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Opening the oligarchy

By Jesse Gordon / Commentary
Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Last year in this space, I described the Democratic caucuses as "a well-hidden exercise in democracy." Hard to believe, but this year, the caucus process has become even more well-hidden. Nevertheless, with sufficient diligence, you can beat down the doors of the Democratic Party and insist that they let you in. And if enough of us do exactly that, we can change the rules this year so that next year new people will find a more open door and won't have to beat so hard. Here's how.

This year, the caucuses will be held on Feb. 8. The Cambridge caucus is at 2:15 p.m. at the Senior Center at 806 Mass Ave. (across from City Hall). But you have to register as a Democrat by today if you want to attend. Last year, you could register one day before the caucus and still attend. This year, the Dems require that you register 40 days before the caucuses.

The astonishing thing is that while making it much harder to involve new people and unenrolled voters, the Dems wonder why they are not reaching new people and unenrolled voters. They wonder this officially - there's a new committee co-chaired by Cambridge's new state senator-elect, Jarrett Barrios, to address exactly that issue. There's also a committee co-chaired by former Gov. Dukakis to address reforming the convention and the caucus rules, which certainly could include the 40-day registration rule, except Dukakis won't come to any conclusions until well after the Dec. 31 deadline. So officially, the Dems care about this issue very much.

Yet at the Democratic Party meeting where the 40-day rule change was introduced, the party insiders cheered (and did not cheer for any other rule changes). When I tried to re-open discussion on the rule change, I found no party members willing to support me enough to even bring it up for discussion. A party member sympathetic to my frustration said, "The Democratic Party is an oligarchy, and these are the oligarchs."

I pointed out to one of the 40-day rule's authors that Robert Reich announced his candidacy last year well after the 40-day cutoff, and many of Reich's delegates last year were recruited and registered as Democrats within a week or two of the caucus. I summarized to her, "Reich would not have been able to run last year if this rule were in effect." She responded, "That's right!" It's not relevant, evidently, that Reich got 26 percent of the primary vote and brought thousands of new people into the Democratic Party. She further opined, "People who want to participate in the Democratic Party should announce themselves as Democrats!"

That's how oligarchs think - they're the insiders, and the outsiders should come to them under their terms, or not at all. Oligarchs think that the reason the Democratic Party lost the governor's race is because the electorate needs to be educated about how the Democratic Party represents them, instead of the Democratic Party listening to the electorate. It's time that we, the electorate, told the oligarchs that their party is over, and we're here to take it back from them. We can do that by flooding the caucuses with new people, and voting them out.

The February caucuses will elect delegates to the Democratic Issues Convention (last year's caucus was for the Nominating Convention). An Issues Convention writes the party platform, which defines the official party line for the next two years. The party platform is mostly symbolic, so not very many people will run as delegates this year. If you attend the caucus with a dozen of your friends, you'll likely get elected as a delegate. Despite the symbolic nature of the platform, it is an important symbol within the party. Strong attendance by new delegates will let the party insiders know that it's time to change and time to yield to new blood. Many in the party already know that, but don't know how to do it, because they're the old blood.

We're lucky in Cambridge because we have a relatively open process compared to many cities and towns in Massachusetts. Many towns don't have a location yet for their caucus, and you have to stay on top of things just to figure out when and where to go. Identifying the person responsible for each ward caucus in Boston seems to be one of the most closely-held secrets in the Democratic Party - some might say that this is the means by which Mayor Menino maintains his party power. Perhaps if we do it right in Cambridge, we can shame our cross-river brethren into opening up their process too.

What's the other side of the story? I've heard several rationales. First, "the Issues Convention always has earlier registration than the Nominating Convention." There's no particular reason to do that, and there's absolutely no reason to make the deadline the week after Christmas, when no one except party insiders is thinking about February caucuses. If the Dems wanted some plausible time frame, they could pick a 20-day registration period, like the commonwealth requires for the general election. Forty days makes no sense, except to keep outsiders out.

Second rationale: "City clerks have a hard time with one-day-prior registration." My response is, "tough luck" - that's their job. They could ask for volunteers to assist, and I would be the first in line - there are whole organizations dedicated to that sort of voter registration. Town clerks don't ask for help because they don't really need the help - it's just a pretext to keep the outsiders out again.

Third rationale: "In the past we've had 90-day registration requirements, so the 40-day rule is a compromise." My response is that relying on bad precedents to make bad new rules is bad policy. Indeed, the 40-day rule sets more bad precedent for the future, and on those grounds alone I oppose it. It will be harder to re-establish the one-day rule in 2004 because of the current 40-day rule.

It's too late to change the 40-day rule for this convention. But you can register by Dec. 31, then attend the caucus and hence play within the rules. And you can complain about the Dems failing to open up the process to participation. Dukakis' committee on convention reform will be holding hearings across the state over the next several months, open to the public and seeking public input on issues like this. The Cambridge Democrats' Web site at www.CambridgeDems.org will post when meetings are scheduled.

Jesse Gordon is a member of the Dukakis-McGovern Committee on Convention Reform and an associate member of the Cambridge Democratic City Committee. He can be reached at jesse@CambridgeDems.org.


POSTSCRIPT: (written after the CRC drew its conclusions and not published):

The Convention Reform Commission included a recommendation to remove the 40-day pre-registration rule for future conventions. When Jesse raised this issue at the appropriate CRC meeting, on the grounds that the 40-day rule excludes candidates like Reich because he appealed primarily to unenrolled voters who would be unaware of the caucus system, Gov. Dukakis commented, "Why would the Democratic Party ever want to exclude people like Reich?" Rep. Jim McGovern also expressed support of the rule change, and the CRC voted to recommend it.

The CRC's recommendations went to the Democratic State Committee in the spring of 2004, with 16 recommendations. The DSC voted to reject this rule, but approved almost all of the other recommendations. Jesse was barred from speaking to the DSC in favor of the recommendation, even though he pointed out that he was its author, and that 3 DSC members who spoke against the recommendation presented arguments that had already been refuted in the CRC discussion. The Democratic Party Rules Committee will revisit the final rules and decide which ones to implement, sometime later in 2004. Jesse appeared at a Rules Committee meeting and was barred from entering the meeting, despite that the Party Charter claims that all meetings are open to the public. His intent was to offer a compromise rule, where people registered as unenrolled could attend the caucuses on a 1-day registration change, whereas those registered as Republican or Green would have to follow the 40-day rule.

As of Sept. 2004, there has still been no opportunity to present this compromise. Jesse has formally asked the Massachusetts Democratic Party for notification of future Rules Committee meetings, as well as for a formal ruling on whether Rules Committee meetings are open to the public. No reply has come.

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