The Future of the DNC: Jaime Harrison

This is the second installment of “The Future of the DNC” series.

Jaime Harrison
Current position: Chairman, South Carolina Democratic Party
Candidate for: Chairman of the Democratic National Committee

How did you get involved in Democratic politics?
            I first started my involvement in Democratic politics I guess, when I was a sophomore in high school, so that was ’92? So the Clinton campaign was my first campaign, that I volunteered, worked on, did voter registration, and GOTV [Get Out The Vote] activity.

This was for the primary or for the general?
            For the general. So it was an amazing thing for me. No one in my family had ever been involved in politics. I’d always followed politics, was always fascinated with the presidency, so it was an important year, ’92 was such an important year. You’ve got this guy Bill Clinton whose story sounded so much like my own: single mom in the rural south, young guy who didn’t have family involved in politics, but he really got involved. His story was an inspiration for me, and to have him win and become the president, and at the same time for the first time since Reconstruction, South Carolina elected an African American to Congress in Jim Clyburn. That happened that year as well. So it was a really pivotal year for me in terms of politics, and shortly thereafter I got an opportunity to meet with the congressman and the rest is history.
That’s really how I got involved in politics on the national level. I invited Jim Clyburn. During my junior year, I was the president of the National Honor Society for my high school and the regional president. I invited Jim Clyburn to come and talk to our regional conference, and he graciously said yes. He came to my high school. After the meeting, I went up to the congressman and said “I want to work in your office.” He said, “Well son, go to college first, and then we can have you come and intern.” And I never forgot that. My junior year of college, I had an opportunity to intern with him, and the rest is history.

You went to Yale, correct?
            Yes. I was the first generation in my family to go to college. My mom was young when she had me, she was like 15 or 16 years old, and my grandparents helped to take care of me. They didn’t have a whole lot of education, but nonetheless they knew the importance of it. So I got into Yale University, in spite of a lot of people saying they didn’t think I had a chance, but I did. It was great, it transformed my life, and it was a wonderful time.

Most candidates running for DNC chair have said they will defer to the Unity Commission on the issue of superdelegates. What is your personal opinion: do the powers of the superdelegates need to be reformed or limited, or should the position be abolished altogether?
I definitely would love to see what the Unity Commission comes up with. My personal take is I think the superdelegates play a really important role. One: some of the superdelegates are members of Congress and governors and the like. I don’t think those people need to run against grassroots activists for spots to go to the convention. That’s part of the reason we also have superdelegates, because it gives those people an automatic entrance into the convention so that they don’t have to run against their constituents, which I think is smart in terms of politics.  You want to give grassroots folks an opportunity to participate in the process.
Secondly, I believe that at the very least the chair and vice chair of our party should reflect the vote of their state, either in the primary or the caucus. So that was the thing that I pledged. I pledged in South Carolina that I wouldn’t come out one way or another in terms of endorsing one candidate, but I would endorse and support the person who ended up winning the South Carolina primary, because that just makes good sense on politics. You also don’t want to have a state party chair and vice chair do something that is different from what the vast majority of Democrats in the state decided in the primary process.

Would you be willing to amend or reform the primary calendar so that other, larger states like California or New York can have a bigger say early on in the nominating process?
            I think those states have a big say in the process. Part of the unique part about the primaries that I think is really interesting, I think the candidates appreciate having smaller states up front because it gives them the opportunity to refine their message, to refine how they go out and do television. If you have California or New York very early on, that means you’re going to have to raise a whole lot of money very early on in the process because TV advertising is so important when you have states that are that large. But a state like South Carolina, five million people, it’s small enough that you can get around the state. You can go anywhere from Columbia in two and a half hours in the state, so you can hit multiple media markets, you can talk to people. It’s small enough where you can do all the pat-on-the-back type politics, and at the same time, allow the media to interact with voters in such a way. So I don’t know that we need to frontload it with the largest states, I think the way that the primary system works now is good in terms of having a mixture of smaller states that kick off the process, and then you ramp it up as you move along.

