Tuesday, June 22, 2010

My new volunteer project: The Pennsylvania State Democratic Committee

One of the great joys of retirement is being able to devote serious time and energy to volunteer projects. Recent research claiming to demonstrate a link between happiness and political activism just may be on to something.

I recently ran for and won election to the Pennsylvania State Democratic Committee—something I’ve wanted to do for some time but couldn’t manage during my working years. I was already struggling to juggle my job teaching at Community College of Philadelphia with serving as a local Democratic committeeperson and as president of Philadelphia. NOW. There was no way I could take on another project—especially one that involved travel. But last February, I decided that, as a retiree, I could handle it and I trudged about the neighborhood in the ice and snow getting 100+ signatures to get on the ballot.

Many of my neighbors wondered why in the world I wanted to do this. I’ve been a committee person in Philly’s liberal independent 9th ward for 26 years. I don’t think I could have lasted in any other ward. The committee people in our ward are thoughtful, independent-minded folks and it’s been a lot of fun. We do not automatically endorse party-endorsed candidates (e.g., we endorsed Sestak over Specter in last May’s Democratic primary). Individual committee people often endorse candidates not endorsed by the ward and within the ward's 17 divisions there are often conflicting endorsements. The voters in my division are used to getting a letter that says: “Karen endorses candidate x; Hertis endorses candidate y.” This approach fits well with the independent spirit of the voters in our neighborhood.

I've been curious about how the Democratic Party works outside of the liberal oasis of Philadelphia's 9th ward. This past week-end was my first State Committee meeting. It may turn out to be one of those “careful what you wish for" experiences.

First, the good news: there is a group planning to form a progressive caucus. It’s going to be a challenge for this diverse group to come together on priority issues. My guess is there is agreement on issues but not on priorities. I’m sure everyone in the group is pro-choice, pro-LGBT rights, for example, but not everyone would place abortion rights or same sex marriage at the top of their list. Also the degree of disenchantment with the Democratic Party varies considerably.

However, it became clear over the course of the weekend that we all have an interest in a transparent process and should be able to come together fairly easily on process issues. I had an experience which put a crusade for clear Party rules and a transparent process at the top of my list.

The elected State Committee delegates within each Senatorial district were charged with meeting to elect a district caucus chair. My ward leader encouraged me to run for this low-level post and I decided to run, primarily to learn a little more about the inner workings of the State Committee. Win or lose, it would be a learning experience. And so it was.

The vote was a 3-3 tie. A Party functionary came by and said that when one of the candidates in a tie vote is an incumbent, the incumbent automatically wins. If neither candidate is an incumbent, there would be a coin toss. In this case, since my opponent was an incumbent, he was declared the winner.

I asked if this rule was on the party website. The Party functionary did not answer my question, focusing instead on the fact that I was new to the State Committee and didn’t know the ropes. When he finally acknowledged there were no Party rules on the website, I asked if the rule existed anywhere in writing; again he did not give me a direct answer and kept hammering on his point that I was just a newbie who didn’t know the rules. My guess is that he was used to silencing new people by telling them they just didn’t know how the game was played. One advantage of being in your sixties is that you're not likely to be intimidated by somebody telling you to shut up because you’re new!

He clearly did not appreciate my point that it was highly unusual not to have a written rule for dealing with a tie vote. Finally, he said we don’t have formal rules to deal with tied elections. It took a really long time just to get an admission that the rule did not exist in written form.

I had expected when I raised the question, that I would be referred to some handbook which contained this rule. If that had occurred, it would have been the end of that conversation.

I might at a later point have raised the issue of whether such a pro-incumbent bias was in the interest of building a strong party. Changing this would be an uphill struggle given the historic pro-incumbent bias in the Democratic Party. But it certainly would be easier to challenge this if I could point to an actual written rule that needs to be rethought. It was also unclear whether the Philadelphia Democratic Party had jurisdiction (since we were vying for chair of a caucus within the Philadelphia portion of the 4th senatorial district) or whether the Pennsylvania State Democratic Party had jurisdiction (since we were members of the Democratic Party).

Granted, this is a very minor office, but questions surrounding the procedures to be applied in tied elections have larger implications.

If I were still teaching and something like this had happened, I wouldn’t have taken the time and effort to raise the issue. I wouldn’t have had the energy. But now that I have the time, I’m beginning to see a role for myself here—-working to develop a more transparent, open process. This assumes that there will be a progressive caucus to support such efforts.

I grant that there are times when there are real tensions between an open process and presenting a strong united front in a tough election year. A case in point: what we thought would be a contest for party chair and vice-chair was in Congressman Bob Brady’s memorable words “taken care of.” Before the members could vote, several candidates dropped out and a consensus team emerged.

I would like to have heard their competing visions for future of the Democratic Party and their strategies for November, but it looks like that kind of debate doesn’t take place in open meetings.

Pennsylvania State Democratic Committee sure doesn’t operate like the 9th ward! My hope is that a strong progressive caucus will emerge and there will be change. We’ll see.


  1. Go on Karen! Give em heck! There needs to be a strong voice for the silent majority that wants to see the the status quot shaken and stirred.

  2. The old guard in the democratic party doesn't understand that it's a stronger party when people can see how decisions are made. Otherwise people become apathetic and don't believe that their actions have meaning if someone from the top is going to take care of it. I know you'll continue to hammer away at the "it's always been done this way group" for the rest of us.

  3. Aissia and Mike,
    Thanks for the encouragement!

    Just got an email from a Google group, paprogressivecaucus@googlegroups.com planning to set up a conference call. So something’s happening on the state level.

    Where are all those young progressives in Philly who 3 years ago were all fired up and going to run for committeeperson slots and revitalize the Democratic Party? I hope I'm wrong but it doesn’t seem as if many new young people ran.

  4. I love these reflections, Karen. You clearly know how to listen to your conscience, perhaps even more so when others either are not doing that, or don't have one! (hope that's not too rough!) I think this is great and am sure you're going to make a difference. It is hard to explain to others why we'd be committed to incremental change, given its slow pace, but really, what's the alternative!

  5. Hi Karen-Sometime when you have some time for discussion, please call me. We need to talk about the difference between Rules, ByLaws, Executive Board and Chair of a Caucus in 4th DIst of Philadelphia. I am a 26 year member. I agree that some changes need to be made. Were you running for State Executive Board of a Caucus Charir. I just saw your post. Jacqueline Smith-Bennett pointed it out to me. Are you on a Statewide Committee. I am on ByLaws and Jacquie is on Rules. 717-697-4517 Sandy Wolfe,Member State Committee