Monday, June 17, 2013

Good news/ bad news from the June 15 PA Democratic State Committee meeting

First the good news: resolutions sponsored by progressive caucus members calling for online voter registration and early voting passed unanimously and a moratorium on fracking passed by a clear majority. A resolution in support of social security passed unanimously.

The early voting and online voter registration resolutions called for state committee to support efforts currently in the PA legislature to allow for early voting and online registration. And online voter registration bill (Senate Bill 37) passed the Senate unanimously and is currently before the House. Two early voting bills (HB 361 and HB 548) have been proposed in the House. The Republicans have been ruthless in their attempts to suppress voting rights; the Democrats must fight back with a proactive agenda that ensures that voting is as easy and accessible as possible.

While the voter access resolutions were non-controversial, the resolution on fracking was contentious. Areas in the western part of the state which have experienced job growth as a result of the fracking industry were for the most part opposed to the resolution. Given the powerful interests involved in the fracking industry, it’s not clear what impact this resolution will have, but having PA state committee on record in favor of a moratorium has got to strengthen the position of anti-fracking activists.

With regard to the social security resolution, as one member of the progressive caucus said, “it’s incredible that the state Democratic Party has to pass a resolution in support of social security. Isn’t that a given?” Not so long ago such a resolution would have been totally unnecessary. But since we now have “centrist” Democrats who argue that we must cut “entitlements" to reduce the budget deficit, we are forced to defend social security and Medicare within the Democratic Party. This is surely the world turned upside down!

Now for the bad news: the bylaws change calling for due process for aggrieved committeepeople failed. A bylaws change requires a 2/3 majority and it’s not easy to reach that threshold. Since the Chair thought it was clear we didn’t have 2/3’s, he didn’t call for a head count. I really would have liked to have had those numbers. It looked to me like we had at least 50% of the members present and progressive caucus chair Bruce Slater thought we had a majority, but the bottom line was we didn’t have 2/3’s.

The big surprise (for me) was that the intense opposition that scuttled the bylaws amendment came from Montgomery County. I had heard that there was opposition from Philadlphia County, but at the Philadelphia County regional meeting there was a civil discussion rather than the hard sell I expected. Lou Farinella who chaired the meeting was opposed to the bylaws change, but he acknowledged that there were legitimate concerns about due process. He complimented Irv Ackelsberg’s defense of Tracey Gordon, whose expulsion from her ward committee set in motion the progressive caucus attempt to get the state Democratic Party to guarantee due process. Farinella even told an anecdote about how he was once kicked out of his ward in the late 1970’s for support of then Mayor Bill Green—as if to say I myself have had experience with arbitrary and capricious behavior and understand your concerns even though I disagree with your proposed solution.

When I left the Philadelphia caucus meeting, I felt optimistic about the possibility of passage of the bylaws amendment. Irv Acklesberg and Walter Sullivan made effective arguments in favor of the bylaws change and it appeared that some of the opposition within the Philadelphia delegation might have softened a bit. (It may have been, as some of my fellow progressive caucus members stated, that Farinella did not engage in a hard sell because he knew that had the votes to defeat the amendment.)

The most intense opposition to the bylaws change came from Montgomery County spearheaded by Montgomery County Chair, Marcel Groen. Delegates are seated by county, so when people stand up to cast their vote, you can see what parts of the state support or oppose a resolution. When the entire Montgomery County delegation stood up in opposition, it was clear we had a problem.

Marcel Groen’s speech against the motion was shockingly self-centered. He stated that Montgomery County had instituted fair procedures and that due process for committeepeople existed in Montgomery County. He was opposed to any appeal beyond the county level as there was no need for anyone in Montgomery County to appeal any of his actions to state committee. He is alleged to have told a progressive caucus member that “he didn’t want anyone telling him what to do.”

Assuming it is true that there are no problems and never will be problems in Montgomery County, there clearly have been problems in other parts of the state. Groen was voting to prevent extension of due process in other parts of the state because he saw it as an encroachment on his power in Montgomery County. No county should be a law unto itself. Philadelphia County has a reputation for such arrogance, but Montgomery County appears to be just as bad, if not worse.

Apparently at least some of the Montgomery County delegates voted against the amendment based on a misunderstanding of what it involved. One delegate said he had been told the bylaws amendment would require changing the process that Montgomery County currently has in place. Not true. The amendment would require only that the county rules be consistent with the state party rules and that a committee person who believed that the county process has been applied unfairly in her case would have the opportunity to appeal to Democratic State Committee. In short, the amendment simply provides for due process. When Irv Ackelsberg asked the Montgomery County delegate if he had read the amendment, he said he had not. Apparently there were quite few delegates who voted against the bylaws change because they were told to do so and never bothered to read the amendment.

Bruce Slater said he was not discouraged that we failed at this point to reach the 2/3 threshold for a bylaws change. He said at least 50% of the delegates voted for the amendment and many state committee delegates, including some of those in leadership, now acknowledge that there is a problem and are talking about ways to address it.

Fortunately, not all county chairs insist upon having the final word with regard to what happens in their counties and recognize that there might be times when a committeeperson has been treated unjustly and should have the right to appeal. The bottom line: A Democratic Party should have democratic procedures.

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