DPOC Chair Election Week: 2. Henry Vandermeir’s Dual Roles at DPOC and DFOC

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As I’ve written before, I consider Henry Vandermeir, Jeff LeTourneau’s competition for the position of Chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County (DPOC), to be one of our best minds in the county when it comes to strategies and tactics in election campaigns.  One good strategy in a campaign is to throw the opponent off of their stride and put them on the defensive.  Well, Henry threw me off of my stride this morning and put me on the defensive — again, that’s just good politics! — so now I get to write something that I have not wanted to write at all (and certainly not right now.)

Disclosure: As I wrote yesterday, I support Jeff and myself am a candidate for one of the four Vice Chair positions.  Given a sharply worded e-mail that I and other committee members received today, though — which I will characterize but will not quote (except in some ways that I think are pretty objectively benign) — I feel that a response is appropriate.  It might as well be a public response because this is a matter of public interest (and none of what I have to write about is secret from our Republican opponents anyway.)  I believe in fair play and “equal space,” so unless Vern objects (and I doubt he will) I offer Henry the opportunity to have someone associated with his campaign post articles here over the next week rebutting what I have to say — with one proviso.  I have not told Jeff LeTourneau (or anyone else associated with his campaign) that I’m writing this, nor have I sought his permission or cleared its contents with anyone, directly or through a cutout.  If Henry tells me that he’ll operate by the same rules, I’ll trust his word.

“Chair” is a Verb

While I like Henry very much, I support his opponent Jeff LeTourneau, because I think that there is more to the position of Chair than generating election campaigns — in fact, that’s as much or more an executive function of a county party than a Board function, ideally managed by an Executive Director and Political Director and overseen by a Chair and Board, than a function of a Chair itself.  Here’s a list — though as you’ll see it gets more complicated than that.  (I believe, as Henry may not, that different Chairs in different environments will be able (and sometimes be forced) to do different sorts of things.  The well-established Chair of a wealthy and highly Democratic county with a intensive and extensive history of Democratic activism like Los Angeles will have different sorts of abilities — and assistance — than a Chair of a wealthy county like Orange where the lion’s share of the wealth belongs to Republicans and Republicans hold control of the vast majority of local, county, and district offices and the intense Democratic activism isn’t extensive and the extensive Democratic activism is very non-intensive.)

We might well start by asking: what does a chair do?

  • primary responsibility (sometimes personal responsibility) for high-donor fundraising
  • liaison to state and national party and other powerful groups at a level about the Executive Director
  • is the public face of the party
  • oversees the managers (including those listed above)
There’s another item on the list that could be stated in a couple of different ways:
  • mediates between competing interests and soothes various disgruntled people and organizations as needed
  • convinces people by whatever necessary means to adopt his or her vision and support his or her program

Those seem different, but they’re two sides of the same coin: managing conflict within the organization and between one’s organization and others.  The first approach is more gentle and cajoling; the second is more blunt and forceful.  Don’t be fooled by the difference: “cajolers” and “forcers” are trying to get everyone onto the same page — and every good leader has both sets of tool in their kit.

In a word, that last bullet point is “leadership.”  This is why I have been puzzled by complaints coming from Henry’s side that Jeff has not said what he wants to do with the party.  Well, he wants to lead.  He wants to use his leadership skills to make the party more efficient, effective, and smooth running.  This is not the sort of thing that you propose as an agenda; managing competing interests well is a learned skill, list of promises like “I will manage competing interests well.”  Those bullet points, especially the last one: that’s “leading.”  Henry’s and Jeff’s political values and priorities for the party are, from what I can tell, pretty much identical — and, as they work together (I hope) next year, I suspect that they’ll become even more so.  I’m not worried about their differences in policies and plans — in my opinion, we’ll start adopting the “San Diego model” that Henry champions next year no matter who wins.  My concern, in choosing a chair from between two good people, is how well they will lead.

Henry’s boss at the Democratic Foundation, it’s chair Dan Jacobson, strikes me (from afar, I can’t afford DFOC dues) as an excellent leader.  He’s firm in his positions, but he manages people with respect, and he tries to find “win-win” arrangements for them.  By all accounts I’ve heard, Jeff LeTourneau exemplified the best leadership traits one would want while chair of ECCOPAC; people may have walked away from certain dispute resolutions feeling disappointed, but never devalued.  There’s a couple of good chairs.

But Henry has been a Chair too — or actually he was President — of the California Democratic Council (CDC), the umbrella organization for party’s clubs.  Why wouldn’t I credit him with the same sort of qualification as Jeff, based on his having that experience?

