Colorado’s Democratic Party is reshuffling: Will it feel the Bern?
A national group backed by Bernie Sanders and his supporters is making a push to shake up the Democratic Party in Colorado, one of the few swing states that went for Hillary Clinton in November.
The Washington, D.C.-based organization, Our Revolution, formed in August after the Vermont senator’s presidential primary loss so it could help channel enthusiasm for progressive ideas among Sanders supporters into concrete action. The group’s latest effort is encouraging Berniecrats to run for lower-level leadership positions in county and state Democratic Party offices across the country— including here. It’s working hand in hand with another national group with state-based activists called #DemEnter.
“Colorado is a very progressive place and we’d love for the Democratic Party there to be representative of that true blue style,” Our Revolution’s national director Shannon Jackson told The Colorado Independent in an interview. Getting there, he says, means making sure those who were attracted to Sanders’ self-styled political revolution do more than just stay involved. They must become part of the party infrastructure if they want to help shift the institution toward its more progressive wing.
And that’s fine, say some longtime party members, but ability, experience, and institutional knowledge about the party also matters. “This has to be a marriage between factions, not a civil war,” says JoyAnn Ruscha, a progressive Democratic consultant in Denver.
In Colorado, unexpected swarms of Sanders supporters flooded precincts during the March caucuses where Sanders clobbered Hillary Clinton by about 20 percentage points. His win came despite the state’s Democratic establishment lining up firmly behind Clinton, from Gov. John Hickenlooper to the entire Democratic congressional delegation and a majority of the Democratic state lawmakers. But Sanders did not take the national party’s nomination in July, and enough Democrats in Colorado rallied behind Clinton to keep Colorado blue against Donald Trump in November by a margin of about five points.
Now comes another wave of party elections in Colorado, though they are very local affairs, and not everyone can participate.
This week, county Democratic parties around the state are holding insider elections to staff up their offices with chairs, vice chairs, secretaries, treasurers and the like. Some county re-org elections have already taken place, others will happen this Saturday. In many cases, any local Democrat who shows up can run for at least something, though voting in elections for chair and other top offices can be closed to those who already hold certain positions in the party.
In at least one county so far, a Sanders influence within Colorado’s reshuffling Democratic Party structure was evident. On Saturday, Feb. 4, El Paso County Democrats voted in a Bernie backer as their new county chairwoman.
An architect and urban designer, Electra Johnson first became involved in politics last spring while caucusing for Sanders at her neighborhood precinct. That led her to run an impressive but ultimately unsuccessful race for county commission, where she gained a name for herself in local Democratic circles. She came within six points of beating a retired Air Force officer for a seat on a local commission where no Democrat has won since the 1970s.
“If it wasn’t for Bernie I wouldn’t be running,” Johnson told The Colorado Independent at the time. After Clinton won the party’s nomination, Johnson said she was following Sanders’ lead by supporting her— and because it was the rational thing to do. On the weekend before the Nov. 8 election, she joined Sanders at a Colorado Springs rally to help organize Democrats behind Clinton.
When Johnson won her race for party chair Feb. 4, Our Revolution tweeted out a link to a Colorado Independent story about it, along with a link to a sign-up page on its website that tells supporters it’s time to “transform the Democratic Party.”
The #DemEnter movement close up
On the Saturday of Johnson’s El Paso County election, just prior to the vote, John Jarrell, a young volunteer who was helping her campaign, was nervous.
The 33-year-old political operative dressed in a black button-up shirt and jeans was pacing around the outskirts of the community center cafeteria where the Democrats of El Paso County were about to cast their ballots. Jarrell would sit down in a chair and then stand back up, walk a few steps in a circle, fiddle with the cap of a plastic bottle of Coke, and then sit back down again. Around him men and women, young and old, black and white and brown, were listening to short speeches by local Democratic leaders. They would start voting soon.
Jarrell was nervous because if Johnson lost this race for chair then Jarrell would have a lot to explain to a lot of people.
Plenty of Sanders-supporting Democrats who swarmed those Colorado caucuses in March last year were angry when Clinton took the national nomination, he said. They felt the Democratic National Committee had screwed Sanders. Hacked DNC emails released by WikiLeaks that indicated some DNC officials tried to undermine Sanders did not help.
“A lot of them just left the party and are forming all these splinter groups,” Jarrell said of those scorned Sanders supporters. “People have joined the Green Party and are proud now to be independent.”
So what Jarrell and some like him are trying to do in Colorado is bring those disenchanted Democrats back from the brink. You cannot just join a political party and expect to take over it the next day, he explains. But what you can do is pay attention, get involved in how the party operates at the lower levels, and make a difference.
