How we were (nearly) shut out of the DNC Eastern caucus
by Elena, Wed Feb 02, 2005 at 10:32:16 AM EST
Four weeks ago I first started calling around to my state party and host of the caucus, the NY State Democratic Committee, and the D.C. office of the DNC to see what the procedure to attend was for a non-press, non-DNC voting member. Like most people, I think, I knew little about the chair selection process or regional caucuses. I quickly got the impression that this regional caucus time of the year was not exactly a time for which the national committee or state committees usually set up call centers or hotlines to field public inquiry. Fair enough, I thought, how beautiful that times are changing. As time went on, however, it seemed that the NYSDC and the other event organizers were incapable (or unwilling) to develop a procedure for allowing a now interested, engaged public to attend.
Initially, I assumed that in accordance with the DNC’s charter, it would be open to the public, and that we simply had to figure out what the procedure for attending was. Just show up? Submit your name in advance? Gradually, however, the answers from NYSDC staffers transformed from “I don’t know if it will be open to the public” to “It probably will be, but I don’t know the procedure.” No one had any information. Finally, caucus leadership told me that it would be closed to the public. The reasons cited were: limited space and that “we don’t want it to serve as a rally.” When I explained that my intention in attending was not to show up with a big sign and cheer for anyone, I was told that that was what happened at the ASDC conference in Orlando, and “we don’t want that.” I explained that I simply wanted to observe a process that I knew little about, but that would affect me a great deal, and that I had a right to. This was countered with, “The press will be there.” As Democrats should know most of all, this is cold comfort.
Meanwhile, Driving Votes’ executive director, Leighton, had conversations with the DNC in D.C. who assured him that the caucus would be open to the public. On Jan. 26, three days before the caucus, a fellow Driving Votes NY leader, Kate, called the NYSDC and was told that the public would not be allowed in. She was told it was full, and that if the public wished to see the proceedings, they could “see it on C-Span.” I emailed the same staff member and he wrote that he would put me on a waiting list and that they would call through the list as space became available. (I must note that, revealingly, he did not have my phone number.) He wrote that walk-ins would not be admitted; everyone had to be “pre-credentialed.” This was completely new information.
The Roosevelt Hotel’s Mezzanine Ballroom can seat 700 people. I don’t know at what point “the list” ever became open. I was calling frequently, and was never able to get a conclusive answer from the NYSDC about what the policy would be (let alone hear about the “pre-credentialed” list) until the week before the caucus when they began to say “the list” was full.
At this point, Driving Votes decided to turn to the DNC in Washington for help. They turned out to be extremely helpful. Driving Votes’ directors explained what was going on and that nearly 100 Driving Votes volunteers were going to show up Saturday morning whether they were “pre-credentialed” or not. The DNC was completely on our side, and felt that rank-and-file Democrats should be permitted to attend and did not understand the NYSDC and regional caucus chair’s decisions to “close” the caucus. A mere 38 hours before the caucus, the DNC in Washington spoke with the regional party leaders and put pressure on them to allow us to attend. The caucus organizers finally told them that they would admit us; all we had to do was submit our list of our attendees in advance.
Thrilling, of course, but a perverted, ridiculous kind of victory. Why this list? Why should everyone who signed up with Driving Votes be allowed in; and not all the other rank-and-file Democrats who had called up the NYSDC directly and had been told there was no room? For me, all this reaffirmed (as if I needed it) was my faith in the power of organizing, but provided yet another sad reality check. Things are not good when you have to organize to gain access to your own party.
It is alarming that the NYSDC deliberately misinformed the public in order to try and prevent our attendance. It is disturbing that the NYSDC is so completely unaware of such basic precepts of public relations. It doesn’t take a PR professional or fancy consultant to understand that when people who are invested in their party enough to want to attend are lied to or otherwise excluded, that the party will NOT APPEAR to be a party of inclusion or one that truly values the grassroots. Nor will it actually BE one, either, of course.
On Saturday, our group assembled outside the ballroom where the caucus was to take place. Everyone was excited to be there, many attired in the lovely eye-catching yellow DV t-shirts, and all were behaving, wonder of wonders, politely, rationally, and respectfully. A little before 10, staff told our group we could start lining up to sign in. When DV volunteers finally approached the sign-in tables to give their names, lo, our names were not on any list. Fortunately, the NYSDC staff there was extremely polite, professional, and helpful and immediately assured us that they would do their best to get us in, space permitting. We do all appreciate this. The group lined up with photo ID to submit names for the waiting list, and after the registered guests, caucus members, and press were admitted, our names were called, and in the end, everyone was admitted and had a seat. In the ballroom with capacity for 700, that had supposedly been so full that walk-ins would not be admitted, I noticed two empty rows of seats.
All of this is not to say, however, that there isn’t anyone within the NYSDC or Eastern caucus leadership who agrees with us that leadership selection needs more transparency. But, they were not evident in my experience. I understand that there was not a system in place to accommodate rank-and-file Democrats’ interest. However, the time has come to establish a system.
Early in January I got to speak to the Eastern regional caucus chair, Raymond Buckley. “How am I supposed to be a part of the process?” I asked him when he told me that the caucus would be closed to the public. “Get involved with your local committee,” I was told. Thanks, Mr. Buckley, I am planning on that now for sure.
I do appreciate that Mr. Buckley changed his mind and decided to honor the DNC’s charter. At the caucus, we gave him a t-shirt, shook his hand, and thanked him. He was gracious and friendly.
It’s not enough to have a “reform-minded” head of the DNC. We sent a great message last Saturday, and it looks like Dean will get it, but clearly we need to organize to get the people out of power who can’t get with reform. For me, this whole experience really proved that the grassroots will have to come up with ways to reconcile the state parties and the national committee. So, how do we organize to get true reform-minded progressives on our state committees? How do we identify the committee members that are not with the program and pressure them to get with it or get out?
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