20 May 2006

State Convention -- Friday Recap

The Colorado Democratic Party’s State Convention (it is really correctly called a State Assembly, but few people bother to make the distinction), is in Greeley this year. I’m here in Greeley at Margie’s Java Joint (at 931 16th Street), across the street from the University of Northern Colorado. Getting the Wi-Fi to work has been something of a problem. The casual themed store has ironic Bigfoot photos lining its walls, a predominantly student crowd, and a surplus of baristas on a Friday afternoon.

Snafu City

I am contemplating the usual, bumbling state of the Democratic Party machine.

I arrived here, at the cost of considerable disruption to my work week, at the 2:00 p.m. time at the place in the University Center. This is misnamed on the convention call sheet as the “University of Northern Colorado Student Center”, and shown on 11th Avenue rather than 10th Avenue on the provided map, to the consternation some delegates wandering around confused trying to find their meetings. But, they needn’t have worried. My meeting, set for 2:00 p.m. on the day before the main convention, and requiring me to find accommodations for the evening in Greeley, has been rescheduled to a different room three hours later without advanced notice to anyone who is supposed to come. Oh, and I’ve also learned that this meeting will last just 15 minutes and address no issues of consequence. It just makes you feel so special.

These are, of course, not isolated snafus. It appears that, while a working group put together a nice little party platform document, the platform committee itself, scheduled to convene at 11 a.m. this morning, had not in fact convened as a committee and approved a platform to present to the convention.

And, then, there are the four cases of beer sitting in my trunk, destined for a function which, I have heard indirectly, might have been cancelled with the pickup having fallen through when my meeting was rescheduled. It might take a beer or two to resolve that issue.

Raging Against The Machine (Or, At Least Pouting)

Of course, even if everything were humming along the way it was supposed to, things wouldn’t be much different. Every single jurisdiction in the state of Colorado, from Precinct to House District to County to Senate District to Congressional District to the State itself feels some odd compulsion to have its own “permanent organization” committee at which it adopts boiler plate rules for its once every couple of years meeting, a separate credentials committee, in many cases permanent officers, and a boilerplate form vacancy committee composition resolution.

In addition, caucuses pass policy resolutions to work their way up to county platform committees which work their way up to a state platform committee, which realizes that the panoply of contrary, isolated, lovingly drafted caucus resolutions further digested by counties can never be drafted into anything approaching a coherent party platform and instead spend a couple of afternoons trying to put together a document which approaches minimal standards of coherence, which sometimes happens and sometimes does not, so that the state can ratify it and ignore it for another two years. Candidates, because they aren’t invested in a platform that they didn’t draft, almost never run on the basis of it, so it has no practical effect on policy except to inform some clueless elected officials of the odd issue or two that lobbyists and interested citizens had failed to inform them that they were concerned about (i.e. almost never).

The Unofficial Nominations Process Rules

Of course, there is an important function served by all of this useless parliamentary procedure make work which the party wastes the time of its most valuable and influential volunteers on every couple of years. This, of course, is the process of nominating candidates.

Most of the time, there is an unchallenged incumbent, the jurisdiction is in an off year which doesn’t call for the nomination of a candidate, or the plight of a Democratic candidate seeking to run for the office in question is so overwhelmingly doomed to failure as a result of the party registration balance in that jurisdiction that finding even one credible candidate to be ratified by the caucus process that ends in the state convention is a mere formality.

The general rule is that incumbents of your own party are not to be challenged, in the absence of a real problem.

Near the top of the ticket, the highest profile incumbents are Mark Udall, Diana DeGette and John Salazar, and all are uncontested in their bids to run again.

In the fourth, fifth and sixth Congressional Districts, Paccione, Fawcett, and Winter have all come forth as very credible candidates in heavily Republican leaning races, and everyone has been happy to urge them to take their best shots, rather than muddying the waters by seeking their shot to be candidates in these difficult races instead.

Even in a theoretically open race, the vacancy committee appointee normally receives considerable respect in the process. For example, this cycle, Deanna Hanna resigned in the face of a campaign finance controversy, and a vacancy committee appointed Betty Boyd to replace her, and as heir apparent to the seat now, with the support of the party rank and file demonstrated by the unanimous vote of the vacancy committee, no one has chosen to contest her from within this party at this election. Likewise, when Andy Kerr was selected by a vacancy committee to replace Betty Boyd in House District 26, the support shown by the vacancy committee was enough to dissuade anyone else from contesting him in the caucus process or by attempting to petition onto the primary ballot in the next election.