There is actually a name for what he’s doing. It is called the #DemEnter project, which is the opposite of the #DemExit movement, which saw Sanders supporters leave the Democratic Party in protest when he lost the nomination in the summer. Our Revolution is one national group while #DemEnter is another. In Colorado, #DemEnter volunteers work at the grassroots level and in some cases run for party positions themselves. #DemEnter, which has a board of directors and is a registered nonprofit, has four founding members from around the country. One of them, Skip Madsen, 60, is from Colorado.
“We were started by mostly Bernie Supporters; we’re about half and half now,” Madsen says. He says the group has about 550 members in Colorado and growing. It includes county chairs and people running for county chairs. “We’re not just people who came into the party recently,” he says.
Jackson, of Our Revolution, says a lot of its members are working with #DemEnter as volunteers.
Our Revolution had a bit of a misfire in January when the national group blasted out some incorrect information to scores of Colorado Democrats in emails and text messages about how to sign up to vote for leadership.
In Colorado, #DemEnter members organize in part on a private Slack channel and on a public Facebook group of about 500. According to one Colorado #DemEnter document for new members, the movement’s goal is to “make the Democratic Party stronger, more inclusive and more progressive.”
From one strategy document circulating among group members:
DemEnter is mainly made up of Berniecrats and other Progressives who plan to stay in the Democratic Party for the foreseeable future, and want to help pull the Party back from the brink to its progressive roots. If you live long enough, everything old becomes new again. Democrats are examining our party grassroots, and shaking off the bad habits and procedures that have accumulated over the last number of years.
The document pitches the movement as a “do-ocracy more than anything,” and asks those interested to “join us, show-up, do things to help, then you can be a leader too.”
In Colorado, #DemEnter does not have a formal leadership structure, the document states, but does have members acting as leaders in their own communities. “We will work with every Democrat that wants to work with us,” the document reads. “We are not here to litmus test you or try and take control of the Party or your participation. We are inclusive and collaborative.”
One of Our Revolution’s Colorado volunteers is Shaun Sindelman, 38, and who lives in Douglas County. He was a Democrat who briefly joined the Green Party here following the Democratic National Convention to send a message to the establishment he felt never gave Sanders a fair shake. But he switched back to being a Dem quickly enough, and ran for secretary of his own county Democratic Party this past Saturday as part of the #DemEnter movement.
He lost. But he said he walked away feeling like enough people heard his message, learned his name, and got to know him so he can run again two years from now with more recognition from the party regulars.
“You need to be known,” he says.
Sindelman says what he would like to see the party do better is focus more on rural Colorado and try to connect to progressives on the plains or in the gas patch areas. Democrats in Colorado, he says, are big on being anti-fracking, but could do better connecting with liberals who work in the oil-and-gas industry, for instance.
When it comes to what those from Sanders world want from the state party as a whole, it might not be a down-the-line list of the same boxes.
Thornton Rep. Joe Salazar, an early and vocal Sanders supporter who said he would “highly consider” running for governor if that’s what enough people want him to do, explains the Our Revolution/#DemEnter view this way: “They want to change the Democratic Party so it’s more responsive to the people and less responsive to corporate dollars, I think that pretty much sums it up.”
One example is oil and gas money, which Salazar worries has too much sway in Democratic politics in Colorado.
Salazar expects some changes this Saturday in his own Adams county during its reorganization meeting this Saturday. That county has a two-person race for chair, one in which Salazar characterizes as old guard vs. progressive new blood. “I think there definitely is going to be an awakening one way or the other,” he said.
Back in the Colorado Springs cafeteria, as the assembled Democrats of El Paso County filled out their ballots for chair and dropped them one by one into a red box, John Jarrell explained the stakes for a local #DemEnter volunteer. For weeks and months he had been walking local disaffected Sanders supporters back from the ledge. The democratic process would work, he told them. Their candidate, Johnson, would get elected at the local level, and that would be the proof.
“If I have to go back to them and I have to say ‘Guess what, we lost,’ you know, it’s going to be disastrous for the Democratic Party,” he said before the votes were counted. He sees the young people energized by Sanders here as essential to the party if Democrats want to win elections, especially in place like deep red El Paso County.
“If we lose them— and it will only be for only two years or four years— but under Trump’s administration that could be disastrous,” he said.
Hours later the votes came in. Johnson won, and so did a Sanders-supporting candidate for 1st vice-chair.
“You could say we have a mandate,” a relieved and enthusiastic Jarrell said while celebrating after the vote.
Understanding frustrations, but…
A re-shuffling of the Democratic Party’s leadership is something that happens every two years.
The county meetings can be sleepy gatherings, especially in rural counties where the same people show up to run for local party posts year after year, election after election. But they can also be electrifying. (You can find out when your county’s re-organization meeting is by clicking here.)
