Saturday, February 21, 2015

Democracy is Alive and well—in many Democratic Party County Committees in PA

I recently learned that in many (perhaps most) counties in Pennsylvania committeepeople vote on all endorsements in Democratic Primaries at regularly held county conventions open to the public. This is in sharp contrast to the Phila Democratic Party's down model where decisions are made by a small group, the Party Executive Committee, and ward leaders are expected to rubber stamp the decisions.

The Counties that hold nominating conventions include:

Montgomery County, held on Feb. 19, 2015.

Delaware County, to be held on Feb 22, 2015.

Bucks County, to be held on Feb. 28, 2015. According to a Bucks County committeeperson, a candidate must achieve 60% of the vote to get the endorsement. I don’t know if this is 60% of committeepeople present or if a quorum is required and then 60% of that number.

Chester County, held on Feb. 19, 2015. According to Chester County by laws, a candidate must achieve 55% of the vote to get the endorsement. I don’t know if this is 55% of committeepeople present or if a quorum is required and then 55% of that number.

Lancaster County, held on Feb. 19, 2015. Several committeepeople have reported that “The process is very tightly controlled from the top down.”

Westmoreland County. A member of the Westmoreland County Executive team: reports: “We have scrapped top down and at our Convention will first throw the decision for an open or closed vote to the entirety of the Committee. …Since taking office last June we have dedicated ourselves to opening up the Committee and have had some success. We are the Democratic Committee and we choose to adhere by the democratic definition. Is everything perfect? Of course not! Just means we have more work to do.”

In rural counties where Democrats are not strong, there are democratic endorsement processes other than a nominating convention(which might be difficult to pull off in a rural county).

Franklin County. The County Chair reports: “The County Committee votes to endorse local county candidates in the primary as a normal part of committee work… Our members endorse whomever they want for whatever races they want...and they are encouraged to say they are members of the County Committee, since they are elected and voters may want to know where they stand. Frankly, most local candidates do not want to be endorsed”

Monroe County. A committeeperson reports: We are lucky if we have any candidates for county row offices. In the past when the county committee did endorse someone in the primary it lead to bad feelings and people dropping out of the party, even at least one person becoming a Republican. We go through the motions of asking if committee members want to endorse but usually just endorse uncontested primary candidates.

What is an advantage is we have our Monroe County Progressive Democratic Club which can vote to endorse separate from the county committee. We can endorse the candidates with progressive ideals and it doesn't piss off other candidates or other committee persons.

There are counties which as a matter of policy do not endorse in primaries:

Adams County. The County Chair reports: We hold open primaries in our county with no endorsements. My understanding is many, many "red" counties do open primaries because, frankly, we don't want to alienate any of our members. It's already hard to recruit! Honestly, I credit this with our ability to keep peace in our family by letting all have their say and allowing all to support who they wish. I endorse, as does my vice-chair. Invariably we support different candidates (me: Obama, Sestak, McCord/ she Clinton, Spector, Wolf) and we get along perfectly. No "power" fighting.

Berks County: A committeeperson reports: “ In Berks, thankfully, we do not endorse, period. We have enough to fight about.”

There is considerable variation here but the common thread is a commitment to democracy: County Democratic Committees throughout Pennsylvania give a voice and a vote to committeepeople.

Lancaster County (like Philadelphia) may be an exception but at least in Lancaster County there is a convention; if enough people organize to change a top down process, the convention provides them with a vehicle for doing so.

Why do Philadelphia committeepeople put up with the current top down model? Possibly because many people (and that includes progressives) have learned to work within this system and may have a vested interest in perpetuating it.

I also sometimes detect a fear of democracy—-even from progressives—such as the comment made recently by a Philly progressive on the Philadelphia Democratic Committee Facebook page: “Democracy with a small d is not always better. If it undermines the effectiveness of a party organization, then it's definitely not better.” With a 36% turnout in the last general election, the Philadelphia Democratic Party is far from an effective organization! Our challenge is to reinvigorate a moribund organization, not to maintain our “effectiveness.”

The Philadelphia Democratic Party needs more people like the Westmoreland County Chair who describes her dedication to opening up the county committee: “We are the Democratic Committee and we choose to adhere by the democratic definition. Is everything perfect? Of course not! Just means we have more work to do.”

Granted, Philadelphia faces logistical obstacles that smaller counties do not—-both because of its size and because in so many wards committeepeople are place holders, rather than actively engaged committeepeople. But surely we can develop a model that more closely approximates the democratic policies and procedures of so many other PA counties.

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