This is the third installment of the “Future of the DNC” series.
Current positions: Chairman, New Hampshire Democratic Party
President, Association of State Democratic Chairs
Vice Chair, Democratic National Committee
Candidate for: Chairman of the Democratic National Committee
How did you get involved in Democratic politics?
My parents were both brought up in extraordinarily dysfunctional families. Both of them experienced childhoods that Dickens couldn’t even… Both had great horrors happen to them growing up. They found each other as teenagers. My mother was 15, she got pregnant. She dropped out of 9th grade, my father dropped out of 11th grade. They struggled until I was 3. We moved out to Detroit, Michigan, where he had learned the skill of welding. A friend of his called him up and said, “Hey, come out and stay with us.” We ended up living in Detroit, Michigan for three years, from age 3 to 6. I went to preschool and kindergarten in Detroit, at the Ella Fitzgerald Elementary School. We had an integrated school, integrated neighborhood, integrated church, so I had no concept that somebody’s skin color was any different than somebody’s hair color.
Then we came back to New Hampshire. My dad’s job in Detroit, we were having a terrible time. We were actually living in the basement of this elderly couple as my father was trying to find work. In February 1967 – fifty years ago in February – my teacher made everything about Abraham Lincoln. So I’m in second grade, sitting there. I remember exactly where I was sitting, where she’s talking about the life of Abraham Lincoln and then talking about slavery. Although I was 7 years old, my mind was completely blown that the great grandparents or great great grandparents of my friends that I left in Detroit were actually owned. It so horrified me, and then I saw that Lincoln changed things by being involved in politics, by getting elected.
So in 1968, I was 8 years old, a guy was going down the street canvassing, running for governor and I was playing in the front yard and I said, “Hey, you want me to go with you? I’ll introduce you to all the neighbors.” So I consider that my first canvas, at 8 years old. I was very involved in Ed Muskie’s campaign when I was 11 and 12 in the presidential primary.
This is in New Hampshire?
All in New Hampshire. We got back to New Hampshire in ’67. Because of the primary, because of all the trappings in New Hampshire, it’s politics 24/7 there and I got brought right in. When I was 15, I was part of the 32-member student committee for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign, as a 15-year-old. And that’s when I met Bill and Jeanne Shaheen. Billy Shaheen was the chair of the campaign. The thirty-two of us would gather every Wednesday night at the Carter headquarters. Nobody in the world knew who he was. I really started from there.
When I was 18, I got elected county chair. I’ve been a member of the Democratic state committee of New Hampshire since I was 18. I’ve never had a minute of my adult life without being on the state committee. So I have run campaigns, I’ve run for office, I served as local alderman, I served eight terms in the legislature, I was the deputy leader, I was the whip, and very involved in building the LGBT community. In 1985, I was one of the founders of the Citizens Alliance for Gay and Lesbian Rights.
Was there a big stigma on that at the time? That’s at the height of the AIDS epidemic during the Reagan era.
Oh, good God, yes! I got frustrated after a couple of months, because they were mostly about talking and I’m about doing, so I ran for legislature and that was my first term. In that first term was when John Sununu the elder was governor, he signed a law making it illegal not only for gays to donate blood, but we also were prohibited from being foster parents, custodians, or adopting. For me, my parents divorced after we got back here and remarried, so I have eight younger siblings and half-siblings. I was brought up to think of them as my duty.
Being a sitting legislator, to have the state of New Hampshire say that if something happened to either set of my parents, that I was not legally fit to raise my younger siblings was one of the most painful things that I’ve ever experienced in my life. It was very difficult. I fought it with everything I could, but I was unsuccessful. They passed it, passed the law, and in 1999, I repealed it. I put the bill in, I worked my butt off, and we repealed it. We passed every possible LGBT law through the legislature. Marriage equality New Hampshire was through the legislature, not through the courts. School bullying bill, all those things we did…
But New Hampshire is traditionally sort of a libertarian state, not a socially conservative state like South Carolina, right?
True, but there was no… when I was growing up in the 70s, I never imagined that I was going to be able to be involved in politics and be out. There was nobody there. The only person that came out was when I was 18, Harvey Milk, and he was assassinated.
His nephew just endorsed you, right?
Yes. So it was a terrifying time, if you think of ‘85. I was going to a funeral a month. How I escaped it and a few of my friends escaped it…
You’re talking about the AIDS epidemic? Even in New Hampshire?