Historians talk about a president’s First Hundred Days in office. If you are elected DNC chair, what will you do in your First Hundred Days on the job, by order of importance?
            One of the first things, I’m working on this now, is the organization of the party, the structure of the organization in the DNC and figuring out what that is. Organizational structure is a really good window into what your principles are, the things that you value. So we need to figure that out, and what’s really important. I believe there needs to be a section of the DNC that is geared toward protecting our democracy. What do I mean by that? Meaning fighting against voter suppression, fighting against gerrymandering, but also being proactive to come up with solutions to how we deal with issues that come from the Citizens United decision.  Those are things that I think are fundamental threats to our democracy as we know it. As a party, we need to make sure that we educate voters about it, and that we take proactive steps to try to curb these things and reduce the harm that they have.
The second thing that I would like to do is, I fundamentally believe, Democrats are now in the minority in almost every aspect of government, from the state houses to governorships to attorneys general to Congress to the White House. We don’t control any of that at this point. We don’t have the majority in any of that. So therefore, it’s going to be particularly important that Democrats are all coordinated on one page as it relates to message, technique and strategy moving forward. So one of the first things that I want to do is call together the leaders from all of these various groups within the Democratic Party to make sure that we can actually coordinate on that level. That has not happened in recent history, and it’s something that has to happen when we’re going up against Donald Trump and this right wing Republican agenda.

After President Obama was re-elected four years ago, Republicans commissioned their famous autopsy. They commissioned it, they wrote the report, they published the findings, and basically ignored it and won the last election. If you were elected chairman, would you commission a similar postmortem?
We don’t need an autopsy report. We just had one that was done after the 2014 election, and if we had actually adhered to it, I think we’d be in a much better situation. That autopsy report said that we need to invest in our state parties more. If you asked me, “Is there one thing that has put Democrats in the situation that we’re in now?” I would say, “Yes. We forgot, we stopped investing in our state parties. We stopped moving forward with a 50-state strategy, or really a 57-state strategy when you count our territories and Democrats Abroad.” We have to once again invest in the infrastructure of the party, because it is the state party which is the foundation for the national party. It is the vehicle with which we get our message out. It is the way that we contact voters, that we interact with voters, and if they’re not strong, if they don’t have the resources they need, if they don’t have the training, if they don’t have the capacity, then they can’t do that fundamental step in order to connect with voters.

In rebuilding, there are two different dynamics depending on the state. There are states where national Democrats have traditionally had very little infrastructure or presence, or attempted to compete in states like your home state of South Carolina, Idaho, or North Dakota. Then you have states where Democrats do have a presence and they have had success in the past, but it’s diminished or atrophied in recent years, in places like Ohio, Missouri or Louisiana. Obviously no two states are alike, but how do you plan to rebuild given the challenges that you face?
            We can’t cede any territory to the Republicans, and we’ve done that far too often. An example: take three states – New Jersey, blue state, right? Maryland, blue state. Massachusetts, blue state. What do they have in common?