It’s not because of anything bad about Henry.  It’s because being President of the CDC  is very different from being Chair of ECCOPAC or the DPOC in a key respect — because the CDC is not a disputatious organization.  It’s not ridden with conflict among members and interests that requires “management”; everyone says they want to pull at the same oar and the common task is how to get people to pull harder.  Before Henry got there, it was a flat tire; Henry energetically went up and down the state for six years filling it with air.  It was a heroic effort; I can barely express my high level of respect and awe for his accomplishment.  He made it happen through grit, a tremendous ability to drive long distances, and force of will.  Everyone — me included — was always glad to see him and appreciative of his help.

And that, perhaps ironically, is why it’s not the same kind of qualification for DPOC Chair as is Jeff’s 15 years at ECCOPAC.  Here: read what Frank Barbaro told the Register about why he was retiring as Chair:

After a dozen years as chairman of the Democratic Party of Orange County, Frank Barbaro is stepping down, saying he’s weary of dealing with the warring factions within the county party.

“Everybody just seems to be at each other’s throats all the time,” said the 69-year-old Santa Ana attorney. “The Democratic Party is a party of many tents and keeping everybody placated is not always possible. I’m just tired of all the infighting. I don’t want to do it anymore.”

That’s what being DPOC Chair involves — keeping, for example, environmentalists and trade unionists from destroying each other; leaving both groups still feeling valued, at least partially pleased, and “still on the team.”  Frank’s weariness came in large part from the left wing of the party becoming resurgent, especially this past two years — I say this without glee — putting him through hell.  (Henry was, incidentally, not around DPOC much during our recent drama — so much so that, shockingly to me, he was not even elected to Central Committee from his district.)

DPOC Chair, like OCGOP Chair, is a hard position and it takes lots of time and effort — the former of which a highly successful and active attorney like Frank just didn’t have.  This led, of course, to even more conflict.  That’s not primarily Frank’s fault — we Democrats, collectively, had been able to muster no better alternative to him and his busy schedule.  And he got us through some lean years still alive.

My experience with the CDC is mostly as an appreciative audience and observer to Henry’s speeches and training sessions and counseling — all of which were great.  He can certainly correct me if he thinks I’m wrong, but I don’t think that CDC is anywhere near being the sort of disputatious, infighting, factional group that the DPOC is.  It’s not in the same galaxy in this respect.  (And, by the way, the disputes within DPOC are nothing to be ashamed of — we have people who believe strongly in their differing viewpoints and who care deeply about outcomes.  I’ll even claim that that’s admirable.  Even among the people who drive me crazy, it’s admirable.)  We know that Jeff handled similar sorts of situations for a long time.  I don’t know how Henry will do so — but a pledge like “I will make peace and treat people with respect” is just words.  This sort of leadership is best demonstrated by one’s track record.  That he and his supporters keep asking “what Jeff would want to do as Chair” suggests to me that he does not fully appreciate a big part of what either one of them would be doing as Chair — leading and managing conflict.

And that brings us to my reason for writing, today, on a topic  that I hadn’t intended to cover.

Henry’s Prospective Dual Roles as DPOC Chair and DFOC Executive Director

Henry’s job as Executive Director with the Democratic Foundation of Orange County (DFOC), which he has said that he plans to retain, has been a point of concern for many within the DPOC.  For the most part, I think that this has been a diffuse concern rather than outrage — concern that something just didn’t seem right about it, that it might lead to various sorts of conflicts.

Some of these are political conflicts: DPOC supported David Benavides for Santa Ana Mayor this past year and DFOC — along with, to the surprise and dismay of many, DPOC Chair Frank Barbaro — supported Miguel Pulido.  Yes, this was only one race, but it gives the flavor of the sorts of political conflicts that many DPOC members fear may squeeze Henry between the DFOC Board and employs him and the DPOC Board that his position demands that he represent.  (Others have expressed concern about DPOC fundraising opportunities being taken by the DFOC.  I’m not concerned about that; as Henry has stated, that is the purview of the DFOC Chair, not him.  I do foresee some problems with potential donors approaching him and saying that they’d like to give money and he’d have to decide whether this meant giving him a DPOC pitch or referring them to Dan Jacobson or a successor — but I expect that he would be able to figure out a way to finesse that problem.  Should he explain it to the DPOC?  Yeah, probably.)

The real conflicts that I and at least some others are concerned about are legal problems.  I’m not entirely convinced that someone who is Executive Director of the DFOC and who is ordering around the Executive Director of the the DPOC isn’t going to, even unwittingly and surely without malice in Henry’s case, end up on the wrong side of the arcane rules governing political coordination.  Parties have a special role in campaign financing in that they can provide large (and I believe in some cases unlimited) amounts to candidates or campaigns — but the thing is that they are not supposed to be a conduit for some maxed-out large donor to circumvent campaign finance limits by directing that his or her donation should go to a particular candidate or cause.  (This sort of practice, obviously, would make a mockery of those limits.)  So, for example, how would Henry’s dual role satisfy with any limitations due to the Party’s special status?  I want to know.   I’d want to know even if I favored Henry for Chair.

