The Future of the DNC: Sally Boynton Brown

This is the first installment in “The Future of the DNC”: a series of on the record interviews I will be doing in the coming days with different candidates who are running for leadership positions in the Democratic National Committee.  There will be more coming with different subjects in the next several days.

Sally Boynton Brown
Current Positions: Executive Director, Idaho Democratic Party
President, Association of State Democratic Executive Directors
Candidate for: Chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee

How did you get involved in Democratic politics?
I got involved in Democratic politics about a decade ago. My first couple of years, I ran legislative races, and I always said “I’m not in politics, I’m helping people,” because I like to take the politics out of politics. I have very little patience for politics. But at the end of the day, we really have the opportunity to help people. So in 2010, our gubernatorial candidate asked me to be on his campaign, and my mom and I were chatting talking about whether I should take the opportunity. She said, “Are you going to stop saying you’re not in politics? Because it kind of seems like you’re in politics.” It really hit me. I’m like, “Oh, I guess God is calling me back here.” I keep trying to say that I’m not doing this, and yet I keep having these opportunities. So I really embraced it. I started at the party in 2011 and became executive director in 2012.

Most candidates have said they are going to defer to the Unity Commission on the issue of superdelegates. What is your personal position on the matter: do you think that their powers should be reformed or limited, or do you think that the position should be abolished altogether?
            The Unity Commission is a really important commission that was developed after our Bernie folks and Hillary folks came together and did a lot of negotiations to get that, and I would not ever surplant that or try to impose my own positions on that, because ultimately that’s a decision for our party to make. As a leader, I think the most important thing that I can do is create a democratic process that is effective for getting all voices heard and getting whatever the majority happens to be.

While I might have personal opinions about superdelegates, I think the Unity Commission needs to do their work. I did reach out to some folks on both sides to ask them if they felt the Unity Commission was a good vehicle, was a good democratic process to be able to accomplish that, and I heard uniformly that people were really excited about that. So at the end of the day, I said, “OK, we don’t need to build something new. We should use this process that has already been set out by our people.”

Both sides are presumably going to respect whatever decision they come up with?
            Actually, the Unity Commission sends its findings to the Rules and Bylaws Committee, and then the Rules and Bylaws Committee presents that to the body. There was something really good that was negotiated, if the Unity Commission doesn’t see the Rules and Bylaws Committee acting on their recommendations, doing anything to move it forward, then it can take that document forward to the body themselves and let the body vote on it directly.

Would you be willing to reform the primary calendar so that other states can have more say in the nominating process early on?
            If all of your questions are like this, then you’re going to get frustrated because my answer will always be the same: it is not my job to make that decision in any way, shape or form. In my plan, I call for work groups to be put together, and one specifically to look at our bylaws and our rules of procedure of how we operate and have people talk about that very issue. And then, majority rules, because P.S., we are a democratic organization.

Historians talk about a president’s First Hundred Days in office. If you are elected chair, what are you going to do in your First Hundred Days, in order of importance?
            I’m actually going to be rolling out a timeline that’s attached to the ideas in my plan, because I think the how is just as important as the why. I would say that there are three things that I’m going to focus on immediately upon entering office. First of all is the Unity Commission, it needs to be up and running and doing its work. I’ve said in my plan I’ll do that in my first week. As chair, we would appoint three members to that, and then the Hillary and the Bernie sides get to appoint their members.
Secondly, and I’m starting this before I get elected, the State Partnership Program. I’m asking states, for a group of people to come together from our states to talk about what they want in the details of a partnership program. I’ve laid out a basic concept that is a base level of money, because monetary support is incredibly important. But we’ve been getting money for the last several years and we’ve been still losing. So I think that it’s important we pair that with smart strategic plans and regional offices that are staffed in order to have a really full package of services, but there’s a lot of details to be worked out. So I’m going to be sending out an email around that State Partnership Program looking for people who want to come to the table to discuss that next week, so that by the time I take office, that that’s the second thing that I can do that first week in office, get that State Partnership Program implemented. And that’s going to mean going and raising money, right? So I think it’s really important to sell the vision that we’re asking our members to vote on the general public, because ultimately dollars need to be flowing in the door the whole entire time, and we need people to have confidence in myself as the next chair.
The number three thing is putting together a Hiring Committee, so that we can get the DNC staffed up itself, and putting together a Hiring Committee when you’re making the kind of huge cultural change that I’m advocating for in my plan is really, really important, so we make sur we put into that building folks who are going to be trusted and respected and can do the best job possible.

