How we were (nearly) shut out of the DNC Eastern caucus

A lot of diaries by those who attended the Eastern regional caucus with Driving Votes on Saturday have referred to the fact that there was some question as to whether we would be admitted or not, and I’d like to clarify some things about that process for those who may not know.  There is a lot of “they tried to shut us out!” floating around and I think it’s important to provide a complete context for these statements. I helped organize the nearly 100 volunteers who signed up and I want to draw attention to the problems that were encountered, because as part of this glorious new time of “increased participation” that most the chair candidates spoke so passionately about, we have to demystify these sorts of party processes and examine all the barriers that exist to participation in the party.  So here is my account.
Apparently, this thing called the Internet is remarkable because of its capacity to disseminate information rapidly, so I apologize if this seems like a not so hot topic anymore.  I came out of the caucus feeling simultaneously energized and frustrated by the whole thing.  The experience of rank-and-file Democrats trying to attend the caucus exemplifies some of the problems in flashing (red) lights.  

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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Comments

31 Comments

Thanks, Elena
I appreciate the detail because I had also asked more than once why the Eastern Caucus was "closed" when that contradicted the DNC Charter.

As for "the press being there," that doesn't mean much.  WaPo's story was written by Dana Milbank and comparing his story to the blogs, I don't think he was at the same event.  For all I know, he made up the quote from Jim Dean.

I hope this is one of the things that change, should Howard become the next DNC Chair.

by KimPossible 2005-02-02 08:15AM | 0 recs
Re: Thanks, Elena
That comment about the press being there absolutely killed me!! Do any of those people realize what the MSM did to Dean, and then Kerry? Have they watched or read how they cover Bush?? Do they seriously expect us to put any faith in what the media says? And would they really want to trust that responsibility to the press?

I was watching Dana Milbank for awhile, and I remember thinking to myself- I wonder will his account of what happened here today be anything at all like what mine will be? Needless to say, our perceptions were amazingly different. Thank God most bloggers had similar accounts of the event- or I would have thought maybe I was losing my marbles!!

by sneemteam 2005-02-02 12:03PM | 0 recs
thanks for this diary
i hope more people read it.
by annatopia 2005-02-02 08:41AM | 0 recs
just curious
when you were told you'd be shut out, did you try to get in touch with any of the DNC chair candidates' offices?  I am wondering if they were/would have been any more helpful in applying leverage.
by emptypockets 2005-02-02 09:05AM | 0 recs
Re: just curious
To my knowledge, we didn't.   I didn't.  I wonder if it would have been appropriate to have done that.  I also wonder, as they were campaigning, if they (ironically) would have been hesitant to challenge decisions so directly.  Is that too cynical?
by Elena 2005-02-02 10:10AM | 0 recs
Re: just curious
I'm the Leighton that Elena mentioned in the diary.  We didn't try to get in touch with any of the candidates for help, and the reason is that we didn't wish to appear to be forcing our way into the meeting on behalf of any particular candidate.  And that was entirely true: Driving Votes as an organization endorsed Dean very early in the process, but we were very careful not to mention that in our messaging inviting people to attend (save for when talking to DFA members) because we didn't want anybody who supported another candidate to feel as if they weren't welcome to join our contingency.  We even removed mention of Dean from our website for the days leading up to the meeting, so that nobody would think that the reason we were organizing people to attend was to boost Dean's standing, which it emphatically was not.  I suspect that even if we had appealed for help from the candidates, we wouldn't have gotten it, because they, too, were protective of the integrity of the process and I imagine would have been reluctant to appear to be trying to put together a cheerleading squad.  Anyhow, I think that the state party personnel were fearful that by opening up the caucus, they would turn the event into a spirit rally, which was a) very condescending -- at times it felt like the party leadership regards the grassroots as a bunch of children, and b) completely contradicted by the evidence, since the Sacramento caucus was open and by all reports went very smoothly.  And for the record, I understand that the Orlando meeting was nothing close to the "circus" we were being told it had become.
by Woodhouse 2005-02-02 11:38AM | 0 recs
Re: just curious
"And for the record, I understand that the Orlando meeting was nothing close to the "circus" we were being told it had become."