Do I need to say this bluntly?  I make no apology for having those concerns and asking those questions.  It is my job as a member of the Central Committee to have such concerns.  My having those concerns is meant as no insult to Henry or his ethics (which so far as I know are impeccable) or his judgment.  This is difficult stuff.  Maybe one can’t be 100% sure that these dual roles would not create a problem, but I’d like to get as close to 100% as I can get before the election.

It pisses me off when that concern gets taken for dirty politics.  Henry appears to classify it as such.  That bothers me not just because of the underlying concern over conflicts, but because of how he is handling the concerns of people like me (and I’m far from alone on the point.)  It’s not a good example of mediating conflict.  It portends ill.

Here’s what I would do if I were in Henry’s position (part of which he did): I’d have recognized the theoretical legitimacy of the problem, gotten together with people with the opposite views and come up with a list of questions that both sides agreed would fairly assess the issue, and submit it to those bodies that might have and enforce the relevant rules: the Federal Elections Commission (for federal races) and the Fair Political Practices Commission (for state races).  Henry took a different approach.

In an e-mail to the incoming  DPOC Central Committee, Henry has tried to put the matter to rest.  I’ll skip his expressions of how affronted he is at not being taken at his word and get to the meat of the issue.  Henry says that spoke to an agent of the FEC who has told him that anyone asserting such a conflict should cite the appropriate sections of federal law, which don’t exist.  He says that — and I’ll quote this because it is to Henry’s advantage and so I think I do him no disservice by those so, “there is no legal conflict of interest between working for a PAC/candidate committee and/or other PACs or in this case, political parties.”  He gives examples including:

  • Democratic National Committee Chair Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schulz, Chair of the (DNC), who raises money for her own campaign, other candidates, and the DNC.
  • Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Congressman Steve Israel, Chair who operates similarly.
  • Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chair Sen. Michael Bennet, Chair, likewise.
  • “Many well-respected county chairs across California who currently work directly for an elected official, a Labor organization or a PAC.”
  • Lobbyists working for legislators on campaigns or as staff while also having multiple clients/interests and raise money from and for a variety of candidates.

Henry offers phone numbers for the federal Office of General Counsel (which I doubt is the relevant office, as it deals with governmental employees, but whatever) and the FEC if we want to check on his information.  He concludes that, to paraphrase, there’s nothing to see here and we should all just move along.

I have some problems with the relevance of these examples and with how Henry pursued information about them.  I’ll leave the biggest concern until the end.

  1. The reason that I would have developed questions with, and probably had conversations with, those who have these concerns is that one can get a report of “no concern” by asking the wrong (or an incomplete) question.  Henry apparently asked if there’s a prohibition on “working for” a Political Party while one also works for a different PAC or candidate committee.  I’m not surprised that the general answer is “no.”  My concern is whether there is a potential legal conflict between (a) being Chair of a County Party and being Executive Director of — not merely “working for” — a PAC or campaign that (b) operate in the exact same geographic area and solicits donations from the same donors.  It would not surprise me if the fuller answer from the FEC is something like “it’s fine if you work for a PAC while chairing the Party, so long as you wouldn’t be in a position to engineer circumvention of campaign finance laws or anything like that.  Asking the specific question matters here.I want to be clear about something:I believe that Henry asked these questions in good faith and that he is not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes.  But Henry believed that he already knew the answer and I don’t know how likely he would be to ask the pertinent, sometimes very technical follow-ups that might identify a potential problem.  (I suspect that he’d be less likely than I would have; this is a legal sort of task and he’s not a lawyer.)  So I do not intend to impugn either his ethics or his judgment; I just think that he may not have asked the precise questions, with follow-ups, that I’d prefer to have been asked.
  2. I don’t think that any of these examples are pertinent — and to the extent that they are I’d be surprised if further digging wouldn’t show that they actually do have some restrictions on them that may rarely arise because they’re not often tested.  For example: unless there’s a truly gaping holein federal campaign finance law, I will bet that Rep. Wasserman-Schulz could not, say, dump a bunch of DNC-raised money into her personal PAC which she could then allocate to herself or other candidates (within existing permissible limits) as she saw fit — and possible with knowledge of which donors wanted which funds directed where.Sometimes the lines between lawful and unlawful acts aren’t that clear — they deal with matters such as the “reasonableness” of one’s actions.  Let’s take an implausible example: a wealthy donor from Newport Beach has already given the maximum contribution to the Greg Diamond for State Senate campaign.  (Note: this did not happen.  Ever.)  He approaches Henry and says “you know, I’d really like to get Diamond another $100,000 because his opponent Bob Huff killed my dog and put its head on a pike.  Can I donate that money to the party for you to pass along?”  My understanding (possibly wrong!) is that the DPOC chair has to say “no, we can’t do that” — but might suggest alternatives like fundraising among other wealthy beachsiders and bundling those contributions to Diamond, or perhaps starting a PAC called “Committee to Avenge the Dog” and do it that way.   What happens though, if wealthy donor says: “That’s too much trouble.  How about if I do it through the Democratic Foundation?  Can you help me with that?”  I don’t know exactly what the law provides there, but I’m pretty confident that unless Debbie Wasserman-Schulz also heads a Democratic Foundation sort of PAC in her area, it doesn’t come up for her.
  1. FPPC seal

