Democracy, Drama, and the Ann Arbor Democrats
Family squabbles are never lovely, and the Ann Arbor Democrats are having one with all the usual melodrama, finger-pointing, and striving for dominance that these usually entail.
The blog A2Politico, with its usual flair for drama and color, has a rendering of part of the fight. The tip of the conflict iceberg surfaced with an email sent on October 5 by current AADems chair Conan Smith, who is also currently representing District 10, NW Ann Arbor, on the Board of Commissioners. The email’s purpose was to announce the October 10 meeting. For the knowledgeable, there were several red flags in it.
Smith ran for party chair last fall and won against retiring council member Joan Lowenstein. His move at the time was widely seen as being related to his interest in running for Mayor in 2010. Since then, he has made several attempts at reorganization of the city party, including changes in the way email notifications to members are delivered and a slate of officers who appear to be from a different party faction than those who served with former party chair Tim Colenback. I have not attended meetings but have heard various complaints and accusations. I can’t verify any of them one way or another but the resolution on the agenda directing one officer to deliver party materials to another was a clear sign of trouble. As summarized in the first email, it was “A resolution to ensure the smooth transfer of power between officers is offered, directing the current Vice Chair for Organizing to provide access to and control over the Party’s web domain, aadems.org, to the current Vice Chair of Communications within the coming week.” (This conflict is spelled out in detail by A2Politico.)
I’m not going to try to adjudicate the claims and counterclaims in this matter, but the first thing that hit me was that any organization that has to rectify internal conflicts via a public resolution is in trouble. These matters should be resolved within the Executive Committee and one job of the chair is to prevail in such internal arguments.
Who is a member? And who is an “Ann Arbor Democrat”?
Two other items on the agenda concerned me more. They are bylaws changes that would allow the AADems to endorse in primaries, and to restrict who may vote at meetings. These go to the very heart of the identity of the party and to its role in the political process.
First, as to the status of this group as the “Democratic Party”. Technically, the AADems is a club, not part of the official Democratic Party. That position is held by the Washtenaw County Democratic Party. You will see the Ann Arbor group listed as the “Ann Arbor Democratic Club”. The WCDP is part of the nationwide Democratic Party organization that ultimately sends delegates to the nominating convention to select our Presidential candidates. To participate in the Democratic Party as an official organization, one must join the Michigan Democratic Party. By paying modest dues and attending the County Convention, one may vote on resolutions and for delegates to district conventions. (There is also an election of precinct delegates on the Democratic Primary ballot.) Through this organization, members of the State Central Committee are chosen. This is the real mechanism of the party operation.
First, some disclosure about my own history. I’ve been a “member” (more on that later) of the AADems since 1986, when I first arrived in Ann Arbor. I was fresh from heavy political involvement in San Diego County, where I was the president of a Democratic club and a state convention delegate. I immediately became involved in a couple of local races, Don Grimes’ campaign for US Congress (yes, the economist), and Seth Hirshorn’s second term on council. (Both failed.) And I got to know party members and to be involved right away, subsequently becoming Second Ward Chair for the 1992 election. Since then I’ve served 8 years as a county commissioner, stepping down in 2004, and ran for city council in 2008. Conan Smith ran a primary against me for my county commissioner seat in 2002 (I won) and endorsed my opponent for council (I lost).
So what is the purpose of the AADems? It was formed to elect Democrats to the Ann Arbor City council. It also has served as a grassroots organizing network and an opportunity to discuss issues that are important locally (but also to express opinions on important state and national issues). It has a Ward-based organization (see the website) that originally served to put together a field organization for elections. In the days before email and websites, much work in elections was done by foot. When I was the Second Ward chair, I made days and days of phone calls to find workers in each precinct who would carry literature and make phone calls to voters. We carried literature for our state candidates and for Bill Clinton in his winning Presidential (general) election. So the local club also served as an arm of the Party, often coordinating with campaign chairs through a headquarters that drew county and city party members and candidates together, especially in Presidential years. It also maintained a sophisticated computer file of voting behavior of local voters long before those became available commercially.