Oh, good lord, yes! There would be in the statewide newspapers, almost everyday, it would say, “23, was living in San Francisco.” It wouldn’t say the cause of death, but you knew obviously that it was AIDS-related. It was a terrible time, and I thought it was important for us to stand up and fight as a community.
You and other candidates have said on the issue of superdelegates that you will defer to the Unity Commission…
The Unity Commission must come up with a result where every state’s delegation reflects the vote within that state. My solution to that – it doesn’t have to be the one that passes, as long as that’s the end result. My proposal would be that if the superdelegates endorsed pre-final, because most state party delegates selection is actually a three-step process that takes place over the course of several months, if you are a superdelegate and you endorse prior to the final process, you get counted as a delegate. So at the end of the day, you could not flip a state by superdelegates, because if you took up the total number of delegates and you won the state by 60 percent and I only got 40 percent, at the end of the day the delegation has to be 60 percent for you, 40 percent for me. So if you had a superdelegate, it would come out of your 60 percent allotment, so those superdelegates would be allotted within that.
Do you think their powers should be reformed or limited, or should the position be abolished altogether?
I worked on this merely eight years ago, after ’08. President Obama very much wanted to eliminate superdelegates. I had multiple conversations with members, and I came to realize that we would not be able to get the votes, because you would be asking the superdelegates to get rid of themselves. So I think that the real rub is the fact that superdelegates are able to come in and flip a state or make a difference, so they should be counted in whatever your allotment. So at the end of the day, when you get to the convention if you added up all of your votes, add up all of my votes, the total vote at the convention would reflect the vote that occurred.
Would you be willing to reform the primary calendar so that other, larger states can have more say early on in the process, or is that not on the table right now?
Not one person has brought up the calendar. I think we have a number of issues that we do need to deal with regarding the nominating process, whether it’s reforming how the caucuses are run so that they are more uniform, so that they are more accessible to more people and that they are welcoming to as many voices as possible, to get more people to participate in them. It is crazy that we have a caucus in one state, right next door another caucus, and they actually don’t in any way mirror each other in how they are conducted or run or who gets to participate. We really need to create some uniformity.
Why I think it’s not an issue this time: Iowa and New Hampshire performed their jobs, when Bernie was able to get 60 percent of the vote in New Hampshire. Bernie would not have had that opportunity if he had gotten in some sort of big state. It is building that sort of grassroots operation that allows people to rise.
Historians speak of a president’s First Hundred Days in office. If you are elected chairman, what would you do in your First Hundred Days, in order of importance?
I would gather those who had not been successful together, along with the officers that were elected, and maybe some of those that were not elected but were highly talented, and bring them together for two days. This has got to be a team effort. One person cannot do everything that has to be done. Every person has to be empowered to bring the best of their abilities in. The DNC chair is authorized to create titles, it allows people to participate at a high level in the party. Any sort of title, whatever got them to sign on to being involved. I think you heard a lot of great voices today. All of them should be at that table, they all have a very important role to play. That would be Number One.
Number Two, I would go and visit the congressional leadership, both Senator Schumer and Leader Pelosi, and talk about my relationship that I’ve had with my elected officials in New Hampshire, and how I would expect that to be very open process, and that they feel very comfortable reaching out to me and I hope that I can feel comfortable reaching out to them to make sure that Democratic values and principles are being supported, and talk about bringing up some of their elected officials as being spokespersons and encouraging a larger bench to be created.
I would then create a group of individuals who are talented to find the very best of the best to populate the building with, for staff.
I would also then bring the traditional donors and fundraisers together and saying, “Here’s what our plan is. I need you to start writing your checks now and start raising money right now, because we have just days to start getting ready for 2018.” We can have a very strong response to that if we have the resources to build up what we have to do in those communities.
Republicans commissioned their famous autopsy of the 2012 election. They wrote it, they published it, basically proceeded to ignore it, and went ahead and won this election. If elected chairman, are you going to commission any study or autopsy for the lessons learned of 2016?
I think you are going to see some generally bright people come up with some post mortems. I’m not saying I have all of the answers, but I know what worked in New Hampshire and I know what sort of voters we have in New Hampshire, and they’re not unlike a lot of those states that we lost narrowly. It is about building the infrastructure of the party. I absolutely believe that if we had kept the funding level of the 50-state strategy under Howard Dean, continued through the past eight years or increased, we would not have the results we that we have in our state legislatures, governors, Congress and the White House.
