Mult Dems: Leadership undermining democracy in power grab

T.A. Barnhart

What would you think of a public organization that took the following steps?

Actions like these are bad in any public organization, but when that organization is the Multnomah County Democratic Party, proposing changes of this sort is stunning. But that’s exactly what party leadership is asking members to do at Thursday night’s monthly meeting.

Let’s be clear: These proposals are not coming from the rank and file; they are being pushed by a small cadre of insiders with little regard for the party’s long-term viability or public perception. Their goal is to shore up their power and, they hope, their prestige in the party.

Making the Democratic Party less democratic and more authoritarian is a great way to drive away members and further isolate the party from the grassroots. These are the same folks who thought taking $5,000 from an accused (and as yet unacquitted) child rapist was a great idea. And they want to be given absolute power to decide who is ethical enough to serve in a position of party leadership?

Here are some details of what’s being prosposed.

Article VI – Executive Committee, Section 1 – Membership
G. Members who have or who are engaged in illegal or unethical activities as determined by the Administrative Committee will be immediately removed from any and all Party leadership positions and precluded from holding leadership positions in the future. The person in question may not vote on the issue. (entire section to be added)

The Administrative Committee (aka “Admin”) consists of the Chair, two Vice-chairs, Secretary, Treasurer, Communications Officer and Technology Officer. If four of these officers decide, for example, a committee chair had done something unethical, that person could be stripped of that position and would have no say in the matter. Apparently no one else would, either.

Section 3 - Meetings

D. All meetings except that portion of any meeting devoted to the hiring or discipline of paid employees shall be open to the public. The minutes, (except for those portions dealing with personnel or other Party sensitive matters as determined by), including votes on any matter brought before the committee),Executive Committee, shall be available provided to any PCP upon the PCP’s request. (strikeouts are existing language; underlines are proposed additions)

First of all, closing all meetings of the Executive Committee (the “Exec” is all officers, district leaders, and committee chairs) to the public is unacceptable for the Democratic Party. People may rightfully wonder what is being hidden. The Exec’s main job is to plan the party’s course and present those plans to the Central Committee for adoption or modification. Having attended many of these meetings over the years, I find no justification for this proposal. As much as some Mult Dems might want to keep party plans secret from outside scrutiny, secrecy in the Exec is both unwarranted and destructive to the party’s already battered integrity.

Here is what the Admin Committee has forgotten: Neither they nor the Exec are the ultimate authority for the party. Under ORS 248.031, the “county central committee of each major political party is the highest party authority in county party matters”. The Precinct Committee People (PCPs) and not the elected officers or appointed committee chairs are the party’s boss. In addition, ORS 248.004 says that political parties are considered to be nonprofit organizations; party officers are to be treated as officers of a nonprofit corporation. But the “highest party authority” is the body elected and appointed PCPs meeting as a Central Committee.

The Mult Dems Bylaws, in Article I, states that one of the goals of the party is promoting “the positive exchange of ideas through education and debate”. These proposed changes to those Bylaws do not foster debate but erect a wall of secrecy and give unfettered power to a handful of officers.

Hidden in the strike’s & underlines above is a seemingly innocuous change to Section 3: No longer will minutes be posted to the party’s meager website; they will be available only to PCPs, apparently (this is not stated) on request. Again, this begs the question: What is being hidden? What are party leaders so afraid of? Meeting minutes do not (should not, per Robert’s Rules) contain substance of debate but simply an accounting of motions made, votes, etc. This is a bad thing to include on our website, why?

The secrecy extends even further:

Article IX - Central Committee Meetings, Section 2 - Regular meetings
B. All meetings of the Central Committee, its Executive Committee and its standing or special Committees shall be open to the public except as provided in Section 3 of Article VI, above, provided however that only members of the MCDCC may vote, and provided further that debate shall be limited to members unless permitted otherwise by majority vote of the PCPs at the meeting. (this entire section to be removed)
C. Both unauthorized electronic recording and unauthorized electronic transmission of meetings are prohibited. (this entire section to be added)

All meetings of the Mult Dems – all meetings – to be blocked from public access. This includes the media, of course. (The exception is for executive sessions which, given the nature of the party’s structure and business, are rare: we have no employees and little other business requiring any body to meet in executive session – but that did not stop the Exec from doing so recently to discuss campaign policy, in violation of both Robert’s and our Bylaws.)

