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A week from tonight, the 60 or so voting members of the Democratic Party of Orange County will gather (along with many of their alternates, interested onlookers, and the local press) in Orange to choose the next Chair of the County Party. We can’t really go wrong: the two announced candidates, Jeff LeTourneau and Henry Vandermeir, are both great choices to replace legendary party leader Frank Barbaro. Frank had (I’m told by various sources) felt ready to step down for a while now — he has spent twelve straight wearying years as Chair — but he hesitated to do so until he could count on having a worthy successor. He’s now gotten that wish — times two.
Some political people like little better in life than a competitive primary — which is what this race feels like. Personally, I hate primaries. Give me ten general elections (old-style, between members of different parties) or fifty issue-based battles rather than one primary between two deserving candidates. Primaries seem to bring out the worst in people. Like our Civil War, they tend to be especially tragic not only for the body count, but because of the way they set brother against brother — fracturing bonds between people who, by and large, want the same sorts of things. The 2008 race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is a prime examples of that — two fine candidates whose positions were close to identical, leaving their supporters to fight all the harder over the smallest of differences. Primaries — I hate them. Yet here we are. It’s going to be a rough week.
The Two Candidates
Jeff is the former Chair, for 15 years, of ECCOPAC – one of California’s oldest LGBT Political Action Committees. (Just to be make sure that everyone understands, that stands for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered.” There could also be an I, one or two Qs, and maybe more, but we’ll save those for the advanced class.) It describes its function as monitoring “all legislative issues that may have a direct or indirect impact on our community” and providing “a potent political voice for hundreds of thousands of individuals throughout the country.” If it sounds simple and straightforward, it’s not — it’s a pretty awesome qualification. Jeff took an organization that was deeply divided on strategy and tactics and was dealing with concrete life-and-death issues as well as existential civil rights issues — and he held it together. He raised $2 million for them. People on all sides love and respect him. That sort of leadership success is — well, it’s unusual.
During his tenure, Jeff headed an organization in the middle of the battle for LGBT rights since the mid-’90s, when the pushback against gay rights looked like it actually might lead to a Federal Marriage Amendment denying civil rights to gays and lesbians, which was headed off by the now-antiquated “Defense of Marriage Act” now coming before the Supreme Court — all the way through to the successes of this decade. (Like many civil rights activists, he’s also been beaten for the stances he’s taken. Few are as lucky as he, though, to see so much progress in such a short time.) Jeff has also been a longtime labor activist — and for the past year the DPOC Parliamentarian, brought in to help smooth some of the conflicts within that body (which I may or may not have been involved in creating.)
Henry has been Chair since 2007 of the California Democratic Council (the umbrella organization for the state’s Democratic clubs) and is generally credited with revitalizing the organization that began in the 1950s, traveling up and down the state as a sort of Johnny Appleseed of best party activism practices. (I mean that in the most positive way possible.) Henry has been the County’s main proponent of a new model of community-based political organizing that has now turned San Diego Democratic — and has twice run for a position on the Democratic National Committee on a platform of representation for “red counties” in our delegation. He lost both times in statewide votes, despite strong OC support, after strong and impressive campaigns.
Since 2010, Henry has been Executive Director of the Democratic Foundation of Orange County, which is the Democrats’ attempted counterpart to the Republican’s powerful Lincoln Club. The DFOC holds events, sponsors candidate training, but its reason for being is to “develop financial resources to support an active & effective Democratic Party in Orange County.” I’ve heard it described as the “organization of Democrats who can afford to belong to the DFOC.” That’s not really fair — it has a more diverse membership than just high rollers — and in any event anyone who thinks that the support of people who can afford such political membership is unimportant just hasn’t been paying attention. (My sense is that the DFOC skews substantially more moderate-to-conservative than the DPOC Central Committee; I don’t know that Henry would agree. In any event, he’s a solid progressive.)
From the Democratic standpoint, this is not a choice between good and bad. This is a choice between two of the best, hard-working activists that we have. I’ve seen public yearning for Co-Chairs, which our By-Laws don’t allow, but my own belief that something functionally like that is both possible and preferable underlies my support of Jeff.
Declaration of Interests
I’ll declare my interests up front. First, I’m a candidate for the North Regional Vice-Chair position (one that covers most of the territory for which I just ran for State Senate) — but that does not affect my decision. (Rationally, that should counsel me to just shut up and smile at everyone, but frequent readers know that I’m not like that.) Second, I’m supporting Jeff LeTourneau for Chair, because he’s one of a small handful of people (which does not include myself) that I would prefer to Henry Vandermeir. In my view, Henry’s really good — but Jeff’s really better, at least for this position. That’s no knock on Henry: I’ve supported Henry for DNC both times he ran and, regardless of how things turn out, intend to do so again until he’s elected.