Who is there right now, holdovers from Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Donna Brazile? Are they career people who work there?
            I obviously have friends who are in that building who I know are still there, but one of the things I think has been an issue is we don’t know who works for the DNC. There is no organizational structure, we don’t see a budget, so we don’t, as members interacting with them, we don’t really know who all is there. I can give you specific names of friends that I have that are in the building that I still contact to get information, that kind of thing, but I don’t really know.

Republicans commissioned a report after the 2012 election, they presented the findings, and basically proceeded to ignore those findings and they won. As chair, are you going to commission any sort of study on lessons learned from the past election?
            I think that at the end of the day, state parties are going to do their own post mortems, and they’re going to do them a lot faster than the DNC is. They’ve already been traveling their states and I think we can really utilize that. The 57 state parties that we have have been seriously underutilized, so I think that’s where we really rely on them. I don’t think we need to spend a bunch of money on a postmortem, you need to spend some money right, and collecting those reports and compiling them and having a conversation about the presidential race. But we need to know what went wrong at all levels of the ballot. I think what’s really important is being able to move forward. There’s been a lot of postmortem done in the last couple of months since the election already. The thing that I’m more interested in is the Reconciliation Tour. I think that our party has some pretty big divides in it, and it’s going to be important for our leaders to go around the country and actually deeply listen to where people are at. I think there’s a lot of emotion right now, and it’s important that we take that seriously and we go through the process of rebuilding trust. Trust is an emotional process, we need an emotional process. It’s a little touchy-feely, but it’s really important. I think in going through and doing that, we’ll also have the opportunity to build in some of the post-mortem work that we need to do. But I don’t think it needs to be a six-month delay in moving forward. I think most of us know what needs to be done. I do have specific work groups laid out in my plan for some of bigger issues, the bigger conversations that we need to have, those critical conversations. I think that we can accomplish some of that you normally would find in a postmortem. Like you said, the Republicans spent a lot of time and money on a postmortem and they didn’t follow any of it. They continue to strip us of our freedoms and our constitutional rights, so I’m more about moving forward and looking at what needs to be done and changing that than about looking backwards.

In terms of rebuilding, there are some states where the party has had little or no presence over the years in terms of infrastructure like your home state of Idaho…
            Idaho has a lot of presence and infrastructure. The DNC hasn’t been involved in that, so sorry, I’m going to stand up for those rural areas!

…On the other hand, you have states where Democrats have presence and had success in the past like Ohio, Missouri or Louisiana, where it’s diminished or atrophied in recent times. How would you address those dynamics?
            So fundamentally, going back to that State Partnership Program by going and creating strategic plans with each of the states. That does that, right? You can’t address it if you’re going to lump states together in regions or if you’re going to lump states altogether and just throw money at a problem. But when you’re actually looking at creating a State Partnership Program that is effective, that means going in and spending time in the state making sure that a strategic plan is put together that addresses whatever the specific nature of that state and the concerns of that state are.

How do you rebuild with those different dynamics?
            The DNC’s job is not to rebuild state parties. Our job is to rebuild the Democratic Party and to rebuild the DNC, and then be a strong partner with state parties to give them the resources and support they need in their strategic planning and to execute that strategic plan. So I think there are some very clear distinctions there that are important when we’re talking about this.

Looking ahead to 2017, there are state races in Virginia, North Carolina, and New Jersey, as well as special elections and mayoral races…
            We have all the mayoral races coming up. City council and mayor races are happening all over this country, and that’s absolutely, that municipal program is absolutely critical and essential to rebuilding democracy in our country.

…Looking ahead to 2018, you have two very different maps. In the Senate, Democrats are playing defense, but in the state levels, you have an opportunity to play offense. One could argue that those state races will be more important because whoever wins those elections is going to be in place for the 2020 census and redistricting. With those competing dynamics in mind where you’re playing both offense and defense, how do you plan on balancing them?
            State parties do this every day, right? State parties focus on every level of the ballot, and the DNC needs to do exactly the same thing.  They’re not competing dynamics, they are dynamics that exist when you acknowledge there are a lot of people on the ballot, and when you design programs to support all of the ballot and not just the top of the ticket, then you actually have success and win more seats, because in that new power model of collaboration, you’re collaborating and you’re looking at how best to utilize resources, you’re not competing with each other. You were talking about offense and defense competing, but what I’ve experienced is that Democrats are competing with each other, and that’s just not anything that needs to be happening. We need to figure out a way how we run these races that lets our state legislature and our county commissioner and our Senate and our President of the United States win.

