Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Charter Changes Redux

Last week, I went to a meeting of the Mass. Democratic Party Charter Committee. The meeting was billed as a chance for people who were disturbed (to say the least) by the changes to the party charter at the May convention. No questions were taken at the meeting, of course, but several people had emailed their concerns to DSC members, who were allowed to ask them. The result was kind of an awkward process whereby DSC members would pose sometimes angry questions to the group and then be asked to defend the questioner's point of view. Eventually, the DSC members allowed one of us from the peanut gallery to explain what he thought the problems with the new charter were.

Two things were apparent throughout the meeting. The first was that the majority of the committee members in attendance were completely oblivious as to why, when taken as a whole, the changes to the charter could be seen as an attempt to keep the grassroots out and reduce the accountability of the state party. Better folk than I have already listed their grievances with the charter changes, so I won't rehash them here. In any event, most of the group was honestly perplexed by the criticisms. Party chair Phil Johnston, who was there for much of the meeting, called the idea that the party wanted to shut out the grassroots absurd.

The other thing that I noticed was that no remedy for these complaints was proffered. The prevailing attitude was that most of the folks who came away from the convention dissatisfied were new and likely confused about the process. The DSC reasoned that if they just did a better job of communicating, there would be fewer problems in the future. In addition, some of the members thought that the convention was too late in the process for people to object to the changes, given the number of hearings that were held leading up to it. Most agreed that the convention was not a particularly conducive environment for debate, which I suppose is true, but also makes the whole process seem like kind of a sham. As far as the hearings go, I would imagine that most of the convention delegates were unaware of them, which reflects back on the communication issue. If it's the member's responsibility to stay informed, then the party also has a responsibility to make that information as easily accessible as possible.

The Committee did give some clarifications that made some of the charter changes seem less odious. Under the new rules, the DSC members can close their meetings to the public with a two-thirds vote. While this is certainly problematic, they assured us that no votes can be taken in closed session. While I appreciate the need to keep political opponents in the dark about strategy, I'd certainly prefer that all registered Democrats attending meetings in good faith be allowed to attend. Perhaps this is a good enough compromise. One of the other controversial changes was that now Democrats can endorse independent candidates in races against fellow Democrats. The example they gave was the 1972 Congressional race between Louise Day Hicks (who won the primary) and Joe Moakley, though the more recent example on the minds of progressives was the race last year between Vinnie Ciampa and Carl Sciortino. As for other amendments, the committee expressed a desire to "protect ourselves from ourselves" which, again, is indicative of a party trying to close ranks.

If there's one thing that I hope the Democrats take away from all this, it's that if you expect to involve the grassroots in a campaign, you'll also have to listen to their concerns. The party also needs to communicate effectively with their members. They have a website, a blog, an email list, all of our street addresses, and a group of people willing to volunteer their time. It's about time they started using all of those assets effectively.