For several decades now the leaders in our state legislature, overwhelmingly Democratic as is party enrollment throughout the state, not only refuse to adopt agendas approved by convention delegates but subvert convention procedures for selecting candidates for statewide offices. Democratic State Committee officials have been complicit in these moves to short circuit the will of the grassroots.
Democrats in other states may experience power struggles in a different context but with the same results. In my state, delegates are elected in February at city and town caucuses to attend a Nominating Convention that takes place in June. Candidates for statewide offices have a qualifying hurdle: each must get votes from at least 15% of the delegates in attendance in order to win a place on the ballot in the September primary. The intent is not only to narrow the field, but also to weed out weak candidates so that the winner will go into the November general election with solid support. Of less significance is that the convention endorses the candidate that achieves 50% or more of the vote.
But Party leaders are not satisfied with this democratic process. The old maxim that says any Democrat is better than a Republican no longer holds. For them, the Party nominee for governor cannot be just "any Democrat," but must be a candidate they prefer.
Legislative leaders want a governor who will play ball with them and not put forward his or her own agenda or, heaven forbid, that of the Party's. In 2002 as well as this past June candidates for governor have come to the Convention who have not come up through the ranks and have never held elective office. More threatening, perhaps, than their lack of a record that would reveal their inclinations to make deals is their star power that has come from their having served the country at the federal level.
At both conventions, the cabal worked behind the scenes to make a deal on behalf of a weak candidate who came to the Convention with no chance of meeting the 15% requirement and, consequently, should have been denied a spot on the primary ballot. Their usefulness to the cabal was, and is, in their ability to siphon votes from the star. This strategy worked beautifully when one of the preferred candidates, a woman, won the primary in 2002. However, she lost the general election because she was unable to sufficiently distinguish herself from the Republican nominee.
The lesson in this is that there is a new maxim: if Democratic legislative leaders cannot have a Democrat in the executive office who will play ball with them, i.e., let them run things, then they would rather retain their power by having a Republican in office.
In the 2004 presidential election we saw sharp elbows applied at the national level for the same purpose. After Al Gore endorsed Howard Dean in December of 2003 powerbrokers feared that Dean was on his way to winning Iowa and probably the nomination. Dean had raised a phenomenal amount of money over the Internet in thousands of small donations, giving him independence from "Big Money." He persisted in telling his audiences, " You have the power!" A frightening message in the minds of Washington insiders. Subsequently, it should not have been a shock that the presidential candidates who conspired to take Dean down were the four from inside the Beltway. And with the help of the mainstream media who were as afraid of Dean's meteoric rise as the candidates, they did.
Later, the fear that Dean might provide leadership for the Party re-emerged when Dean was about to be chosen as the Party's new chair. Wanting to assure themselves that Dean would follow in the footsteps of Terry McAuliffe, the former chair, by confining his activities to raising money, congressional leaders sent Dean a message. Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader in the House of Representatives, saw fit to tell the press, " I think that Governor Dean would take his lead from us." Senator Harry Reid's comment was along the same lines, "The Democratic chairman has a constituency of 447 people. Our constituency is much larger than that."
In other words, a political agenda is not to emanate from Party headquarters but to be determined on Capitol Hill where legislative leaders will decide amongst themselves what they will do for those big campaign donors and their lobbyists and what, if anything, they will do for their constituents. Forget about platforms fashioned by state or national convention delegates. Party leaders routinely dump them in the trash as soon as they have been approved.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committees are yet another way that the legislative leaders have usurped the power of the Party. These committees do their own fundraising and contribute to candidates of their choosing, cementing allegiance to congressional leadership rather than to the Party - that is, to us.
There is no "bottom up" mechanism by which we at the grass roots can impose our collective will. Obviously, this state of affairs have left Democrats in state legislatures and in Congress vulnerable to corporate interests since they no longer need to answer to us. Our Party activity is now confined to door-to-door canvassing and getting out the vote. We are left with a label without "care instructions" printed on it and, consequently, can be used by any individual who wants to run for office.
The problem that we grassroots Democrats face, then, is not that our party is indistinguishable from the Republican Party. The problem for us is that we no longer have a party. Question: What do we intend to do about it?