Also, even when there is a genuine intra-party contest in a jurisdiction, it isn’t unheard of for one or more of the candidates to choose to try to get on the ballot via petition, rather than via the party caucus process, as happened in the 7th Congressional District this year, where Ed Perlmutter was the only candidate running via the caucus process, but both Peggy Lamm and Herb Rubenstein now appear likely to make it onto the primary ballot by petition. Thus, even in contested races, the caucus process part of the nomination process is often a mere formality.

In other words, the only time the party’s informal norms really welcome, is when the seat is held by a member of the opposing party (so that there is no incumbent or vacancy committee appointee), is viable enough to give a Democrat a real shot at winning (so the pressure not to spread resources too thin does not arise) which often means that the other party’s incumbent is not running again due to the benefits of incumbency, and the people who could potentially run do not clearly acknowledge that one is a stronger candidate than another.

This Year’s Contests

The only contested race at the state convention fits the rules, except for the fact that a clearly weaker candidate is not acknowledging defeat, which sometimes happens.

This year, at the state convention, there is only one contested nomination to resolve. Fern O’Brien will face a Mr. Johnson in the race for attorney general. O’Brien is almost sure to make it onto the ballot with at least 30% of the convention ballot, but it isn’t absolutely impossible that Mr. Johnson will make it onto the ballot as well, as O’Brien has ruffled some feathers by refusing to acknowledge that she actually has an opponent in the race. While she is the front runner, her overconfidence and refusal to respect the process may win some backlash. For instance, unlike some of the other candidates, she hasn’t been working the county assemblies and Congressional District assemblies leading up to the state convention very hard in order to win rank and file loyalty, which may prevent her from winning the unanimous approval she expects.

The rest of the process will be a coronation. There is just one Democratic Party candidate in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th Congressional District races, for Governor and Lieutenant Governor, for Secretary of State, for State Treasurer and for State School Board. The only other contested race of which I am aware is CU Regent at Large, in which two little known, good quality candidates with very similar views will make their case to the Assembly on Saturday.

The reality is that viable candidates need to have their hats in the ring before the caucus process even starts, and that for the most part, in the interests of party harmony, nominations are worked out informally at that stage in the game, as they were this year. Like gorillas, each candidate beats his chest about his candidacy, looks into the eyes of the tribe to judge their reactions, and a fight over who will be the alpha only actually takes place when the outcome isn’t a foregone conclusion.

For example, while many candidates put their hat in the ring to run for Governor on the Democratic Party ticket, each of the candidates, in turn, withdrew their bid or declined to formally announce a run before the first caucus was held.

Prospects For Winning

Now, all of this pessimism about the process has to be balanced, to some extent, by the quality of the results it produces. One of the reasons that the majority of the party machine doesn’t work very well is because it, most of the time, isn’t very important. Parties have been deliberately in the back seat to the candidates who really do matter, for a long time. And, this is not a “no holds barred” fight. Everyone involved in the process knows that the name of the game is a win for the party and not just a personal win. The state party officials, Pat Waak among them, have been spending months recruiting strong candidates, the net roots and grass roots have been boosting those candidates, and Democrats with the smell of victory so close are playing fair and behaving like adults.

The slate of candidates at the top of the ticket, for Congress, for Governor, for Secretary of State and for Treasurer is about as strong as it has ever been for the Democrats, striking a good balance between the need for candidates to have their hearts in the right place, the need for them to be competent people, and the need to pick candidates who have the best possible chance of actually getting elected. This trend has largely continued further down the ticket. Many of them will need a real wave of Democratic support to be swept into office in the fall, but that isn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility.

Fern O’Brien, our likely candidate for attorney general, has a tougher road to hoe. Incumbent Colorado Attorney General Suthers has the distinct advantage of having been appointed by Governor Owens with what amounts of an endorsement of his professionalism and abilities by Democratic Senator Ken Salazar, and this has probably done immeasurable damage to the Democrat’s shot at reclaiming the post. While Suthers has ticked off many Democrats by refusing to pursue criminal liable charges against Republicans who also happen to be his own campaign supporters in Bernie Buscher’s race in Grand Junction, this may actual improve his standing with independent voters and he hasn’t made any big obvious screwups that are on the mind of voters this year.

In contrast, Bill Ritter has enjoyed several months of Marc Holtzman and Bob Beauprez, the leading candidates for the Republican nomination for Governor, covering each other in mud so thick that it may stick well into the general election campaign, which at this point seems like a slam dunk for Beauprez over Holtzman, an issue that the Republicans may resolve for us this weekend at their state convention, although a threatened petition campaign could take the issue to the voters if Republicans refuse to put both men on the primary ballot.

More state convention ruminations will follow tomorrow.

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