by the eight Sanders-appointed members of the Unity Reform Commission. “Recently, DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee took up the URC’s final recommendations….Our mandates are not aspirations. They have already been debated and negotiated. The DNC should adopt and implement these reforms.”

That tone was amplified by Norm Solomon, co-founder of 2016’s Bernie Delegates Network and the grassroots group Roots Action, who said the time for DNC ratification was past due. “We reached a compromise. We’ve got a package. If there’s a successful effort to fracture this package, then it works to the disadvantage of everything,” he said. “At Roots Action, we’re working with other groups to raise hell from the grassroots. The trajectory that we are on right now is not good."

One longtime party leader contacted by AlterNet rolled her eyes when hearing about the Berniecrats’ demands, saying the faction was impatient, does not understand the process, and that it's a mistake to turn this effort into an all-or-nothing equation. Another party leader said the Berniecrats are making incorrect assumptions about how roughly 400 DNC members are likely to vote on the reforms, because they want a party that can grow and win elections.

“The newer folks are looking for what I consider, in some cases, to be massive and difficult changes to make overnight,” said Debbie Kozikowski, Massachusetts Party vice-chair and a longtime grassroots activist. “Nothing happens overnight. The biggest problem we have with the new participants in ’16 is they didn’t understand the rules as they existed. You can’t change the rules by snapping your fingers. You have to know the rules so you can change them. I think the Democratic Party’s job, at this point, is to make sure the rules are public—but let’s make sure that people know them and understand them. Treat everything like a teachable moment, right?”

When told about the latest campaign to pressure the DNC, she was blunt.

“I think they are going to yell and scream, and that’s unfortunate because it doesn’t get you anywhere,” Kozikowski said. “Enough yelling and screaming. Figure out what the rules are and come back at it. It’s not over, right? If they don’t get everything they want now, it doesn’t mean the ballgame is over. It just means there’s an extended playtime, right?”

“That’s the danger,” countered Solomon. “It’s the position of the people who are on the Unity Reform Commission—the Bernie 8—that that would be really, really bad. The whole concept was a [negotiated reform] package. Once they start breaking the package apart, they’re going to splice and dice and it’s going to be a friggin’ mess. It’s a very strong position of, ‘Hey, this was already a compromise.’ It was dominated by Clinton [appointees] people, 13-to-8.”

What’s Really Going On?

Stepping back, it’s important to put the Unity Reform Commission’s work into a historic context. The commission was created after a very tense campaign in which no one in the party’s power centers expected Sanders to seriously challenge Clinton. The thinking, as Kozikowski recounted in previous interviews, was that state party chairs agreed to let him run as a Democrat because they thought it would boost the fall vote by a few points. They agreed to let Sanders run only after he agreed to endorse the 2016 nominee.

By the July 2016 convention, however, Sanders had won 46 percent of the delegates awarded in primaries and caucuses. Even though Sanders delegates in Philadelphia were aggrieved and disappointed, they overlooked much of what they had achieved in starting to revive the Democratic Party. No past presidential campaign in decades won as many changes in the party platform as their campaign did. And it obtained a national convention-sanctioned commission to address the anti-democratic features experienced in 2016, from insider bias by DNC senior staffers, to a superdelegate system that diluted the votes cast in primaries and caucuses, to miserably run caucuses where winners were announced yet vote totals were not disclosed, to voter suppressing registration deadlines for some state primaries and closing those contests to participation by independent voters.

In short, the Democratic Party hadn’t shone as large a spotlight on its deficiencies in decades. And its Unity Reform Commission, which had a majority of members appointed by the Clinton campaign and DNC Chair Tom Perez, put forth a slate of reforms that validated the cultural and structural grievances raised by the Sanders team. The process and path to ratification, nonetheless, is slower than the Berniecrats would like.

“Let me tell you where we are in this process,” said James Roosevelt, Jr., who was a member of the Reform Commission and co-chairs the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee. 

“If you have the Unity Reform Commission report, that is the place it starts,” he said. “By the terms of the convention resolution, that report then comes to the Rules and Bylaws Committee. The RBC will decide what portions of the recommendations, all or various portions, it feels should be recommended to the full DNC. If the RBC does not recommend the provisions of the Unity Reform Commission in total, the URC then gets that back before it goes to the full DNC and they can request that the whole thing go as a package to the full DNC, to be considered simultaneously with the recommendations from the RBC.”   

Starting in late January, the Rules and Bylaws Committee has been meeting to go through the reform proposals, Roosevelt said, saying this is ongoing work and will not be finished before the full DNC next meets in early March.

“Two weekends ago, we had two days—one full day and one partial day—where we presented the Unity Reform Commission report to the full RBC, because out of the 32 or so members on the RBC, only about six are on the URC,” he said. “We had the chair, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon and the vice chair, Larry Cohen, from Our Revolution, there all day for the full day. And Jen there for the partial day, answering questions about ‘Why did you recommend this?’ ‘What about that?’ ‘How did you think this would work?’ and so on. So that’s what we have done so far, which is educate the committee about what the URC recommended.”

The initial meetings have focused on the two highest-profile issues: the superdelegates and the caucuses, Roosevelt said. 

