Last August, the normally-obscure summer meetings of the Democratic National Committee were flooded with hundreds of youth activists and environmental advocates urging a presidential debate focused on the global climate crisis.
At the time, 64% of Democrats supported a climate-focused debate, first requested in June by then-candidate Washington Gov. Jay Inslee—as did 14 other presidential candidates, including Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. The activists, including members of the Sunrise Movement and other groups, held more than 20 rallies and sit-in actions at Democratic Party offices in late June ahead of the first presidential debates and were endorsed by 24 state party chairs and over 100 voting DNC members.
But despite the energy of the protestors and the support of the candidates themselves, the DNC Resolutions Committee voted 17-8 on Aug. 22, 2019 against a resolution led by Washington’s Tina Podlodowski calling on Tom Perez to reverse his ban on a climate debate. The committee’s decision was ratified in a full DNC member vote that weekend, 222-137, against a resolution that would have allowed presidential candidates to participate in single-issue debates, including the proposed candidate back-and-forth on climate.
The outside pressure did result in a compromise—the Resolutions Committee reversed a ban on candidates’ participation in non-DNC sanctioned events on the climate crisis, which paved the way for 10 climate town halls in early September with presidential hopefuls. The DNC’s spiking of an official climate debate had been the expected outcome, with party leadership reported as being unwilling to risk exacerbating antagonisms among the base and bringing up attacks ahead of the general election.
That national DNC members would vote down a climate-focused debate backed by party members, grassroots activists, and the presidential campaigns themselves is a demonstration of the power that DNC Chair Tom Perez has over party rules. The Resolutions Committee members, who are the first gatekeepers in the process for adopting policy positions, are largely appointed by the chair, and operate without public record-keeping for accountability.
Perez had come out against amending the rules to allow for a climate debate in a June blog post, although he later unilaterally changed other sanctioned debate qualifications, such as the individual donor threshold. At the time of the climate protests, Sludge reported the DNC was accepting large donations from fossil fuel executives, placing the party outside of the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge endorsed by every leading Democratic presidential candidate.
Who, then, are the DNC members of the Resolutions Committee who first voted against recommending a climate debate?
The DNC does not make the membership lists of its standing committees available to the public, but Sludge obtained a full DNC committee roster as of September 2019 from a DNC member.
The 28-member Resolutions Committee contains at least five members with backgrounds in advancing corporate interests: three current corporate lobbyists, one of them a co-chair of the committee and another a News Corp lobbyist put forward by Tom Perez; one past electric utility lobbyist and drug industry consultant, who established a Democratic precedent of corporate PAC fundraising; and one principal with a consulting firm whose current clients include large corporations and whose past clients include BP. The committee also includes Symone Sanders, a senior advisor for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign.
Crucially, at least 13 of the standing committee’s 28 members are at-large DNC members, which means they were put forward as a slate by Perez and approved by a voice vote, not individually elected. Of these 13, ten committee members voted against a climate-focused debate when the matter was voted on by the full DNC membership, as tracked by a publicly-viewable spreadsheet released by Michael Kapp, a pro-transparency DNC member from California, as well as Kenji Yamada, also from California. (The previous roll call of the 17-8 Resolutions Committee vote to not recommend endorsing a climate debate is not available online.)
The party Charter states that the Resolutions Committee “shall receive and consider all resolutions proposed by a member of the DNC on matters of policy proposed for adoption, by the Democratic National Committee, and shall report in writing.” However, no written records of deliberations around party resolutions are made available online or to anyone outside of a DNC member who requests them, and video is not recorded and put online for later viewing of committee proceedings.
The Resolutions Committee is co-chaired by Hon. Lottie Shackelford, an at-large DNC member who was mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas from 1987-1988. As one of three senior advisors at consulting firm Global USA, Shackelford’s past lobbying clients include Allstate Insurance, Hyundai, and from 2000-2008, a coalition of Big Bank trade groups called FM Watch.
According to records maintained by ProPublica, Shackelford and Global USA lobbied for several months in 2006 for Strategic Communication Company on “Taxes pertaining to oil and gas companies.” Shackelford did not respond to an email inquiry requesting more information about this lobbying activity, or seeking comment on how her committee evaluates and discusses potential conflicts of interest among members with corporate clients.
The committee’s other co-chair is Stuart Appelbaum, a DNC member from New York who is the current chair of the DNC Labor Council. Appelbaum is president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) and was appointed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to the state’s Regional Economic Development Councils.
