Over two dozen members of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) sent a letter earlier this month to party leadership proposing a raft of reforms to how the DNC operates. If adopted, the mix of structural and procedural changes would reduce the influence of unelected “at-large” members who often have ties to large corporations and lobbying industries.
Addressed to President-elect Biden and emailed to a dozen senior staffers from the Biden-Harris presidential campaign, the letter seeks to start dialogue between pro-reform DNC members and the political leaders of the incoming administration on the need for greater transparency and grassroots input throughout the party.
The letter, obtained by Sludge from a supporting DNC member, represents the most specific and comprehensive reform proposals since 2017, when the Unity Reform Commission pushed through a compromise change to the presidential nominating process that reduced the role of unelected superdelegates. Several of the new letter’s 29 signers told Sludge they hoped to increase the national party’s responsiveness to state party priorities, facilitate more democratic decision-making in party governance, and enhance diversity on top party committees, among other goals.
The DNC has been plagued by scandal since former chair Donna Brazile revealed in a tell-all book that top party officials secretly funneled over $82 million to Hillary Clinton’s campaign during her 2016 presidential primary against the campaign of Bernie Sanders, among other benefits, and then sought to cover up the arrangement. The DNC, different from a typical non-profit or membership organization, is a private company, and its top officials have wide latitude to determine its rules and decide on how they’re enforced.
One foundational question to be resolved is who will be the next DNC chair to consider the letter’s suite of reforms. Some of the proposals could be implemented right away by the chair’s office, others would require amending the party bylaws, which first requires approval by the Rules and Bylaws Committee and then majority approval by the approximately 447 voting DNC members.
Traditionally, an incoming Democratic president such as Biden puts forward their choice for the head of the national party, and an easy majority of DNC members vote to select that figure. Current DNC Chair Tom Perez, who won in 2017 on the second ballot of what was the only modern competitive race for the position, has clearly stated he’ll be stepping down at the end of this year, clearing the way for the Biden-Harris team’s pick.
The sole name to be floated in the press as the likeliest candidate to replace Perez as chair has been Jaime Harrison, a recent U.S. Senate candidate in South Carolina and before that the DNC’s associate chair under Perez. Harrison, a former South Carolina state party chair who also worked as a corporate lobbyist for companies that lobby against Democratic policies, is putting himself forward for the job in interviews.
Typically when a Democrat has won the White House, the election of the next party chair would occur during an in-person winter DNC meeting in Washington, D.C. in the week before the inauguration, but multiple DNC members say they have not received any communications from party leaders on when the next official meeting will happen.
The next chair will have a detailed reform agenda waiting for them in what has been laid out by the pro-reform members, some of whom are longtime veterans of battles with DNC leadership and some of whom were just reelected to their second terms. The letter’s Amendment section lays out three areas of proposed reforms: conducting individual reviews of the 75 at-large DNC members who are effectively appointed by the chair as a slate; increasing party transparency by facilitating communication between members and enabling members to access information on the effectiveness of party expenditures; and continuing reforms for a fair presidential nomination process by requiring that DNC members who are also paid campaign staff take a leave of absence from party affairs through the primary.
The letter also proposes amending the bylaws to place the presidential debate schedule under ratification from the full DNC membership, a response in part to the contentious summer of 2019, when Perez rejected calls from environmental activists and Democratic presidential campaigns to hold a debate focused on the global climate crisis. Party leadership’s obstruction led to protests at party headquarters by the youth-led Sunrise Movement and other groups, and built up to delegate protests during this summer’s stage-managed virtual convention meetings.
Dr. Jim Zogby, a longtime pro-reform DNC member who helped lead the push for greater accountability on the Unity Reform Commission, told Sludge that over his 28 years on the DNC, members have had very little power.
“The problem with the DNC is that there is no governing body,” said Zogby. “Members have been reduced to being props at a meeting, expected to clap.”
