With less than 60 days until crucial midterm elections, most of our attention is rightly focused on winning every race up and down the ballot. But party business and key public policy decisions carry their own timetables, and this Summer's DNC meeting featured several that California delegates should be aware of.
As one of your elected DNC members, I try to provide insights about how the DNC works and what we do. Unfortunately, this can be a frustrating task: while the DNC as an organization does many things to organize money, resources and trainings to help win elections, most actual DNC members have very little power to influence outcomes--even those who sit on its standing committees.
So to start with, the most important update I can provide is a bit of behind-the-scenes context. For most members, meetings are an opportunity to network, build visibility, and get photo ops with elected officials. The sort of issue visibility and camaraderie activity that occurs in caucuses and councils tends to be the maximum limit of our power, unless we decide to cause a little bit of what John Lewis famously called "good trouble." The (limited!) opportunities to do this are via resolutions and rules, but even these are tightly controlled.
The reality is that when Democrats control the White House, almost every decision about the national party is carefully controlled by the White House--for better or for worse. Membership has little say, and even DNC members with internal party titles who may or may not agree with certain directions usually feel compelled to fall in line--again, depending on your point of view, for better or for worse.
Now, of course, DNC members are all committed Democrats and accomplished organizers. Beating back the fascist threat from Republicans by defeating them at the ballot box is our top concern above all else. Consequently, at the national level, there is near-unanimous agreement on most issues from funding our state parties and key competitive races, to celebrating the genuinely amazing legislative accomplishments of the Biden-Harris administration and our leaders in Congress despite razor-thin majorities.
Among the unanimous actions taken at this Summer DNC meeting were setting the Rules and Call for the 2024 Convention, as well as the rules and procedures for filling vacancies. We filled several vacancies, and passed a number of uncontroversial resolutions on everything from abortion rights to labor protections. The DNC has enjoyed a record-breaking fundraising bonanza in advance of a midterm election, and is spending unprecedented resources on building up state parties, particularly in contested battle zones. In my opinion, Chair Harrison is doing a fantastic job, and he has the genuine admiration of the vast majority of the membership from the most progressive to the most moderate. President Biden and Vice President Harris both gave superb speeches that garnered major attention on broadcast and social media. You can feel the regained confidence in the air among Democrats across the country, and it's an amazing feeling.
There were three points of minor controversy and "good trouble", though, that are worth mentioning--and I'm proud to say that many California members were involved in all of them.
First, fellow DNC member RL Miller introduced a Resolution (#16--for reference, you can see all the resolutions that were considered here) that affirmed the party's commitment to climate justice and condemned the pro-fossil-fuel side deal legislation demanded by Senator Manchin. I and several other Californians co-sponsored her resolution. The resolution reportedly did not meet favor with the White House, but momentum against the side deal is rising in Congress and among the Democratic grassroots. Rather than scuttle the resolution entirely or work with the sponsors to resolve their concerns, leadership chose a third path: Chair Harrison introduced a substitute resolution (#15) praising the pro-climate parts of the Inflation Reduction Act but without mention of the notoriously temperamental Senator Manchin or the legislative side deal.
Chair Harrison's resolution passed unanimously, after which the Resolutions Committee chair indicated that leadership was not supportive of the original #16. Still, RL Miller was allowed to speak in favor of her resolution, which she did powerfully, noting already devastating impacts of the climate crisis in California. She asked the committee to amend her resolution so it could move forward.
Fellow CA DNC member Laurence Zakson, who sits on the Resolutions Committee, was gracious and courageous enough to break with precedent and note that other California co-sponsors were also passionate about this issue, giving fellow CA DNC member Michael Kapp and me an opportunity to speak as well. I did so, suggesting edits that might satisfy leadership's concerns while allowing the bulk of the resolution to pass. Michael Kapp thought it would be most effective to cede his opportunity to Jane Fleming Kleeb, Nebraska's state party chair, who also spoke passionately on it. In the end, Resolution #16 failed to achieve a motion or a second. But it did help generate a raft of media attention that is helping to build support in Congress to stop dangerous new fossil fuel drilling.
A similar process happened with a resolution to oppose dark money in Democratic primaries. This resolution (#19) was backed by a large group of reform-minded DNC members, including myself. But the wording was too strong for the powers that be. Chair Harrison once again substituted a separate resolution (#18) that condemned dark money generally and reaffirmed support for the DISCLOSE Act, but did not include specific reference to Democratic primaries or candidates who take dark money in Democratic primaries. Chair Harrison's resolution passed out of committee unanimously, while the original did not receive a motion or second.
The third point of contention involved an ill-considered Rules change (#16--see all the proposed charter amendments here) that even its proponents admitted in committee might allow the DNC to overrule decisions made at the National Democratic Convention. It seemed there was support in Rules and Bylaws Committee to address this concern and amend the language, but the parliamentarian ruled that doing so would violate the 30-day notice provision. I personally find that parliamentary ruling bizarre and nonsensical. The Chair of the Rules and Bylaws Committee insisted that no future DNC would ever dare to overrule decisions made at Convention. And yet...clearly the pressure was on to keep the rule change.
During Sunday's general session, reform-minded DNC members decided to stand down and avoid making good trouble on the resolutions, but to act on conscience regarding the rules. I know this was disappointing to many who backed the resolutions including myself, but the substitute resolutions and the media attention would never have existed without the original resolutions in the first place. Progress is often a matter of incremental gains, and this meeting was no exception.
The Rules changes were packaged with the Call to Convention and Delegate Selection Rules, subtly pressuring members to vote for the whole package. Still, a significant number of members voted Nay on the voice vote. Colorado DNC member Jeri Shepherd called for a Division, which enabled individual accounting of votes (by sitting or standing.) A plurality of California's DNC members voted Nay, including myself and key reform organizers Michael Kapp, RL Miller, and Sean Dugar.
Also noteworthy: DNC staff texted some members that "a very small group may try to disrupt" the meeting and that "we cannot afford the disruption" so close to the election. This is, of course, terribly inappropriate coming from staff and not true in the bargain. There is nothing about revising an arcane rules error (or, for that matter, opposing dark money in Democratic primaries) that would damage any of our candidates' prospects in November.
Wyoming DNC member Jessica Sell Chambers courageously read the full text message from the floor and reminded the body that we are DNC members in a democratic organization, to general applause. Chair Harrison graciously responded that he would speak with staff about interacting more appropriately with members in the future.
In the end, progress toward reform and democratization at the DNC is slow, hard work. Opportunities to make an impact are limited. But the work continues!
Hopefully this helps shed some light on what is happening at the DNC and how it works. Now let's go out and win those elections--the Republican fascist movement isn't going to stop itself, and social, economic, and environmental justice depend on our victories this November.
(If interested, you can also check out my latest piece here at Washington Monthly on how Dems actually passing great policy and the GOP ending Roe has helped change the course of the midterms, with lessons for the future.)
Elected California DNC Member