    Guess who regulated campaign finance for state and local campaigns?

    But here’s the biggest problem with the message — and I think that I can fairly characterize it as “aggressive” — that Henry sent out today: He gives no indication that he ever asked the State of California’s Fair Political Practices Commission about this.  By far most of the DPOC’s electoral activities come under the jurisdiction of the FPPC rather than the FEC.  The FEC regulates financing only for the Presidential and Senate races (neither of which are likely to receive a DPOC contribution) and Congressional races (of which we have only seven in the County — and Linda Sanchez doesn’t need us in her sole OC city of La Palma.)  Furthermore, the FEC is notoriously lax with enforcement most of the time while the FPPC is notoriously aggressive — and will tend to have stricter laws, because California tends to be on the “good government” end of the distribution of states.  So if this is supposed to allay the concerns of people like me — where’s the information about the conversations that he should have had by now with the FPPC?It’s not there — we’re simply to take his word that he did his full due diligence on the question.  He also complains that people didn’t investigate this themselves if we had concerns — and that’s a fair point!  So, I called the FPPC this morning to discuss these questions.  They’re supposed to get back to me in a few minutes as I publish this.  If Henry gets a green light, I will report it here and so far as I’m concerned the issue goes away.  If he doesn’t, I’ll report that here as well.  If anyone thinks that I’m ignorant for not already knowing the answer, I’ll just say something I’ve said many times before: I was much more sure about what the law says in a given situation before I went to law school and found out that much of what laypeople think they know turns out to be untrue, or partially true, or sometimes true.  I make no apology for asking these questions.  And let me make one other thing clear: “asking questions” is not “making allegations.”

To come full circle, I think that the handling of this situation does tell us something about Henry as a prospective DPOC Chair.  He has demanded that his word be trusted and demeaned those who don’t comply.  He has obtained research that may be correct (good for him!) but may be only partially so (bad for him!) — and he either failed to contact the main organization that governs us in this respect or did so and decided not to report the results.

This has been a real-world exercise in mediating conflict within the DPOC — and while I prefer his opponent, I’m not even antagonistic towards him.  (In fact, I hope that he’ll be in an executive position this term, implementing the San Diego model for organizing Orange County Democrats — a position from which he could make me miserable but hopefully won’t.  I believe that he, like me, cares more about the Party than about our personal advancement.)

Personally, I just don’t like how Henry handled this challenge to the legalities of his having a dual status — not to his integrity and not about his judgment.  His reaction was strong and forceful — and there’s certainly a time and place for that.  In my case, though, if I weren’t so involved in the DPOC it would leave me wondering if I would better spend my efforts somewhere else.  That’s exactly what we don’t want in a Chair.  I hope that, if he is elected, Henry will concentrate on honing the sort of deft conflict management skills that I believe Jeff already possesses.

I’ve tried to be gentle and respectful here and not make accusations where all I have are questions and concerns.  I hope that this is taken — and described, if at all — in that spirit.  As I said — the floor is open to a rebuttal from a proponent of Henry.  That’s only fair.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose worker's rights and government accountability attorney, residing in northwest Brea. General Counsel of CATER, the Coalition of Anaheim Taxpayers for Economic Responsibility, a non-partisan group of people sick of local corruption. Deposed as Northern Vice Chair of DPOC in April 2014 when his anti-corruption and pro-consumer work in Anaheim infuriated the Building Trades and Teamsters in spring 2014, who then worked with the lawless and power-mad DPOC Chair to eliminate his internal oversight. Occasionally runs for office to challenge some nasty incumbent who would otherwise run unopposed. (Someday he might pick a fight with the intent to win rather than just dent someone. You'll know it when you see it.) He got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012 and in 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002. None of his pre-putsch writings ever spoke for the Democratic Party at the local, county, state, national, or galactic level, nor do they now. A family member co-owns a business offering campaign treasurer services to Democratic candidates and the odd independent. He is very proud of her. He doesn't directly profit from her work and it doesn't affect his coverage. (He does not always favor her clients, though she might hesitate to take one that he truly hated.) He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)