Thursday, January 26, 2012

EDITORIAL: Is It Time To Reform the California Democratic Party Endorsement Process?

In a word, yes. Yes it is.

Last night I had the "pleasure" of witnessing the end result of the most divisive and arcane political process the California Democratic Party has to offer - the local Democratic Club endorsement meeting.

As candidate Torie Osborn won her 8th club endorsement for the 50th Assembly District - this time from the West Hollywood/Beverly Hills Democratic club - supporters of her opponent Betsy Butler immediately descended on reporters in the room, claiming Osborn had cheated by "packing" the room with new members. Supporter (and Mayor of West Hollywood) John Duran was so incensed he stormed out of the room yelling "Bullshit!" at Osborn, saying "West Hollywood would not forget."

It's a claim Butler and her supporters have made repeatedly since the first endorsement meeting in Malibu - that Osborn's campaign had cheated by organizing - and sometimes even paying for - new members to join local Democratic clubs for the sole purpose of voting in endorsement meetings.

And some members of these clubs aren't happy either, believing this practice dilutes their endorsement by taking it out of the hands of local activists.

However, the reality is Osborn's campaign and her supporters followed club rules to the letter. Most clubs have deadlines for registration (usually 30 days before an endorsement meeting), but almost none of them have residency or attendance requirements. And club treasurers happily deposit new member's checks - whether that check comes from a single supporter or individually, from the new members themselves.

On their part, Osborn's supporters say they had to move aggressively to seek the support of local clubs because of Sacramento's outside influence and interest in the race. Assembly Speaker John Perez publicly backs Butler, and reportedly secured forty-two out of the sixty-four delegate votes Butler received at the CDP's pre-endoresment meeting by "borrowing" them from assembly members in districts as far away as San Francisco and Riverside.

Butler won 57% in that endorsement meeting, sending the recommendation for another vote at the yearly CDP convention in San Diego. It's widely believed Osborn will be unable to block the final endorsement.

Are these practices unfair? Do they reward the candidate who's best able to "game" the system? Yes. Absolutely.

But under CDP rules, neither of these candidates are cheating.

And that's the problem. To the layman, club and party endorsements are assumed to mean that local activists have weighed the merits of each candidate and chosen one through a democratic consensus process. But club and CDP rules often produce the opposite result, with candidates winning endorsements by strategically utilizing those rules, as well as existing political connections to produce the desired result.

With our state's new "top two" primary system, where two Democrats could end up running against each other in the general election, the integrity of the CDP and local club endorsements is very much in doubt.

So how do we fix this?

It has to start at the top. At a minimum, politicians from other areas should not be allowed to "lend" their delegates to candidates in CDP pre-endorsement caucuses. Both the delegates themselves and the politicians controlling the delegate assignments should be local to that election's district.

At the club level, clubs could require each member register and pay for their own memberships (the Santa Monica Democratic club requires this for instance). They could also require that members be registered Democrats within a certain geographical area. Or they could require members attend a certain number of meetings in advance of an endorsement vote. The clubs have many ways to skin this same cat.

But until that happens, it's a fool's errand to blame candidates for using the existing rules to gain competitive advantage.

Unless the California Democratic Party gets serious about reforming the endorsement system, the party risks endangering the integrity of the Democratic "brand" in this state, confirming the worst fears of a cynical and disengaged electorate that already believes our political system is broken and unresponsive.

We have a chance to fix this, but we need to do this, and we need to do it now.


  1. The idea that local Parties and activists might have a better idea of who would make a good candidate in their district than Sacramento is all too shocking to some.

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  3. I concur with Marta that the local clubs make the rules and having an open membership is just part of many clubs' processes. If their members have a problem with the rules, they can always vote to change them.

    This reality has always been a campaign strategy to go after local Dem club endorsements by out-organizing your opponents, and I don't see anything wrong with that. As long as the rules remain open to new members from outside the area, then I believe it's a great strategy on behalf of candidates. It's also very telling to see which candidates have the biggest grassroots momentum and commitment from their supporters.

    Some candidates will always feel entitled and just be sore losers.

    L.J. Carusone