Perhaps the most high-profile of these county-level meetings takes place this Saturday at South High School in Denver. There, a contested race for Denver County Democratic Party chair will be held along with other lower-level elections in the county that essentially acts as the nerve center of the party.
Next month, though, will be the biggest one: A race for state party chair. Rick Palacio, who helmed the party for the past six years, is not running again. Morgan Carroll, a well-known former state senate majority leader is campaigning for the top post. (She received money and public support from Sanders during her unsuccessful race against GOP Congressman Mike Coffman of Aurora.)
“I’m very glad to see she is running for state party chair and I wish her the best,” said Shannon Jackson of Our Revolution. “We have not endorsed a candidate for state party chair yet but I could definitely see it being her.”
Also running for state chair is Barbara Jones, who is currently the 2nd vice-chair to the state party. Democrats Scott Brown and Tim Mauk are also running.
After last year’s record-breaking caucuses— and the mixed-bag for Colorado Democrats in the November elections— plugged-in party people are wondering to what extent the Sanders effect and Our Revolution/#DemEnter might have on this year’s reorganization. Also a question: Will the massive turnout for women’s marches around the state following Donald Trump’s inauguration translate into more concrete Democratic involvement? And is a new backlash against Trump sparking more Democrats to get active than enthusiasm for Sanders?
For a state political party, the year after a presidential election can sometimes feel like setting fire to a forest and re-sowing the field. Some Democrats recall 2004 when hardcore progressives energized by the unsuccessful U.S. Senate primary campaign of Mike Miles against Ken Salazar contributed to the ouster of the then-state party chairman because they felt the party elites dissed Miles’ candidacy.
Jenn Gross of Denver, who had been a registered Dem since 1999 and got active in 2004 because of Miles, says she wouldn’t call the Dems who came in with Miles that year a revolution.
“We didn’t have the numbers that are coming in now,” she says. “It was more a joining up than a take over.”
But that Democrat-on-Democrat feud involved two real Democrats. Sanders, who ran for president as a Democrat, is still an Independent in the U.S. Senate, and some of his supporters here might be just freshly Demmed themselves.
“I am glad all these people are getting involved because this is what I did in 2004,” Gross says. She stayed in the party, and she worked hard for Sanders last year.
“I am part of this group that did a version of #DemEnter in 2005,” she says, remembering the excitement of all that new blood. But she hopes this latest #DemEnter doesn’t mean the ouster of good party people who know how to do the hard work to win elections on the road to the 2018 midterm elections and a statewide governor’s race. She is concerned about whether the enthusiasm will hold.
“And without that enthusiasm level you need people from across the scope and breadth of the party involved and engaged,” she says.
There are others who worry about a burn-the-party-down mentality.
“I understand the frustrations of these new party members, but I also know what is at stake,” says Ruscha, the progressive Democratic consultant in Denver who worked for Howard Dean in 2004. She worked for Sanders in Colorado and quickly got behind Clinton at the national convention in Philly.
“All of us were in tears when Sanders moved to nominate Clinton by acclamation … but not everyone wanted to burn the house down,” she said at the time.
She still feels that way now as her party faces county re-org.
“If we start conducting purity tests or ejecting people we don’t get along with, then Donald Trump wins,” she says.
Another thing she has noticed is a lot of the Berniecrats who have come into leadership roles since the convention are white, “pushing out” some minority candidates.
“The DNC members elected at last year’s state convention were Bernie supporters, and they beat out a more diverse group of Hillary-backing candidates of color,” she says. “I am very concerned we are pushing out qualified candidates of color for leadership positions.”
Pat Waak, who chaired the state party here from 2005 to 2011— she came in in the year after Miles’ defeat— has seen new Democratic voters become energized each time a presidential primary rolls through Colorado. She saw it with Howard Dean in 2004 and Obama four years later. Waak, who was a surrogate for Clinton during the latest primary, and hasn’t been closely following what Our Revolution is doing here, says some of the same things some in the #DemEnter movement do. The party is too metro-centric and may have been pulled more toward the center in recent years.
But she warns against putting too much emphasis on the Sanders factor.
“I think it’s dangerous to say this is the #DemEnter group that’s taking over the party,” she says. “I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. I think it’s progressives who are active in the party and who want a different kind of party.”
Meanwhile, there’s a whole new strain of activism bubbling up across Colorado among people who haven’t necessarily been politically active before, she says. You see them among the thousands who showed up to Women’s Marches in cities across the state, the hundreds protesting outside the offices of our federal lawmakers and clogging congressional phone lines.
“It has nothing to do with Bernie Sanders,” Waak says. “It has to do with the fact that we failed in this last [national] election cycle to beat Donald Trump. So they’re angry, they’re scared, and they want to do something about it.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the makeup of the Colorado DNC.
Photo by Michael Vadon for Creative Commons on Flickr.
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