Republican governors.
             Republican governors. That means that the Republican Party has said, “Yes, we see you’re blue on presidential, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to contest for seats in your legislature and in your governorship.” But Democrats, what have we done? We have a governor’s race in South Carolina, right? Don’t invest in it. We have a governor’s race in Kansas or Idaho or North Dakota, we don’t invest in it because it’s a red state, Democrats don’t win in those states. I’m one of those people who believe that if you don’t put your hat in the ring, you’re right. We’re not going to win. If you never invest in it, you’re right. We’re not going to win. We’ve got to start going on the offense and stop playing so much defense. Part of the answer is the investment in all those states across the board.
The second part is the DNC can play a really good role in terms of helping state parties build capacity. What I mean by capacity is we always hear about building a bench, and whether the Democratic Party has to build a bench. In order to build a bench, you have to have an operation or a process by which to do that. It’s not something that just happens organically. When I inherited the chairmanship of South Carolina, it wasn’t like I had this trove of people or a candidate tree and all I need to do is go to the backyard and pick a candidate off and all of the sudden they magically appear. That doesn’t happen. You have to build it. You have to train, you have to cultivate talent. First you have to find it, you have to cultivate it, you have to train it, and you have to give them the tools to be successful. So that’s what we’ve been trying to do in South Carolina. Again, it’s not a process like tomorrow you wake up and all of the sudden you have it, it’s something that you have to really build and pour resources in.
So we launched the Clyburn Fellowship about two years ago, and that fellowship was geared to a few things, not just building a bench of talent for candidates but also county party leadership. The average age of county party chairs in South Carolina when I became chair was 60-something years old. We’re slowly trying to change that, to bring young people into the party, give them a leadership role in the party, help them shape the party, so that the way that we communicate with voters is different because they the world in a different manner, But also in terms of campaign field staff. Again, we had to import talent from other states because we were not grooming our own talent in South Carolina, so we came up with the Clyburn Fellowship. Last year, we graduated 32. This year, we have a class of 48 that even includes a young man who was a Rhodes Scholar. It’s becoming the blueprint for how you go about building a bench that, when I explain it and talk to other states, they’re like “Can you send me the information?”
Well, the DNC has to become that vehicle in which we communicate that. It has to have a culture of sharing and discussion so that when states are doing something really interesting, because they really are the laboratories of democracy, when they’re doing something really interesting they feel that they can share that with folks and the DNC can be that conduit in which that information is shared, people can learn from it, and they can replicate it.

Where do you think the next generation of Democratic stars are going to come from? What will you do as chairman to find and nurture those talents as they climb the rungs of power?
            They’re all over. Partly, if you look at some of our staff, they’re all superstars. Folks who are here with me this weekend, they’re all Democratic superstars with tremendous pedigree, knowledge, experience smarts, but we’ve got to give them opportunities to shine. There’s this quote that says “In the darkest night, we see the brightest stars,” and that’s really true. This is the darkest of the dark for the Democratic Party in a long time, and I think we’re going to see some of the bright stars come out, and on a national level right now there are some folks right now that I believe are superstars, but there is a lot of talent, great talent that’s in the state parties that we haven’t showcased, and as chair, I want to make sure we do that. I want to give them an opportunity.
I started a web series in South Carolina called “Chair Chats,” and part of the push for “Chair Chats” was to make sure that we showcase our local talent.  We have this young mayor in Johnston, South Carolina who worked for Outkast, so he gets the hip hop stuff, but at the same time this guy is wicked smart and really good, and he’s able to work with the rural white community and the rural African American community and bridge them together to do new things in this town, in a very small rural town. We showcased him on “Chair Chats” and we’ve given him opportunities to shine in the Democratic Party. We need to do that on a national level, as well.

Democrats are really seeing the end of four eras coming to a head next week – Obama, the Clintons, Joe Biden and Harry Reid. What role do you see for them within the party now that their political careers are over?
            I hope they don’t retire from helping the Democratic Party, that’s really, really important. We need all of them to go to our states, all of our states, to be ambassadors for the party. If I am chair, that’s what I’m going to ask them. I’m going to create what we call a Democratic Ambassadorship Program. Basically they are going to be the goodwill ambassadors going into our states, helping our state parties fundraise, helping us recruit folks for offices. Just think of the power of having a former President of the United States, a former Secretary of State, or a former U.S. Senator giving a candidate a call and encouraging them to run for Senate or running for the House of Representatives. That has tremendous amount of power, and being able to tap into their network to support these candidates would be tremendous. Having them come when we have training for all of these candidates that we find and that we try to groom, having them come and talk to them, tremendous things. It’s important that the Clintons and the Obamas and the Bidens don’t just step away and not do the things that are necessary to help us rebuild this party.