Although, Matt and I did go onto a wicked bungee vertical slingshot that was near our hotel.

by Jerome Armstrong 2005-02-02 01:05PM | 0 recs
Thanks from a Rosenberg supporter...
I am a Rosenberg supporter and you DV folks made me feel plenty welcome.

I was surprised though to find that there weren't a ton of people driving cross state/coutnry to see Tim Roemer speak. Shocking. Don't they know that he's "strong"?

by Alex Urevick 2005-02-03 04:13AM | 0 recs
Democrats or Communists?
Yo Elena!
Thanks again for all your work and help!

The opaque nature of the DNC makes it seem more akin to a Communist Party than to a Democratic one.  I tried asking a bunch of different people how one goes about becoming a DNC member, and they either shrugged or changed the subject. Hell, some of the people pushing DNC vice-chair candidates couldn't even tell me what the heck a DNC vice chair does...

How are we supposed to feel like a vital part of this party when we can't even see how the party elects its leaders (other than the chair) or who those members are to begin with. I know you can dig up the info on some blogs, but shouldn't it be easier to get into the know? When I sent the list of PA reps to my father he told me that 2 were career (read: corrupt) party-hacks, the third was a complete dirtbag who had sued my pops for libel on behalf of a criminal client (who ripped off poor people) who my dad was bringing to justice (anyway the scumbags both lost). Can we afford to have the corrupt money grubbers in postions of power in this party? I think not.

Let's hope that Dean, or whomever gets the nod, will be able to push for a little more transparancy and accountability from our state parties. The future of our party depends upon it...

by Alex Urevick 2005-02-02 09:19AM | 0 recs
How to be a vital part of the Party?
Whatever are you talking about?  They're always ready to have you "get involved"--i.e., take your contributions!  ;-)
by wishful thinking 2005-02-02 11:31AM | 0 recs
Come now, let's not go bashing the CP
Hey, Alex!

It should all be easier, shouldn't it.  Unfortunately, we can't rely on Dean or whoever winds up as chair to push for more transparency or accountability.  It's up to us to do this.  Let's start by sharing the information we gather and how we get it.  It should be easier to access this information, you're absolutely right.  Fortunately, it's not secret information.  We just need to publicize the fuck out of it.  

by Elena 2005-02-02 11:36AM | 0 recs
Re: "crashing" the Party
Elena, thanks for this insightful report. DV rocks!

In California, we (DFAers and MMOBsters) are lucky because many people here were already local Dem Party activists. I think, because Dean gave his famous "What I Want to Know" speech at our 2003 convention, he captured the hearts of many Party regulars that already wanted what Howard had the guts to demand. So they helped teach the rest of us  how the local Dem structure works.

Our Western caucus in Sacramento had an open "Listening" breakfast as well as audience seats for grassrooters because grassrooters were already part of the host California State Party system. We had an ace woman who's a county chair up there that made it happen.

I have learned that understanding the Party structure isn't hard, just hard work. Show Up, as Dr. Dean says. Many times it is: show up at local gyms or union halls for long and really boring meetings ;-)

Because of the DFA network, we all got the info and Showed Up at our Assembly District Committee re-org meetings last month. (That's the entry level.) And we got tons of progressive DFAers elected as delegates to our next CA State convention. Like any volunteer org, it is the delegates that work the hardest and make an impression, that will get elected to the next level. Like high school, you have to show up to decorate the gym, if you want to run for student council.

I do think that if Dean wins (cross fingers), there will be more communication around Party structure. Each state is its own fiefdom, though, so everyone's milage will vary.

by candace in sonoma 2005-02-02 01:47PM | 0 recs
Re: Come now, let's not go bashing the CP
I was also there with the driving votes contingent, but I did have a slightly different experience with the DNC here in NYC. I called the number listed on the Driving Votes site the Wednesday  before the Caucus and spoke with a secretary at the DNC and was told that the meeting would be open and I could show up, but because of the high level of interest they couldn't guarentee entry.

