The revolution is back in business.
Supporters of Bernie Sanders’ failed presidential bid are seizing on Democratic disarray at the national level to launch a wave of challenges to Democratic Party leaders in the states.
The goal is to replace party officials in states where Sanders defeated Hillary Clinton during the acrimonious Democratic primary with more progressive leadership. But the challenges also represent a reckoning for state party leaders who, in many cases, tacitly supported Clinton’s bid.
“I think the Bernie people feel very strongly that they were abused, somehow neglected during the primary process and the conventions,” said Severin Beliveau, a former Maine Democratic Party chairman who supported Sanders in the primary. “In Maine, for instance, where Bernie got 70 percent of the caucus vote, they are emboldened and in effect want to try to replace [Maine Democratic Party chairman] Phil Bartlett, who supported Clinton.”
It only took one day after the presidential election for Maine state Rep. Diane Russell, an outspoken Sanders supporter who helped spearhead a push to change how the state allocates its superdelegates, to announce her plans to challenge Bartlett. Russell, whose superdelegate reform effort was sparked by frustration over the fact that a majority of Maine’s superdelegates backed Clinton despite Sanders’ dominance in the state’s caucuses, is positioning herself as a liberal alternative to Bartlett.
In Wisconsin, Democrats are quietly predicting that the party chair will face a challenger who will hold incumbent chairwoman Martha Laning to account for why Clinton lost the state. Laning cast her vote as a superdelegate for Clinton — in a state where Sanders won the primary by a wide margin.
Wisconsin Democratic National Committee member Jason Rae, who previously challenged Laning himself, said it’s unclear who will run but noted the state party has a tradition of contested contests.
“We haven’t really had a state chair election in Wisconsin that’s been unopposed. There have been very few years where it’s been unopposed anyway, even when we’ve won everything,” said Rae.
The movement outside Washington to install new leadership — especially new leaders whose progressive credentials include support for Sanders’ presidential bid — mirrors the battle in the nation’s capital for the Democratic National Committee chairmanship in the wake of the devastating Clinton defeat and congressional elections where Democrats failed to win back either the House or the Senate. Sanders has endorsed Rep. Keith Ellison, leading House progressive and a prominent backer of his presidential campaign, to be the next permanent DNC chairman.
In Wisconsin, the hunger for fresh leadership comes after an election where the state voted for a Republican for president for the first time in 32 years, and Democrats failed to knock off Ron Johnson, widely considered one of the nation’s most vulnerable Republican senators.
“I think she’s going to have a heck of a difficult time getting reelected and I’m wondering if there’s even a chance that she doesn’t run again. She just suffered the largest defeat in Democratic Party history,” said a former top Wisconsin Democratic Party official of Laning. “I think that any time that happens there are a lot of people who for rational or occasionally irrational reasons want to wipe the slate clean.”
In Nebraska, another state where the Vermont senator defeated Clinton in the caucuses, the upheaval took place in June, not long after the state caucuses. Prominent Sanders supporter Jane Kleeb doesn’t actually take office until December but she’s already taking steps to overhaul the party by bringing in Sanders activists and supporters.
So far, the incoming chairman’s focus has been to replace lobbyists and centrist donors with activist liberals. Kleeb said 70 percent of her appointments are Sanders supporters.
“I’ve already made my appointments and I think that’s to the disappointment of some traditional Democrats,” she said, pointing to the Sanders backers she brought in to party committees, and one to serve as an associate chairman of the state party.
Hawaii Democrats also installed a new Sanders-connected state chairman, Tim Vandeveer, in the months after Sanders decisively defeated Clinton in the state’s March caucuses. A liberal activist and outspoken Sanders supporter, Vandeveer said since Trump’s win on Tuesday he’s focused on re-calibrating his party there and wanted his party to lean more on its backbone, organized labor.
“I mean, without laying blame, and I’ve seen a thousand different sources laying blame at the feet of a thousand different people, we have to recognize that what we did in this last election didn’t work. Whatever the reason, whatever the reason it didn’t work,” Vandeveer said. “We have a model, it wasn’t invented by Bernie Sanders but was certainly utilized by Bernie Sanders, of organizing and appealing to the frustrations of working class voters that did work in some of the most progressive states in our country, the traditional Democratic states, which Secretary Clinton unfortunately did not carry. And that model needs, in my opinion, to come to the fore once again. Because Democrats have got to find their mojo and people right now are scared.”
The plan, Vandeveer said, is to work more on organizing with labor unions and move toward the Sanders model of fundraising.
“I think we’ve got to do what I just said, which is organize, start training our people, start being more transparent with the way we’re funding our party and it means returning our funding by and large to grassroots donations,” he said. “And that’s not an ideological thing. That, in my mind, is something that makes good financial sense because the party in my opinion has been a series of peaks and valleys financially.”
On Wednesday Vandeveer joined a call hosted by the Association of State Democratic Chairs to discuss where to go next after the election. The wide-ranging call included a discussion on how to reinvigorate their parties in the states as Democrats look to overhaul the DNC in Washington.
“We’re talking about next steps as far as what the structure of the party looks like. We just started to begin the discussion yesterday about the future of the DNC,” Vandeveer said of the call. “But folks know that something’s gotta give and people in the party have got to trust our DNC and that’s not something that by and large the membership has right now, especially the folks that came out of the Bernie Sanders camp.”
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