If elected chairman, do you foresee having to take any additional cybersecurity measures to protect the electronic infrastructure of the party?
            One of the things I think we have to do, again I’m one of these people that focus on organization a lot. One of my jobs was I was COO for a non-profit and helped them build the systems and the infrastructure to grow into a more successful non-profit. That non-profit was College Summit. So I think about organizational structure and organizational behavior and culture a lot, in all aspects of the things I’ve been able to do. So thinking about the DNC and looking at the current structure, there is nobody on the senior level that is of a CTO-type level – Chief Technology Officer or Chief Innovation Officer – meaning that there is somebody who is thinking not only about “How do we keep the computers running?” but thinking about our cybersecurity and how do we keep our data secure, and not only just the proprietary data that we have on a national level, but the entities, for lack of a better word almost franchises of the DNC, the state parties, what are we doing in order to protect them as well from these attacks? Again, we can’t just be defensive.
We also have to be proactive and we have to be thinking about what are the cutting edge technologies that we need and the innovations that we need. So having somebody who can go to Silicon Valley and talk with the heads of these huge corporations and companies that are in this technology space and convene sessions and discussions about creating things that help us do our jobs better, have it be from the field side, from the communications side and how we talk to voters. The Republicans have caught up to us in terms of the technology. We no longer have the technology edge in politics that we had say, eight years ago. So we don’t have someone whose sole job it is when they get up in the morning and go to bed at night is thinking “How do we push forward on innovation in the technology space?” That’s what I want to create at the DNC.

Do you think this episode is going to change the way the party, party candidates and campaigns handle internal communications?
            I think so. It has to, because listen, just because it happened we’re not going to fix this so that it never happens again, right? So I think how we communicate is going to be important. What we put in our communications are going to be very important. We definitely have to figure that out. There are a lot of people who have been, a lot of companies who have had to tackle this, so it’s not something that’s new, and I think we can get some guidance on this from folks who have had to deal with this for a long time.

If you had been DNC chair at the time, how would you and the organization have responded to the events in North Carolina where the state legislature voted to strip powers from the incoming governor and the upcoming congressional votes on repealing Obamacare?
            North Carolina is our sister state, right across the border. One of the things I think we would have done, and I think it still probably needs to be done, well not now because we have a Democratic governor who is fighting to make sure, but this is when you have to flex your economic muscle as well. I know the NAACP was calling for a boycott, but it would have been great for Democrats to stand together and say, “Listen, we are not going to support these types of efforts,” so therefore there might need to be a boycott to demonstrate to the leadership in that state that this type of behavior is not going to be tolerated. You cannot, we’re not going to tolerate you walking on the rights of the American people. It doesn’t matter what state you’re in, we’re not going to tolerate that. So I would have moved forward in some type of action that way, again coalescing all of our supporters and groups to push in one direction, getting everybody all on one page is also very, very important, to come up with a strategy and technique that is cohesive and that is coordinated.
As it relates to the Affordable Care Act, we are doing some things. We’ve done some really interesting things in South Carolina. We were at the forefront in terms of, this is not about the Affordable Care Act but about the Ethics Office, in terms of applying pressure to members of Congress about the changes that they made, the attempted changes to the Ethics Office. Having our grassroots activists flood the phones with calls, sit-ins and the like, all those things are important ways that we can resist. But it’s also important, and I have an understanding of Capitol Hill and how things work there, is to make sure that our members are doing everything possible in order to thwart Republican attempts to change these types of things. I think that Senate Democrats need to pull out the cots and do an old-fashioned filibuster when it comes to to some of these things that they’re trying to do. In the Senate, they act a lot with unanimous consent. The Senate doesn’t function unless you get unanimous consent to operate in some fashion. Well, maybe instead of saying “We’ll filibuster this, but we’ll continue to move the agenda forward on other things,” just shut the whole thing down. It’s worth it. Twenty million people losing their health care is worth shutting it down, because that says to me Congress is not doing what it needs to do in the best interests of the American people.