I’ll disclose something else here too: my taking this position is personally awkward for me. Henry had entered the DPOC Chair race early to demonstrate that there was a viable alternative to Frank Barbaro — and to beat him one-on-one if need be. While I consider Frank to be a heroic figure in the Party, this was the right time for such a challenge and Henry was a worthy figure to raise the banner. Last spring, as I recall, I told Henry Vandermeir that I either would support him, or expected to support him, or would support him over Frank, for Party Chair.
I don’t recall which of the above expressions of support I offered early last year — and I don’t much think it matters. Obviously, when Jeff came into the race, I took a deep breath and changed my mind. My feeling is this: my responsibility is not to what benefits me or maintains a record for solid consistency in endorsements. My responsibility is to support what I think is best for the party. If Supreme Court Justices can change their position on a 5-4 case at almost the last minute, because further deliberation leads them to think that it’s the right choice, I can surely change my mind when a new candidate shows up if I think that that candidate is better for the party.
My responsibility to the party is to choose the best option now available, not to honor a choice I made back when I expected the race to be between Henry and Frank. I hope that back then I expressed my support for Henry as being contingent — and I respect it, because at that time it wasn’t clear that Frank would choose to step down — but even if I didn’t couch my support that way my desire for consistency has to be secondary. I’m not part of the Central Committee to protect my reputation for never wavering from an opinion once-expressed; I’m there to do what’s best for the DPOC. It’s not about me, or about Henry, or about Jeff — it’s about the DPOC.
Whether committee members who supported Henry’s insurgent campaign against Frank now feel constrained to support him against a very different opponent is probably, in my opinion, the key to deciding who wins next Monday. It’s hard to say “that was then, this is now” to someone after having initially supported them. I think, though, it’s our job to be willing to do so if the situation warrants rather than to be bound by what was a different decision in different circumstances.
Does the situation call for such a change, though? For the rest of the week, we’ll think it through out here in the open. And I’ll admit up front not only that reasonable people can disagree on this, but that they are disagreeing.
The Parts of the Party
For those who have been wondering, as I’m sure you all have, here is a brief description of the “working parts” of the DPOC. (Feel welcome to skip this if you already know it or aren’t interested in it and just want to get to the juicy stuff.)
Like most non-profits of its size, the County Party has both a Board of Directors (its Central Committee) to decide on policy and an Executive Staff to implement it. (Obviously, implementation involves making decisions and directors are encouraged to help with implementation, so the lines aren’t all that crisp.) For a long time, the DPOC had only unpaid volunteers on the executive side. Last decade it hired Mike Lawson as an Executive Director, who was followed by Melahat Rafiei. Henry Vandermeir took over on an interim basis when Melahat left, but was denied the permanent appointment in early 2010, when it went instead to Gerrie Schipske. Schipske resigned in the summer of 2011 when, not to put too fine a point on it, DPOC could not longer afford her contract.
That summer was an extremely dark budgetary time for DPOC — so much so that the Kinde Durkee embezzlement hit us far less badly than most — and gives occasion to note Frank Barbaro’s apparently least favorite, but also most irreplaceable part of his role as Chair: time and time again, he bailed out the party financially out of his personal funds. (Neither Jeff nor Henry will be able to do that.) Frank’s critics, sometimes me included, should appreciate that it’s no exaggeration to say that he saved the County Party far more than once. Nick Anas was brought in as an Interim Executive Director at the beginning of 2012 and over the course of the last year gradually shed the “Interim” label. The DPOC has also had paid Political Directors, who are to focus less on its administration and more exclusively on registering voters, maintaining contact with them, organizing them, and winning elections. (This is where Henry’s experience and his plans shine brightest. Many of you can probably guess where I’m going with this.) Marti Schrank has been the Party’s Volunteer Coordinator for decades, various Committees help with projects, and each summer (except for the bummer of 2011) local students and others become volunteer interns.
On the “directors” side, the Central Committee selects 14 people (7 officers and 7 Assembly District reps) to sit on its Executive Board, or E-Board. They manage DPOC operations in matters that can’t wait for a monthly Central Committee meeting. The Chair has additional discretion beyond that to take urgent actions and, if desired, can firmly implant a mark on the organization, largely through controlling who chairs and sits on which committees.
Some “parts” of the DPOC are also not really part of the DPOC at all, but of its environment. These include (in part):
- the state (and to a lesser extent national) parties
- the DFOC (described above)
- the Orange County Young Democrats, recently voted the strongest chapter in California
- environmentalist, civil rights, and other liberal activist organizations
The full story of what’s going on here, which I’ll continue tomorrow, will involve looking at all of these parts and seeing how they would best operate as a whole. That, though, is enough for now.