Zogby said that the Unity Reform Commission process in 2017 was hampered by a lack of engagement from party leadership, which did not respond to reformers’ written proposals or discussion invitations until the very final two days of the drawn-out process. Coming out of the 21-member Unity Reform Commission, which had ten members selected by Hillary Clinton, eight by Bernie Sanders, and three by Perez, party leaders secretly deleted the reforms agreed upon by members in several heated meetings held in locations across the country, according to Zogby. Reformers had to fight to restore the text of the agreements.
“In the DNC committees, 60-70% are composed of at-large appointees, that’s how you end up with rubber-stamping, ratifications of decisions already made, not votes,” Zogby, who sits on the DNC Resolutions Committee, said. “The goal of this letter is empowering state chairs, empowering regional caucuses to play a role with an eye towards balance with appointees.”
Michael Kapp, a DNC member from California who is the chair of the DNC Youth Council and a member of the Credentials Committee, has promoted reforms on his own website and social media that would open up more of the party’s opaque governance process. Kapp says the goal of the letter is to “Make sure we have a national Democratic party that is reflective of our base and provides a voice for state parties to have resources necessary to win up and down the ballot every cycle.”
“We’ve been working at the state and national level for decades, and we’ve come together to lay out concerns about the national party and how it functions, and in some cases how it can function a lot better and be a lot more impactful,” said Kapp. “We want to see President-elect Biden succeed, and we know that can only happen if we win down ballot races, and have strong state parties that welcome in new voters.”
Among the structural reforms, Kapp highlights the current role of the 75 at-large DNC members in amplifying the preference of the chair throughout party deliberations.
“In reality, they’re appointed, they’re not elected,” Kapp explained. “The DNC chair presents a slate of individuals, usually names and states, with no opportunity to pull names from the slate and offer new names, no delineation of what demographic goals we’re trying to meet. At the end of day, we’re working to make sure we have strong state parties that have the necessary resources to support down ballot races and run Democrats for every race on the ballot.”
At-large members, who usually have more resources to attend in-person DNC meetings, often carry with them a proxy vote from another member who is not present, which overwhelmingly backs the chair’s decisions in rushed meetings.
The DNC has a number of affinity group councils whose members are not granted seats on the 47-member Executive Committee, including Youth, Seniors, Rural, Ethnic, Veterans & Military Families, Labor, Environmental and Climate Crisis, Disability, Small Business, and others. The reformers’ letter seeks to ensure seats for those councils on the Executive Committee, which is tasked with working with the Budget and Finance Committee in reviewing potential financial conflicts of interest.
John Verdejo, a DNC member from North Carolina who signed the letter, told Sludge he wants the upcoming chair election to be more than a simple ratification.
“I’d like to encourage more participation from DNC members on who picks the chair,” said Verdejo. “I’d rather see it be an open competition, with a bit of separation between the DNC and the White House. Even with a Democratic governor in North Carolina, we still have an open race for state party chair.
“Here in North Carolina, Democrats lost state House and Senate seats ahead of redistricting, we’re almost back to where we were in 2010. I’d like to see the DNC focusing on down ballot races and trying to help state parties with resources,” Verdejo said.
Through the reforms in the letter, Verdejo says DNC members could be empowered to undertake their own version of an “autopsy report” for the 2020 election, to “lay out what we did right and wrong down to state levels, which areas could have been improved, how to get more buy-in.”
Other signers told Sludge they were concerned with how Democratic party groups intervene in congressional races.
“We need to rethink the role the DCCC and the DSCC plays in elections,” said Jeri Shepherd, a DNC member from Colorado. “Too often, they act as a king/queenmaker in states where they have no sense of the lay of the land. They also act to undermine progressive candidates.
“I am worried about what happened in down ticket races of many states,” Shepherd continued. “That is something that needs to be looked at on a state by state basis. We signed the letter in the hope our party will awaken those who would choose to slumber. If we fail to do that, the Democrats will suffer serious losses in 2022 and 2024. That will result in the exacerbation of problems for people who are already struggling.”
The pro-reform members say they have not received any response or acknowledgement from the Biden-Harris political and communications teams regarding their letter. The text of the letter is below, which supporters say remains open to more signatures from DNC members.
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