And the question, of course: Who would authorize recordings or transmission. (The phrase “state-run media” comes to mind.) No information is given regarding the consequences for taking a selfie at a meeting and violating this provision. (Abuse-of-power is another phrase that comes to mind: one person given authority to record and not another.)

This may sound over-dramatic to some, but this leadership group has already taken steps to enforce their authority at Central Committee meetings, in violation of our Bylaws and the historical spirit of our great party.

At the October 2015 Central Committee meeting, several of us wanted to make a final attempt to reject the $5,000 donation from Terry Bean, based on the possibility that he is guilty and that associating ourselves with an accused (and, as I said, unacquitted) child rapist was a poor idea. I made a motion to this effect, which was then seconded; I did so after being called on by the Chair during New Business. The Chair, Lorraine Van Hoe, who had minutes before given a ten-minute lecture on the necessity of accepting that donation (in short: the case was dismissed so the party has a moral obligation to accept the money) threw aside all parliamentary procedure and ignored the motion, allowing those of us trying to move to debate to be shouted down by her supporters.

Here’s the kicker: She had two sergeants-at-arms ready and waiting, something the Bylaws do not authorize, and those two were ready to “escort” out PCPs the Chair deemed to be disruptive. Since it was clear that my motion was going to ignored, in complete disregard for proper procedure, I decided to make my feelings clear. I left, but not quietly. I was accompanied by six other very unhappy Dems, including one District leader. The sergeants-at-arms seemed not the least bit embarrassed that they were enforcing several violations of the rules.

The Admin Committee, the elected leadership, has failed the party in so many ways:

Yet they were able to have people ready to kick out people the Chair deemed to be disruptive? And this is an organization with the word “democratic” in its name?

These Bylaw changes are scheduled to be voted on Thursday night at the monthly Central Committee meeting (7pm, Mult Dems HQ, 3551 SE Sandy Blvd). Few Democratic PCPs even bother to show up to these meetings any more; attendance is about 40-60, and falling. Those who do show up tend to be well-disposed toward this leadership group; those who are not supportive have simply given up for now. Many people have been badly treated over the past two years since Lakeitha Elliott was elected as Chair and then driven from that office by a relentless program of abuse and obstruction. The only time an elected Democrat shows up is when she or he has been invited to speak or wants to garner specific support for an event or campaign.

The Multnomah County Democratic Party is a mess, and it’s heading towards terminal. These proposed Bylaw changes make crystal clear why: rather than party-building and working in the community to promote progressive change, a few people in leadership and their supporters are seeking to shore up personal power and crush opposition. I am not being hyperbolic, as the substance of the proposed Bylaws amendments should make clear.

Thankfully, actual Democrats in the community have different attitudes. In my district, House District 47, under district leader Sam Kahl and with the leadership of several grassroots Democrats, we recently co-hosted an event with the Rosewood Initiative that connected 150 community members with health care services and service agencies, not to mention pizza, crafts for the kids, and entertainment. We will be holding similiar events every six months, as well as working to invite more members of the community into the party – despite the challenges presented by our elected leadership.

I know that I am going to be accused of sour grapes: I lost the election for party chair earlier this year. I’m cool with that; those who actually know me know better. I have tried to keep my own issues with certain of the party officers, past and present, tamped down; not the easiest thing to do, but I do admit these exist. I hate having to make this kind of thing public and have resisted doing so for months. But push will come to shove Thursday evening, and those of us who believe that the Democratic Party should be fully democratic, and not just when convenient, will be taking a stand.

I invite elected Democrats in our county who would rather not be embarrassed by these kinds of Bylaw changes to join us. Come and place yourself against these proposals (some of which, by the way, are worthy of consideration, but those tend to be technical issues). Like it or not, we are your party. Your 2016 candidacy is as representative of this party. You need to step up and help us avoid tarnishing you with a descent into anti-democratic authoritarianism.

As do all PCPs, including those made angry and bitter over the past two years. I know many of you, and I know how angry you are that Republicans have gained so much power in this country because Democrats don’t turn out to vote. Don’t make the same mistake here at home, regardless of your personal feelings. You are needed one more time; step up and take a stand for democracy in your own party.

Article VI proposed changes

Article VIII proposed changes

Article IX proposed changes

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