History has shown that when President Obama was on the ballot in 2008 and 2012, the Obama coalition was a winning ticket, a winning combination. But when he was not on the ballot – 2010, 2014 and 2016 – that coalition wouldn’t necessarily turn out with the same numbers and energy in the way that was so successful for President Obama. How do you go about changing that?
President Obama in 2008 also benefited from something else that you didn’t mention in that, and that was the 50-state strategy. Take a look at the 2008 race and look at 2012. There was a drop in number of voters and all that. 2012 did not look as great as 2008. Well, in 2008 we had a 50-state strategy. Every state was getting infrastructure money. Every state had capacity in order to touch voters, talk to voters, get those voters out. That was amplified by the organization that President Obama also created. But by the 2012 election, the program that we had in every state was no longer running at the same level that it was in 2008, and as a result, we didn’t get the results that we got in 2008. So it’s really, really important.
Part of the Obama coalition, part of the effort President Obama put out there was galvanizing the grassroots. Well, if your state parties can’t assist in that effort, then you’re not going to get the results that we need, so we have to go back to that 50-state strategy that is so desperate and so needed, and it’s something the Republicans have done, they really have. Reince Priebus, when he was chair of the RNC, invested in the state parties. We got to go back to doing that on the Democratic side.

If you are chosen to be the next chairman of the Democratic Party, how do you want voters and elected officials and donors to judge your performance? What would you consider to be the metrics and benchmarks for success as chairman?
            We didn’t get into this situation overnight, we’re not going to get out of it overnight. But I think if we can take a look, if we can early on in this 2018 cycle build capacity and limit any losses that we have in the Senate, and push and get some gains in terms of governorships and state house seats, I think that will be a big win for Democrats going into this ’18 cycle. So making sure that we support New Jersey and Virginia in their races here in 2017 also very, very important. But we don’t have a lot of time to do that, those races are coming up in less than a year. So we need to make sure that we ramp up our capacity to be able to assist them. I think looking at, trying to perform better in the midterm elections is going to be important, but also putting in the systems to begin building a bench in our states, to changing and reforming how we go about doing our presidential primary system. I think those are the types of things that we look at in the short term, to see whether or not we’re on track, and then in 2020, which will be very, very big for us because we have to make sure that Donald Trump does not get re-elected.

Not only the presidential election, but it’s a census year, and you have redistricting shortly after.
            That’s exactly right, it’s so important. The governor’s races, and the legislative races, we always like to think about Congress as the House and the Senate, but really the most important races in the ’18 cycle are doing what we can to make sure we retain our Senate seats, but we’ve got to focus on governorships, we’ve got to focus on legislatures.

You’re playing offense on that map, whereas you’re playing defense in the Senate.
            Exactly. Twenty-five seats, 10 of the 25 are in Trump states.

Who do you consider to be your biggest political role models?
            Jim Clyburn. I’ve learned everything, most things in politics from watching him. He is one of the true statesmen that we have in this country. That title is not one that I give freely, because they are becoming rare in politics, but he definitely is a role model because he’s not one to throw bombs, he’s not one to consume all the oxygen in the room, but he always takes a very thoughtful approach. He’s always thinking about how you bring people together. I learned from him that success for the Democratic Party is when we’re a party of addition and multiplication, rather than a party of subtraction and division. That’s really, really important in how I’ve conducted myself as chair, how I’ve conducted myself in other political capacities, and I will continue to do that.
Another person I would say is a role model and a mentor is Howard Dean. His 50-state strategy really was the framework by which I utilized when I first got into the chairmanship of the South Carolina Democratic Party. I have tremendous respect for him and what he was able to accomplish in his time as chair. If I am able to be elected chair, I will use a lot of what he did, bring that back and add to it.
But I would say right now, the two of them and of course, John Lewis was my neighbor. When we were in the House majority, my office was right next to Congressman Lewis’s, his leadership office in the Capitol. There were many times I went in, sat on his couch and talked to him, or just went in his office and stared at the pictures. He is a national treasure and a tremendous asset to our party and to the nation, so he’s somebody that I look up to.