You mentioned emotion earlier. A lot of Democrats have been very emotional in the last few weeks as President Obama gets ready to leave office. In a way, it’s the end of three eras for the Democratic Party: the end of the Obama era, the end of the Clinton era, and the end of the Harry Reid era. There’s a leadership vacuum here. My question is what role do you see for the Obamas, the Clintons, Vice President Biden, and Senator Reid within the party now that their political careers are over?
            I’m going to come back and say there’s not a leadership vacuum. I think that that’s the way that it’s looked at in an old power system where you have to be some big huge name that everybody knows and recognizes and have a huge power structure behind you. We have a lot of new up-and-coming leaders in our party who people just don’t know because nobody’s paying attention, and by nobody I mean the DNC. So part of what’s built into my blueprint is ways to make sure that the superstars in our party that are mayors and city council people, county commissioners and state legislative folks and lots of people in Congress who are not shiny and maybe are not putting themselves out there themselves are coming out. I think that it’s really important that we start talking about all the amazing people we have in our party, collectively as a whole. I’ve seen this in media over and over again, trying to say like, “Oh, we have no bench.” What are you talking about? We’ve got elected Democrats all over this country, we absolutely have a bench and they’re doing amazing work! It’s just that nobody in DC is paying any attention to them. We just talked about that at the western caucus meeting. That’s the first point.
The second point is the powers that be, those folks who are leaving office, are really going to have to decide. I’m really excited about Obama’s plan to put together the redistricting group that he is, to focus on redistricting. I think that’s hugely important, so I applaud him on that. So I imagine that everybody will find their place, but ultimately I don’t think that that’s our job to tell them what their place is. They have served this country admirably, they have worked hard, and they get to decide what their next steps look like.

Where do you think the next generation of Democratic stars is going to come from?
            Everywhere.

What would you do as chair to discover and nurture these talents so they can climb the rungs of power?
            As chairwoman, I think we need to have first of all, DNC regional staff who know these people in the first place, because they are interacting with them. People sitting back in DC who maybe they go to states in the east, maybe they go to JJ dinners and different state party events, but they don’t out west. They don’t, a lot of times, in the Midwest, they don’t go to all the rural states. So there are a lot of leaders out there. Kylie Oversen is a really great example. She is the chair of North Dakota. She was a state legislator who just got defeated in 2016. She is a superstar. If she wanted to do something in our party, she could do just about anything. But who knows Kylie? Who’s paying attention to her? Are media talking about her? No. So there’s a lot more if we have regional staff who are interacting with those superstars that can push them forward and connect them to the national media, mostly back east, to make sure that stories are being written and that we’re pushing them forward.

Do you plan on doing any reforms to improve cybersecurity measures in the wake of the Russia hacks?
            Clearly the infrastructure of the DNC needs to be updated and brought into the 21st century. I think that’s incredibly important. There was a cybersecurity team that’s been brought on, and I think we need to listen to what they say and follow that advice. We also need to be looking at how to be more resilient in our infrastructure so that we can respond as technology changes happen. It’s expensive, and I think it’s not just about the DNC. We need to figure out how to protect the 57 state parties that we have as well, because while the DNC is the entity that got hacked, there were a lot of other entities that got hacked, and this is a reality that we need to deal with. We know that a lot of our state parties are even more out of date because they haven’t had those resources. It definitely is on the shoulders of the DNC to take the lead in this and make sure that we are figuring out how to fundamentally, not only update our infrastructure but make sure that we are protecting ourselves.

Is this going to change how you do your internal communications, how you discuss strategy and sensitive matters, to avoid anything like this from happening again?
            I will say that transparency would require us to change the way we do business. If we’re operating in a new power structure and we’re not competing and we’re not trying to control outcomes, and we’re actually helping to move democratic processes forward and becoming a services organization, then it won’t change how we do business at all because there won’t be anything leaked in emails that is harmful.