While the Berniecrats see superdelegate reforms as their top issue, that’s not what many state party leaders are focusing on, Kozikowski said. She said the reform commission’s failure to make a strong statement to move away from caucuses, which are more poorly run and poorly attended than primaries, was causing the most consternation. Kozikowski has long said she does not expect the full DNC (which has several hundred members) to vote themselves out of power—by taking away the perk of being an automatic delegate after working in the trenches between presidential elections. (On the other hand, adding reasonable restrictions on their influence "makes sense," she said, such as the URC's recommendation allocating national convention delegates based on the percentage results in primaries and caucuses, and binding the first presidential nomination vote by state party leaders to those outcomes in future national party conventions.)

While that prediction confirms the fears raised by Berniecrats like Norm Solomon that the party may not be shrinking its super delegate system, Roosevelt suggested that conclusion wasn’t set in stone. He emphasized that the Unity Reform Commission’s recommendations, which include reducing the number of super delegates by 60 percent, come from a body where Berniecrats are a minority of members.

Here’s what Roosevelt told AlterNet in an interview last week: 

“The Unity Reform Commission report is the product of that group. So already you have people who are not Bernie’s people supporting the Unity Reform Commission report. And I think what the Bernie people tend to forget is, it’s true, this is a tough vote for members of the full DNC, because you are asking them to take away one of their own functions in the presidential nominating process. However, these are people who have spent their politics careers working and believing that a political party is useful in achieving the right functioning of government. They are therefore also people who believe that maintaining a unified Democratic Party, and keeping people in the tent, is an important value. I would say to the Norm Solomons of the world, step back and think about what really matters to these people [full DNC members]. And realize that they will not just react the way you think of; you think they are like a legislature, they are not. They are believers in a political party as a positive force in the process of government.”

Roosevelt made other points suggesting the road to reforming the Democratic Party’s presidential nominating process was going to be long—longer than whatever is the outcome of a vote by the full DNC as early as next fall. 

For example, the party could open up primaries to same-day voter registration, participation by independents and other inclusionary details. If those options were in place in New York in 2016, arguably thousands of people who saw Sanders speak at rallies could have voted for him. New York’s primary rules prevented that. However, many states’ legislatures would have to update their laws to allow these reform to be implemented, Roosevelt said.

“But there is a pretty good body of law that says state parties can operate primaries under the right of association in the First Amendment the way they decide to run them," he said. "Now if that runs into a conflict with state law, it may end up in court. But there is law that permits that.”    

Roosevelt also said there were cultural barriers around reforming caucuses, even if the reform commission agreed that they needed to be professionalized and transparent. Again, no matter what the DNC eventually decides, progress will be made state by state.

“For some states, it’s just a matter of practicality, because their legislature won’t fund the primary and things like that,” he said. “But for some states like Iowa, it’s definitely cultural. The language of the Unity Reform Commission is probably broad enough to say they have to make public the tallies at the initial levels, and then those have to be the ones that determine the outcome of the delegate selection process. So I think that even in the places where it’s cultural [to keep them], and there’s really a strong push to maintain the caucuses, there can be processes and protections around that.”

In a half-hour interview that delved into some of the nuts and bolts that could make the party's elections more open and transparent, it was clear that Roosevelt was trying to be fair-minded and respectful of the Unity Commission report. That said, he noted there were some items that had been flagged for scrutiny, such as adding mail-in absentee ballots to the caucus process. (That’s potentially problematic because caucuses almost never decide their winners on opening votes, prompting participants to regroup. Adding mail-in ballots to an already complicated mix could invite chaos and vote-counting disputes.)

Roosevelt left the clear impression that the Rules and Bylaws Committee would break down the reform package and decide on what pieces to keep, modify or omit. It would then return that assessment to the Unity Reform Commission to decide whether they wanted to present that to the full DNC, or whether to present its original report—suggesting there could be two proposals before the full DNC when this comes up.

However, Roosevelt did not think the reforms were going to be presented in a "take-it-or-leave-it manner," where, for example, superdelegate reform would have to accompany caucus and primary reforms—or else nothing would be done. He also emphasized the full DNC’s charge when it created the reform commission was to reduce the superdelegate representation.

“I think it can be split into parts if that’s what the full DNC wants to do,” he said. “I do think the convention mandate is pretty clear about automatic [super] delegates… it was a significant reduction in their voting power.”

Back to the Berniecrats

The latest messaging from Our Revolution and other Berniecrats does not discuss the DNC reform process at this level of detail.

Friday’s email from Our Revolution said, for example, “We’re working with progressive partners across the country to push these changes over the finish line. Join us in taking the first step by signing the petition to your state’s DNC members today and tell them to support the URC recommendation.” 

Larry Cohen, who led the Sanders delegation on the reform commission and helps lead Our Revolution, did not reply to AlterNet’s request seeking comment on their strategy.

It may be that Berniecrats feel they need to keep up the pressure throughout the rest of the DNC reform process, no matter how long it takes. But at the very least, right now it appears their expectation of fast action is only likely to cause more strife. 

Berniecrats are telling their ranks that they expect the Rules and Bylaws Committee to swiftly rubber-stamp the reform commission’s proposals. Meanwhile, the co-chair of the panel and other longtime party members are saying that’s not how the process works, and that it's not a zero-sum, take-it-or-leave-it game.   

In other words, this pressure and posturing is pointing toward more confrontation between the Berniecrats and the political party they are seeking to change.  

Steven Rosenfeld is a senior writing fellow of the Independent Media Institute, where he covers national political issues. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).