What is the greatest success in your political career and the biggest disappointment? What lessons did you learn from both of them?
            There are two things, I would say. The way I think about politics is I divide it up. Success as chair? Hands down, the Clyburn Fellowship. I think that is going to be my legacy that I leave for the Democratic Party of South Carolina, because we are going to build a whole new generation of leaders in that state, and that fellowship is going to be the foundation from which they spring forward.
When I was in the House and worked in the House Democratic leadership, we were able to accomplish a lot. It was a tremendous thing given the very diverse caucus that we had. But there is one bill that stands out in my mind as probably the most difficult thing to whip, and it was the greatest success that we had in that process. It was the first time that we took up the Matthew Shepard James Byrd hate crimes bill. As I told you, we had 233 seats in the House, so a 15-seat majority. When we were whipping that bill, we just could not get over 200 votes. For over a week, we whipped and we whipped and we whipped that bill, and there were some of our Democrats who just could not do it because they were scared of Motions to Recommit, sort of amendments that Republicans can put up in order to change the legislation. They were scared about the ads that they would hear, they were scared about the perception, how the LGBT community was seen, whether an attack ad would be produced against them for voting for this thing. We tried and we tried and we tried.
Nancy Pelosi came to Congressman Clyburn and said to him, “Jim, I want to put this bill up and I want to put it up on Thursday.” I think it was a Thursday. And he said, “Nancy, we just don’t have the votes at this time.” I told the boss, I said “Boss, I’ve tried. I can’t figure out how we get the votes.” Somebody came up, and I cannot remember to this day, I cannot remember who came up with this idea. I think it was in a staff brainstorming session. They said, “Why don’t we invite Matthew Shepard’s mom and the sheriff who found him to come to our whip meeting on Thursday morning?” Because we would have a whip meeting every Thursday morning, Clyburn would have the Southern breakfast and all the members would come. We were able to do that, I think Pelosi’s staff were able to get her on a plane and the sheriff to fly out to DC.
We were very fortunate that morning, because a lot of the members who were a “No” on that vote were actually in the audience. And the sheriff started off by explaining how he found Matthew’s body, and then his mom talked about what it meant to her, and what this legislation meant. I can tell you, it was the most amazing emotional thing I’ve ever seen in the House of Representatives. Because if members walked into that room with frost around their hearts, it all melted away. Not only did we pass it, but we had well over the 218 votes to do it. And it’s just a testament to me that you can never say anything is impossible, but you always have to try. If you can tell the story and if you make people feel it on a personal level, it has so much more power to really change the world. So, if there’s one vote that I’m most proud of from my time working on Capitol Hill, it’s that one, because I knew how hard it was to get it over the fence.
In terms of greatest failure, I don’t know. I don’t like to think to think of things as failures but as opportunities that I learned from. Yeah, there are moments in which I’m disappointed, and those disappointments happen all the time. But I don’t dwell on them very often, because I don’t think I have much time to do that. To be quite honest, I can’t think of any. There are things I wish would have happened a different way, but I’m also one of those guys that walks around the world and thinks things happen for a reason, even though I might not like them, even though they make me uncomfortable, but you got to learn from them and move forward. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

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

DNC Vice Chair Candidates Forum Liveblog

Up next is a short 30-minute forum with the two candidates running for DNC vice chair for civic engagement and voter registration, the seat currently held by Donna Brazile who is not running for reelection.  The two candidates are Karen Carter Peterson, chairwoman of the Louisiana Democratic Party, and Melissa Fazli, a candidate for the 55th district in the California Assembly.