If elected, you as chairwoman would be a national leadership figure for the party alongside Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. In your role as an opposition leader, how would you react to recent events in North Carolina where the state legislature voted to strip powers from the incoming governor, and the initial steps in Congress to repeal Obamacare?
            Ultimately, it’s our job as a political party to support our elected leaders in dealing with those things effectively, so I would have a conversation with those elected leaders in whatever the areas are, you used two examples but I imagine that there are going to be more of them, to work together to be good partners, talk about strategy and figure out what role they want the DNC to play. I think it’s important that we speak out obviously, as a spokesperson for the DNC, it’s going to be important. But I don’t see that the DNC has a lot just as an entity to offer. We don’t create policy at the end of the day. If there is a lawsuit to fight, I think that we need to fight that lawsuit. We need to make sure that we’re all playing together and upholding our values. One of the things that I’ve talked about is making sure we have a Democracy Workroom, that is focused on all the areas where we need to protect democracy, and making sure that we are funding. If a state like North Carolina doesn’t have the money to go fight a lawsuit that needs to be happening because their folks – their folks being the Republican Party – are not upholding their duty to the citizens of the state, then we need to be able to jump in there and help out.

History has shown that the Obama Coalition which successfully elected him twice won’t necessarily turn out with the same numbers and intensity in elections when he was not on the ballot, as was the case in 2010, 2014 and 2016. How do you plan on changing that?
            Ultimately, I think there are two issues that are plaguing us. One is we’re totally out of touch with working people. We have become a party of elite folks. A lot of that has to do with the financial fundraising mechanisms that are in place for having to compete with all of the super PACs that are happening. I think that ultimately we have to have not just an economic message but economic policies. President Obama had a great economic package. He sold that and continued to try to push that as president. We need that as a party. We need to be able to get more money into the pockets of Americans, give them jobs, help them with student loans. There are a lot more ways of getting money into people’s pockets. We absolutely need to do that.
I think secondly, going back into the new power/old power conversation, people that voted for Obama a lot of them liked that he was new and he was different. He didn’t come out of the system, he wasn’t a known quantity, he was fresh. I think by electing me as DNC chair, we bring a lot of those people back into the fold because we’re operating in a systematically, fundamentally different way.

There haven’t been that many people, a lot of leaders within the Democratic Party from the part of the country that you represent.
            From an elected standpoint, there haven’t. I don’t even know if people have run that much from the west. It’s funny, I get accused of being an insider establishment person all the time, and I’m sure that my other friends out west do. I don’t think any of us feel like we’re inside the party, we always feel like we’re outside the party. So one of the big reasons why I’m running is because we need somebody from the west, we need somebody from a rural red state, because most of our states are red at the state legislative area, and if we’re going to turn those states around we need somebody with the experience of fighting that battle to turn things around.

The three big Democratic success stories of the past decade or so at the state and presidential level to varying degrees have been Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada. What are the lessons that you can learn for how and why the party has done well there and how can you apply them to other states?
            I think you can also add Alaska to that list. I think that you can add Arizona to that list. We’ve had a lot of successes.  It’s always interesting to me to see how people in our party define success, because I think it leaves out a lot of races and states that are not usually thought of, and a lot of those states are in the west. I think that it is important to talk to the leaders in those states and ask them what they did that was right. What I’ve heard from the states that have been most successful, it’s the states that pushed back on a campaign recipe, right? Essentially, the states that pushed back on I always call the powers that be, the DCCC, the Hillary campaign, whoever the entities are that are trying to tell them what they need to do in their state, when they’re not in their state and don’t know their state, those are the people that are successful. We need to have a conversation about how we’re real partners with each other, not that a bunch of people in DC looking at a whiteboard and looking at numbers and data are telling folks on the ground who are actually living and breathing the experience what they need to be doing.

How do you want voters, supporters, donors and elected officials to judge your performance? What are your benchmarks for success if you are elected chair?
            I love that question. You’re the first person who’s ever asked me that, I think it’s amazing. I think it’s going to be really important that we come up with those benchmarks and those metrics after we come up with a team of folks, each of those workrooms, we’re going to have to sit down and set goals for ourselves and set metrics, and those should be communicated out to the members. A couple of things that I have set up that I think will help us know if we are doing good jobs or not doing good jobs are one, I’ve got a grievance council in my plan which is essentially a place that if the DNC or a state party or an elected leader is doing something egregious to somebody – not following their bylaws, harassing somebody – they’ve got some place that they can go of professionals, past judges, past mediators, past conflict managers, not affiliated with state parties, have no leadership other than this council that they’re on where they can put that official grievance with. I think that is going to create a lot of transparency so that people can say this is working or not working.
The second piece is I’d like to do an annual evaluation where the public can actually evaluate state parties, DNC staff, DNC officers, that is available to everybody. So if we are doing our jobs, that is going to show up in that evaluation. If we are hitting our goals and hitting our metrics, that’s going to show up in that evaluation. The idea that we’re going to be transparent is not just about having open meetings. It’s not just about making sure everybody knows how votes are happening, it’s not just about even showing the budget, which nobody has seen a DNC budget in decades. It really is about fundamentally opening ourselves up to the honest rigorous feedback from people and then standing on our own merits. If we’re doing a good job, we don’t have anything to fear.