Both co-chairs, Shackelford and Appelbaum, voted against approving a climate-focused presidential debate in the full DNC member vote in August 2019.
Below is a rundown of several other members of the Resolutions Committee and their affiliations with corporations that engage in lobbying.
Charlie King—at-large DNC Member
King is a partner at lobbying firm Mercury Public Affairs and a former senior advisor to New York Gov. Cuomo’s re-election campaign. Mercury was hired by 68 clients to lobby the federal government in 2019, including the Government of Qatar and defense company United Technologies, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, receiving a total of $9.5 million in lobbying fees. In 2018, reporter Lachlan Markey found eight additional foreign-registered clients signed by Mercury after it succeeded in getting Russian aluminum parent company En+ removed from the Treasury Department’s sanctions list.
Mercury Public Affairs had several lobbying clients last year in the energy and natural resources sector and the oil and gas industry, including natural gas company PennEast Pipeline ($120,000), methanol maker Yuhuang Chemical ($420,000), and EnVen Energy Ventures ($80,000), an oil and gas exploration and drilling company in the Gulf of Mexico. This year, EnVen and Yuhuang continue to use Mercury for lobbying, and the public affairs firm keeps large clients in industries adjacent to fossil fuel production. Last year, these clients included the South Carolina Ports Authority ($160,000), Hyundai motor company ($240,000), and defense contractor General Dynamics ($290,000).
King explained his vote against a climate-focused debate to the San Francisco Chronicle in September 2019 as a vote to keep other fundamental civil rights issues in the spotlight, saying, “I can’t remember the word ‘poverty’ mentioned in any of the debates. For us to elevate to one critical issue over every other critical issue, I just can’t do.” King’s firm did not respond to an email inquiry for comment on how he addresses conflicts of interest with fossil fuel clients in his work on the Resolutions Committee.
Hon. Tony Coelho—at-large DNC member
Coelho is a former U.S. representative from California who in 1986 was elected House majority whip. After being named chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 1980, Coelho pioneered aggressive party fundraising from corporate PACs that had business before Congress. In 1985, a profile in The New Republic reported that he fought to retain tax breaks enjoyed by independent oil and gas drillers, lining up their financial support for the Democratic Party.
After resigning his House seat in 1989 due to a brewing loan scandal, Coelho later lobbied the federal government as a founding partner of Vectis Strategies in 2013 and 2014 for electric provider Edison Utilities. His many corporate board seats have included being elected chair of consulting services company ICF in November 1998 and commercial bank Esquire Bank.
Joanne Dowdell—at-large DNC member
Dowdell, who ran as a Democratic candidate for a U.S. House seat in New Hampshire in 2012, has been since April 1, 2016 a registered lobbyist for News Corp, where she is senior vice president of global government affairs. Dowdell was one of several corporate lobbyists put forward as at-large DNC members by Perez in an October 2017 “purge” of party leaders who had supported Perez’s rival, then-Rep. Keith Ellison, and greater transparency measures within the DNC. At the time, Bloomberg reported, “A DNC aide who asked not to be identified defended including the lobbyists, saying they were all carry-overs from the last presidential election cycle and were renominated because of their service to the party.”
Symone Sanders—at-large DNC member
A senior adviser to the Biden campaign and previous press spokesperson, Sanders had called a climate-focused debate “dangerous territory in the middle of a Democratic primary process,” saying it “would fundamentally change the game” of what the campaigns had been told. Sanders defended her position on Twitter in the days before the full DNC member vote, saying she does not represent the Biden campaign as part of her responsibilities on the DNC’s Resolutions Committee. Sanders then voted with the majority against holding a climate debate.
Craig Smith—at-large DNC member
A Democratic strategist since Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign, Smith is currently a principal at PSB, a research firm and consultancy for businesses, governments, and politicians. PSB’s current corporate clients listed on its website include the California Chamber of Commerce, Coca-Cola, Ford, pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, McDonald’s, and Microsoft. At the time of the firm’s 2001 sale to advertising giant WPP, PSB’s corporate clients also included American Express, BP, and Novartis. Founded by pollster Mark Penn, the firm is known for its services to centrist Democrats such as Joe Lieberman’s 2004 presidential bid and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s runs in 2001 and 2005, as well as Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.
Five DNC officials have not responded to multiple requests for comment over the past several months on how DNC members implement the party Charter’s commitment to a political ethics where officials “shall refrain from acting in their official capacities when their independence of judgement would be adversely affected by personal interest or duties.”