Karen Carter Peterson: notes that she first ran for office at age 18 and was a Jesse Jackson delegate at the 1988 convention, in part because of Donna Brazile.
We don’t have to reinvent everything, but we do have to reorganize.

Q: what have you done in your current role for civic engagement and voter registration?

Peterson: last 5 years as chair of LADP, it has been my job as engagement at state party level.  I’m running because I think DNC can go further and programs can be strengthened.
At parrish level, training wehave institutedis phenominal.

Fazli: got into politics in high school, my first petition was against apartheid.
Campaigned for Al Gore.  Canvassed for John Kerry in Fort Lauderdale to oversee voter protection.
I’ve been in politics and supporting politicians for almost 30 years. I am one that went to doors. I didn’t have name in the paper, I didn’t have the pep rallies, but I’m the one that got the people there.
We understand this is a very responsible job, and when it comes to one of us, it’s not a job for 3 months out before election. I’m willing to dedicate my life and energy to the DNC for the next 4 years.

Q: from Alaska DP: how do you engage people who stayed home this election?

Fazli: I read Newsom book. Tells you how to get people reengaged.
I believe in 50 state strategy, I believe in national popular vote. I believe Electoral College needs to be abolished.
Support more women running for office.

Carter Peterson: engage, serve as surrogate and messenger.
It is very important for us, if you’re not at the table, you’re going to be on the bench.

DNC Chair Candidates Forum Liveblog

Per luck of the draw backstage, each candidate gets two minutes for opening remarks. Tom Perez goes first:

  • “I feel like Lou Gehrig… the luckiest person on the face of the Earth.”
  • Perez gets huge applause for mentioning his fight in DOJ against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
  • “We need a turnaround artist.”

Continue reading “DNC Chair Candidates Forum Liveblog”

Donna Brazile Comes Out Swinging Against Donald Trump Attack on John Lewis

This is how the first DNC regional forum opened up. Tweet/image courtesy of Jonathan Martin of the New York Times.

UPDATE: The DNC has released the video and text of her remarks, included below.

 

“Before we get started, I have to take some time to talk a little about the current news of the day – something that’s trending. Of course it involves the tweets of a certain President Elect. Don’t boo – vote! When they go low, we go high! Thank you, Michelle Obama.

“On the eve of the holiday where we celebrate one of the greatest advocates and defenders of justice and freedom and equality for all. As we observe the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., we have, from President Elect Trump,  an attack on a living legend and civil rights hero, John Lewis.

“Mr. Trump said that John Lewis is ‘all talk and no action.’  I say, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, I say that John Lewis took action.

“He took action Marching from Selma to Montgomery. He took action in marching toward men wielding clubs across the Pettis bridge who fractured his skull because of the color of his skin. But John Lewis never stopped marching for justice and equality for all people.

“Congressman John Lewis, a proud son of sharecroppers, spent his entire life working as an advocate for young people and working people.  His actions and his sacrifice helped make America the great nation that it is today. John Lewis is our hero and he symbolizes everything we stand for as Americans and as the Democratic Party.

“We denounce these remarks not only on Congressman John Lewis, but on the good people of Atlanta – the people he represents, the Fifth district, the home of the state Capitol. We denounce the attacks on the home of Spellman and Morehouse and Georgia Tech and Emory – we denounce that.

“Look – I thank you Atlanta. We know that after Hurricane Katrina, you took in many of us. We love you, Atlanta. We love you, Georgia. We love you, America. And we love you, John Lewis.”

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:

Hello Arizona!

Happy 2017! The site was inactive for several weeks because my almost 6-year-old Macbook Pro decided to go kaput while I was on vacation. A few weeks and a new hard drive later, I and the site are back and open for business.

I just arrived in Phoenix a few hours ago for the first Democratic National Committee Regional Forum. I will be in town for the next several days doing interviews and filing stories and tweeting from the scene as much as possible.

Watch this space…