Why did you get into politics for a living and who do you consider to be your political heroes?
            I came into politics because the opportunity presented itself, and I’m not one to not take advantage of an opportunity. At the same time, I really feel that God pulled me into this work. I am a pretty religious person and I kept trying to run away, He kept calling me back. So I finally, I’m a slow learner, it took me three times, but I finally was like, “Oh, OK. I get it!” I would say that God keeps me here until I don’t feel like I’m making a difference anymore or creating the change that I’d like to see. I’ll probably keep doing this. It’s a really powerful way to make a difference in our communities and in our world. Ultimately, if we continue to champion these causes, I think that as much as we have setbacks like we have this year, Democrats change people’s lives on a day-to-day basis, with the people that they interact with. Moment to moment, we are people of conviction, we are people who want to lift folks up, and we do a lot of good work in the world. That is really exciting for me.

Who would you say are your heroes?
            It’s so interesting. I’m a very forward-facing person. I think about the future a lot. I don’t think about the past or history a lot.  President Obama has been one of my heroes. He is a man of conviction. He is authentic. He is probably one of the most open transparent political leaders that I’ve seen. His constituency services are amazing, which is something that’s really important to me. I see every day on social media, different people who have gotten letters from the president’s office. It changes their life to be listened to by the leader of the free world is a really, just a super inspiring and impressive thing.

What was the greatest success in your political career and what was your biggest setback? What lessons did you learn from both?
            I’m going to have to think about that. I’m not someone who really touts successes.  I have successes and then I keep working. I would say something that I talk about often and that I’m incredibly proud of, that benefits not only myself directly, our party and our community, is that I implemented a four-semester internship program that moves interns or young people. We start in high school. It moves them from not really knowing anything about the political process to work.  I have often said we don’t have a majority in the state house, so I can’t put people back to work, but I can put the folks who I interact with in the Democratic Party back to work. So I’m really focused on engaging and partnering with those young people and their futures and careers, making sure that they get valuable experiences. My campaign manager on this campaign came from that internship program. We just hired and transitioned a new communications director. Our communications director of five years left, she was the first intern that we had in that program. So that’s been incredibly satisfying and rewarding to me to be able to mentor and support and lift up the young people in Idaho. Some of that is reflected in my blueprint as well, because I’d love to see us doing that in a better way at the DNC. We certainly have fellows that come in, but I don’t believe that people in the building – correct me if I’m wrong – but I don’t think we’re truly partnering with them making sure they are moving from various places around states. For instance, one of the things I talk about is looking in community colleges, high schools, trade schools. You don’t have to be a college, in college or even a college graduate to work in politics. We need to be reaching out to those folks and lifting them up and providing them training.
I would say that the hardest thing for me in politics, I don’t know that I would say it’s a setback. Like I said, whether I win or lose, I just keep moving forward. I think that’s one of the powers of being from a red state. A lot of other states are going to focus on their wins and losses and decisions are made on that. When you’re in a red state, you build a program, you build an organization, and you keep showing up every day to do that work. I think the most frustrating piece for me is when other people’s personal agendas and what I consider old power ways of doing business get in the way of the progress of the party. So I’ve had several instances of that where I felt I had to fight using their tactics. I’m always disappointed in myself when I fall into that trap. I might still be successful, but it doesn’t feel good. I’m a person of conviction and values, and I’m human like anybody else. When you’re surrounded by people using old power tactics, it can be easy to get swept up in that. I’m really thankful that I have friends and family who can call me out and say, “Huh, that doesn’t really seem like you,” and really bring me back down to earth and remind me, “Oh, yeah. I don’t operate that way. That’s not the way I want to do business.” So I’ve had two of those experiences in the past 24 months, and I don’t think that I’m going to need to have anymore. I think at this point, I know how I want to go about doing politics and doing my business in this world, and it is to stay true to myself, to not let anybody talk me out of my values and convictions, and to just make sure that everything that I do is transparent, that it’s inclusive, and that it’s collaborative.

Read other installments in the “Future of the DNC” series:

Author: David de Sola

Editor/Publisher Political Wilderness

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