Also I did stay for the  Vice Chair Session. I was interested in see who these people were, especially since one of the chairs is responsible for Voter Registration and Participation.

It may also be of interest to some to know that there are five vice chair positions - 3 of which will be reserved for women and two for men (gender parity when you count the Chair). It was a diverse group of candidates and it was noted by the moderator that such diversity would have been nice to see at the Chair level. The Eastern Regional Caucus was the only one at which the Vice Chairs were given an opportunity to speak.

Candidates for Vice Chair are as follows:
Mike Honda - A Congressman from CA, I believe
Alvaro Cifuentes
Nelson Diaz
Marjorie Harris - Done lots of Voter Registration work, Sharpton
                          speech writer
Linda Chavez-Thomspon - Exec. VP of the AFL-CIO, current Vice
                                          Chair.
Denise Wilkinson - State Sen. from MA (I liked her a lot)
Nancy Jane Woodside - Grassroots Organizer from Utah, opened
                                    1st Party Headquarters in UT (red stater,
                                    a big blue heart from what I could tell)
Susie Turnbull - Former (or current?) Head of the of the
                          Democratic Leardership Forum

by brookeb 2005-02-02 06:16PM | 0 recs
Re: Come now, let's not go bashing the CP
OK- but what do the vice chairs do right now? I asked a woman at one of the VC candidate's table and she really couldn't tell me. She said that there was a hope that they would have a clearly defined role under any reform plan, but for now, she didn't know.

Does anyone know what the heck the VCs do?

by Alex Urevick 2005-02-03 04:08AM | 0 recs
bendygirl, can you help us out?
Bendygirl, could you post an explanation of the roles and responsibilities of the vice-chairs?
by Elena 2005-02-03 04:38AM | 0 recs
Good job!
Elena,

Thanks so much for pushing our way in--for those of us who were able to be there because of your efforts and the efforts of other DV members, it really meant something.

Thanks also for helping me out personally--I had completely given up on the idea of making it to New York, and your efforts made it possible--I just wanted you to know how much I appreciated it.

Also, great poll question--I am trying to get involved with my state party, but it is really hard to get any information out of them! So far they haven't even listed the date/time/place for my town's caucus--and most of them happened last week!

Thanks again, KB

by Katherine Brengle 2005-02-02 10:08AM | 0 recs
I was there
And no offense, it was very full with people coming and going during the session.

Some form our delegation didn't show, I'm sure there were many others of similar issue.

I was curious why so few stayed for the Vice-Chair session.  We need excellent Vice-Chairs and I do recall the shirts from the morning, but not the afternoon.

Our committee was told that the list was closed off (we had our names in two weeks in advance) for space and space alone.  I'm glad you got in, but I'm curious why it is this session didn't have a central organizing committee that set up how to handle these inquiries.  Instead of it having been a personal issue with rank and file it simply seemed in need of more structure before the event to ensure that everyone who wanted to attend could attend.

by bendygirl 2005-02-02 11:02AM | 0 recs
Re: I was there
The reason people were coming and going during the session probably has something to do with the fact that in the end event organizers had resigned themselves to allowing it to be an open session, thanks to Elena's hard work.  Even if that would have been the case anyhow, the problem still remains: they were telling people that the caucus was closed, spreading the word through the ether that the grassroots were not welcome.  So even if, in fact, you could just show up and get in, how many people did not show up at all, because the word on the streets was that they wouldn't be allowed in the door?
by Woodhouse 2005-02-02 11:42AM | 0 recs
I was there too and...
I found the "space" arguement that organizers used to be just completely ridiculous. This is NYC, for God's sake- it's not like it would have been impossible to find a place that could accomodate a larger crowd. I also was annoyed because the organizers weren't expecting or prepared for a crowd of ordinary dems to turn up. Why wouldn't they have expected us? People had turned up at every other caucus- did they really think that no one would show up in NYC? Or did they think at all?