But the first job was electing Democrats to council and as mayor. As we have noted, these races were competitive until about 2000. The AADems raised money to put up advertisements for Democratic candidates and often published “slate” style advertisements for all Dems running for council seats. Sometimes campaigns were even given a direct donation. Party members were a tight-knit social group and dedicated workers. For example, members sold hot dogs at Crisler Arena for many years to support the effort. The in-group recruited candidates and sometimes discouraged others from running, avoiding primaries in many cases in order to focus firepower on the Republicans. One of the prizes for being the Democratic candidate was being given a copy of the “activist list”, the contact list for all the active workers. It was the job of the ward chairs to keep this current, and it was invaluable both for fundraising and for workers. The party voter list products were also made available to nominees.
But this happy mechanism was in a sense a victim of its own success. Over time, some candidates developed strong campaign organizations that did not refer to the party apparatus. As we described earlier, after John Hieftje was successfully elected mayor as a Democrat, the council became a Democratic monolith and there was little electoral competition. It has only been in recent years that such competition has returned – in primaries. Because the party organization was prohibited from endorsing primary candidates, it was effectively sidelined. It was probably in frustration with this situation that Progressives of Washtenaw (whose website seems to have evaporated) was formed. Tim Colenback was a member of this organization and is the originator of the resolution on the October 12 agenda enabling the AADems to endorse in primaries. Not on the agenda, but a possibility given such endorsements, is that the AADems might then also raise money for those primary candidates. Smith is on record as favoring such a concept.
But if the AADems begins choosing candidates to win primaries, they are essentially attempting to bypass the electoral process. In other words, they are attempting to substitute the club’s judgment for that of the voters. The point of primaries, after all, is to choose the party’s nominee. Parties may also choose nominees by caucus or convention, but that is not our system.
Pair that with the other suggested bylaws amendment, and the endorsement mechanism is even more troubling. As summarized by the email, “The second would restrict voting on party issues to individuals who have attended three of the last six meetings and would require the party secretary to maintain a more strict attendance record.” (My emphasis.) In other words, only the small group of people who attend regularly would be able to make the endorsements. It suggests that the decision of who the “real Democrat” is in a primary would be made by a very insular group.
We often like to say that we are “small d” as well as “big D” Democrats. In other words, democrats (supporting democracy) as well as party members (supporting the goals and ideals of the Democratic Party). I don’t know whether it can be argued that this bylaws change is big D or not, but it is certainly not small d. The very nature of electoral politics should be that one has to make one’s case to the voters at large.
The bylaws change is especially troubling given the history of the AADems. For many years there have been loud voices raised in protest every time any suggestion of a membership requirement was raised. Unlike the Washtenaw Democratic Party, membership has never been required for voting. The theory is that all Ann Arbor residents are members by virtue of just showing up. (Oddly, the bylaws amendment also brings in people from the townships.) Of course, this means that any faction or interest group can muster numbers to swamp a vote at a particular meeting, but that’s always the way it has been. So this bylaws amendment, which is much more restrictive, flies in the face of a strong tradition.
I would propose that if some better regularization of status is needed, the AADems should install a membership system, whereby one signs an affidavit that one wishes to join the Ann Arbor Democratic Party. It could even be renewable with an optional dues payment each year, and membership prior to a particular meeting could be required in order to vote. That would allow the group to maintain a buffer against a mob action.
I haven’t attended meetings for quite a while, but I would be very sad if any of these resolutions pass. I believe that they will make the AADems finally irrelevant in Ann Arbor politics.
UPDATE: A source who was at the meeting reports that the matter regarding the control of the website was referred to the Executive Committee (who evidently had not been given a chance to address it previously).
The two resolutions regarding voting rights and endorsements were defeated. Another resolution that rescinded a previous bylaw change so that no matters of substance could be considered by the Party during the summer months was tabled.
New elections for party officers will be held in the next couple of months.