There are two dynamics in rebuilding at the state level. You have states where Democrats have historically on the national level not had much presence or infrastructure, places like Idaho or North Dakota. On the other hand, you have places where Democrats have had presence and success in the past, but it’s sort of atrophied or diminished in recent times, in places like Ohio, Missouri…
As president of the state chairs’ association, I am extraordinarily aware of the abilities of every single one of these state parties already. There is zero learning curve for me, because as the president of the state chairs’ association, I’ve had to work with them, or at least deal with some of the issues in every one of the parties over the last eight years.
Obviously, there is no cookie cutter solution for all 50 states. How are you going to deal with these different competing dynamics that are at play?
There absolutely is not. By bringing in some phenomenal new leaders that can help, and staff that can help as well. Do a real assessment. I want each state party to do a 10-year plan, on where they want to be in 10 years and what we have to do to build that up. There are so many fantastic ideas. Developing mentoring programs, emerging leader programs, outreach to the communities, building my idea of having a permanent Democratic headquarters in every congressional district. How is that built out? Do we have a staff person in there or is it volunteer-run? Each state would create that in their own way, and allow them… My program has every state party getting $10,000 every month and the ability to ask for an additional $15,000 per month for a specific project or program. What I want to do is encourage them to be creative and to figure out what works there. Even in New Hampshire, even though we’re a very small state, what works in one town doesn’t work in the town across the river. So let people come up with what works in their community, and let’s figure out how to make that work for everybody.
Looking ahead at the calendar, this year you have state races in New Jersey, Virginia and North Carolina, as well as mayoral races and special elections to fill vacant seats lost to the president’s cabinet. Further down the road, you have a difficult Senate map in 2018 but you have a promising statewide map that same year for governors and legislatures.
Historically, in the midterm elections for the out party, there is a boost. My commitment would be, I think whether we don’t improve ourselves at all, I think we’ll still have an OK night. I want us to have a great night. I want us to go into districts and states where we can make a huge difference, and I think we can do that if we actually have a real gameplan, everyone is coordinated and working together. So we take things like, “DGA, you target a governor’s race. DSCC, you target a Senate race.” Let’s get together and figure out how we’re going to build this out, those sorts of conversations, instead of everyone waiting for the other folks to show up with money.
Where do you think the next generation of Democratic leaders and stars is going to come from? What would you do as chairman to discover and nurture these new talents as they climb the rungs of power?
Well, I think that you see what we’ve done in New Hampshire just this last election cycle. We elected a number of folks under 30 to the legislature. I think that’s very important as we’re building and bringing people forward. First we need to elect them to school office, and then encourage them and support them as they move into state office. It is a multi-tiered step. There may be some that are ready right from the get-go to run for Congress or run for governor or run for U.S. Senate in their mid-30s. That’s not practical for everybody. A lot of people need to step up. I think that we have the ability to capture the nation and be the majority party in a generation. But my thought has been for the last couple of years, “When America, because of the changing demographics, does flip, are we going to be ready? Are we going to have candidates that are prepared to serve in those positions that are going to be acceptable at that point to the voting majority?” It’s very important that we encourage and nurture a vast diversity of people from their backgrounds, whether it’s economic or whether it’s their ethnicity, religion, whatever. Everyone needs to be brought up and encouraged, because we are… it’s clear this country is going to become more multicultural and we have to make sure that everyone feels the Democratic Party is a home for them.
It should also be noted that but for 80,000 votes in three states, Democrats would be having a very different conversation right now.
We wouldn’t be having a conversation. The conversation would be waiting for who Hillary was going to pick for DNC chair.
Democrats have seen the end of four eras over the last several months: President Obama, the Clintons, Joe Biden, and Harry Reid. What role do you see for them within the party in the future?
Each and every one of them have massive affection within the Democratic Party across the country. One of the items I talk about is promising that at least one of our top surrogates goes to each state, at least one, each state per year. So I would go to them and ask either the former president or the former vice president or Secretary Clinton or Senator Reid, actually commit to going to all of these states, whether that means going to the Oklahoma state party dinner or going to the Alaska state convention, we need to show up. That’s how we’re going to build it. They are the folks that will attract the most amount of attention, along with Senator Sanders and a number of other individuals who are highly popular. They are people with some amazing star power, and they need to be utilized to build a grassroots and to be a voice of the party as well.