I want to say though that the people who worked the caucus were very patient and gracious, and they and Elena handled very well what otherwise could have become messy. I loved the fact that there were so many really young people working there; They're the future of this party. I was so glad to have gotten the chance to attend; it was truly a wonderful experience.

(I personally didn't stay because I had a 12 year old who had a soccer game to get to, but some of the driving votes folks did go back to watch the afternoon session.)

by sneemteam 2005-02-02 11:48AM | 0 recs
Re: I was there too and...
I'm reluctant to jump to conclusions, but based on the meager information that was being provided to us, it appeared that the "space limitations" excuse was worse than ridiculous -- it was a lie.  After we were told that the reason they were closing the caucus was because of the room size, one of the folks who signed up with Driving Votes to attend called the Roosevelt.  The hotel staff told her that the room seated 700, and that the caucus organizers had booked the room with a total list of 340 names.
by Woodhouse 2005-02-02 11:58AM | 0 recs
Re: I was there
No offense taken.  I just want to clarify, I saw the empty seats when I was seated in the balcony (I entered right before the meeting started).  I am glad if those seats filled up.  I'm simply pointing out that we brought over 60 people and everyone had a seat.  

As I said, there was no system for accomodating the rank-and-file.  A lack of such a system, and an unwillingness to create one, indicates a disinterest in including the rank-and-file.  Or at least an aversion to change.  They should've reacted to the public interest and established a procedure for allowing us to attend.  Instead, they deliberately misinformed us.  

I did stay for the Vice-Chair session. That certainly WAS an empty room!  I'm glad I did, though.  Those were the most interesting speeches to me because the candidates talked more about party policies and procedure and there was a little less theatrical.  Or maybe it just seemed that way because there was no press and all the observers left.

Interestingly, I was not even aware that the Vice-Chair candidates were speaking until I arrived there.  The NYSDC had told me the session would last until noon.  We had told those who had contacted Driving Votes that the session would last until noon, so I suppose most of our attendees had only planned on staying until then. I think it was  Nancy Jane Woodside who mentioned that it was the first caucus the VC candidates had been invited to speak at!  

by Elena 2005-02-02 12:13PM | 0 recs
Really valuable - great issue to organize around
It would be very transofrmational if we could have access to all of this information about who can attend, and all of the W questions about the Democratic Party meetings.

It seems clear that some embedded people do not want the access to be as open to those of us who do want change in the party, this probably includes those in the party infrastructure and in the media which does such a rotten job of covering the democratic party.

As in other mydd coverage today, I believe the Washington DC Democratic Party and office holders are one faction at the root of those who are killing this party, they muct be deposed.

by leschwartz 2005-02-02 11:08AM | 0 recs
Re: Really valuable
I would have assumed the same thing at first, about the party officers inside the Beltway.  But I have to reiterate what Elena mentioned: the DNC national organization was extremely helpful, indeed instrumental, in opening up the caucus to the grassroots.  D.C. DNC employees were in a delicate position, because they have to stay neutral in the race and it was quite obvious that the overwhelming majority of rank-and-file who wanted to attend were behind Dean (to other candidates who may have felt this is "unfair," I call bullshit because the Dean campaign played no role in organizing rank-and-file to attend, Dean just happens to be more inspirational than the rest of the field and there's nothing "unfair" about that), but instead of going the easy and expeditious route of telling us there's nothing they could do about it, they went with principle and attempted to resolve the situation in favor of openness and transparency.  It's important to give credit where credit is due, and in this case, I give a lot of credit to McAuliffe's staff.  The problem here was at the state level (I should also mention that the state parties WERE NOT blocking access in the West, so this is really evidence of a problem at the state level in a particular region, though I suspect it's not limited to the Northeast).
by Woodhouse 2005-02-02 11:29AM | 0 recs
thank you for emphasizing that
by Elena 2005-02-02 11:40AM | 0 recs
love your quote:
Great post Elena, I love the line, " Things are not good when you have to organize to gain access to your own party"  That is so telling!  

The NY Times had an article about Dean and the Repug's feeling satisfied w/ him because they still consider him a "scream"...and a few Dem's quoting in the thinly veiled negative...more wood for the fire in an already fragmented party, which is why I hope your quote is read by many, many staffers.

Keep up the good work and I look forward to more DV events.  

by HooperLady 2005-02-02 12:27PM | 0 recs
Great post
Elena, thanks so much for your effort, and for sharing the experience with everyone.
by Jerome Armstrong 2005-02-02 01:02PM | 0 recs
Interesting
It sounds like the NYSDC folks are a closed club  used to operating in the shadows and out of the public eye. Interesting to hear the behind-the-scenes story, although I'm not sure whether the movement to the "grassroots" means we should be trying to penetrate that closed club, or what.

I will add my voice to the chorus of praise for Elena and the DrivingVotes team. Despite the chaos brewing under the surface, the situation felt completely under control from the moment I was greeted at the door by a volunteer 'til the end of the day.

I wish that kind of organization could have been running the PFAW Cleveland election protection center I worked on election day. A massive chaotic clusterf--k all the way around. Lots of really bright law students from Yale and Howard that will think twice before volunteering again :+(

Oh well. On to 2006.

Go Dean.

by ProgressiveChristian 2005-02-02 04:39PM | 0 recs
Join your local committees!
I'd like to echo Mr. Buckley's suggestion.  I got involved in the political process via the Dean Campaign.  The head of the Dean Campaign here in Rochester, NY told us the best way to get involved is by joining our local committees.  Many of us did.  At Democratic Headquarters during election night this last November I was amazed how many former Deaniacs were there and involved in a number of local elections.  These were people who were new to the process, pulled in by Howard Dean, getting involved, learning how to run campaigns, learning how to be leaders.  Many of the local committees here in upstate New York are in need of assistance, they need and want our help.  Getting involved and growing the party at the local level is one way we can win America and our party back.  
by wmaguire 2005-02-03 03:27AM | 0 recs
Re: Join your local committees!
This experience will serve as an impetus for us all to get involved with our local NY committees and I'm sure you're right that many would love to have our help.  I agree with you and Mr. Buckley that we need to get involved on a local level.

Unfortunately,  I don't believe Mr. Buckley was giving me that advice in the same spirit that Howard Dean does. We should all be involved, and meetings should still be open and accountable to the public.  

by Elena 2005-02-03 04:22AM | 0 recs
A Different Viewpoint...
I too was there, and I too was told the event was not often to the public. But luckily, thanks to the blogosphere, I knew that the event really couldn't be closed to the public, so a friend and I attended with a good sense that we would be able to get in the door.

However, had the event been publicized as a come-one, come-all event, well, oh my god, the voting delegates could have been outnumbered by the public 10 to 1. And the very open caucus would have been a disaster. A real mess.

So practically, as if the practical ever matters, I'm not sure what the NYDems were supposed to do. The event was supposed to be a chance for voting members to interact with the candidates and their coteries. It was televised. And even though the public wasn't invited, we were in fact very welcome. So?

by trueblue 2005-02-03 07:10AM | 0 recs
Re: A Different Viewpoint...
The Sacramento caucus was open to the public, and the organizers never felt compelled to mislead anybody about that fact.  The grassroots showed up by the hundreds, and no disaster ensued.   I find it disturbing that there seems to be an image out there of "the grassroots" as some unruly mob of angry provocateurs.  From what I've heard, the delegates at both the Western and the Eastern caucuses were far more rambunctious than the rank-and-file audience.
by Woodhouse 2005-02-03 11:11AM | 0 recs

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