I don’t know what measures Donna Brazile has taken already in the wake of the Russia hacks. If you are elected chairman, what additional measures might you take to protect the party’s electronic infrastructure?
Since Donna took over, there has not been an incident. We have hired CrowdStrike, which is one of the top-rated if not the top-rated cybersecurity agency in the world. She created a working group, some of the top individuals in cybersecurity to advise us how to move forward. She also established a cybersecurity office, where there is actually somebody in the building, a full-time staffer working on that. We are never going to allow what happened to us to happen again.
Do you think this will change the internal communications in terms of how you discuss sensitive subjects and strategy? Clearly there were some rather embarrassing emails that people lost their jobs because of them. Do you think this episode will change how you communicate or handle things internally?
I’ve been state chair now for 10 years. I’ve had for the last eight years an office within the DNC with three staffers, sometimes more. There’s not a single incidence of any of that sort of behavior by me or anyone that works for me. That is about a culture within the building that was acceptable by some people. If it is unacceptable to you, then everyone who works under you understands that is not the sort of behavior you participate in. Nobody that works for me nor I have to change anything, because I went through thousands of my own DNC emails and my communications back and forth. There is zero that was bad. We went through our staff, we combed through to find if there was anything there. There wasn’t.
If you had been DNC chair within the past few weeks, how would you and the organization have responded to events in North Carolina, where the state legislature voted to curb the powers of the incoming governor, and in Congress with the upcoming votes to repeal Obamacare?
I think that it is important that we be very strong and very firm. We are in a transition period with the party right now, so it’s hard to say here’s what we would be doing or should be doing. If we were in the midst of a four-year term, I certainly think we would be very aggressive and be able to fight. But right now, the DNC staff is a skeletal staff, because post-election there is always a release. What Donna has done is to make sure there is enough money in the bank to operate. She has let go of an enormous number of staff, so we do not have a large number of staff at the DNC right now. She has created that war room that I think is getting out terrific messaging. Obviously, if we were in a better financial situation and weren’t in the middle of a transition, we would have multi-times more people all doing this and pushing it out, being able to organize that. There is time. Progressive organizations have stepped up and been very supportive and involved and engaged. We learned in New Hampshire that you have to be factual, you have to be truthful, you have to be honest, but you can never hesitate to throw a punch. It is a winning strategy for us over the years. We have done well for us because we have never shied away from making sure that if the Republicans do something horrific or behave in a bad way or attack one of ours, to attack with a stronger punch back.
The Obama coalition which elected him president twice has not turned out in the same numbers and intensity when he is not on the ballot, as we saw in 2010, 2014 and 2016. How do you plan to change that?
As I’ve talked about what happened in New Hampshire in ’14 and ’16, where we didn’t suffer the horrific losses that other battleground states did. We were able to sustain that by building local organizations. We were never going to sit back and assume the Obama coalition was going to thrive simply because he was in the White House. It was a very large mistake to cut back on the 50-state strategy, to cut back on the funding of the state parties. If we had built that, I believe we would have gotten better in 2010, and better in 2014 and better in 2016.
As chairman, how do you want voters, donors and elected official to judge your success? What are your benchmarks or metrics for success?
Every state party chair is judged by their win-loss ratio. We live by whether we win or don’t win. That’s how I’m judged in New Hampshire, and that’s how I will be judged as chair. Now, much of the work that’s going to happen in the next four years is long term. We may not be able to win a House majority over the next four years, but we may be able to in 2022, because we will be able to unscramble the gerrymandered districts in so many states that have allowed Republicans to do it, despite the fact that the population of that state doesn’t actually support that number of Republicans going to Congress. That is the margin of the majority, in state after state. The work to unscramble them will have to be done this term. I might not be judged for having flipped Congress into a permanent Democratic majority, but I would hope that I would be seen as the person who laid the foundation for a permanent majority.
Who do you consider to be your political heroes?
As I mentioned, Abraham Lincoln’s childhood and poverty. I was able to connect with that, and I was able to see that he gave his life for doing what he believed was right, freeing a nation and America’s soul. I don’t think there’s a higher calling than that. So Abraham Lincoln’s life story and Abraham Lincoln’s success is something that has motivated me throughout.
I have a number of individuals that I consider heroes for so many different reasons. I think of FDR, his Four Freedoms speech to me is the essence. Dr. King, speaking out there. When I got to go to the memorial for the first time, it was a near religious experience for me, because I believe that he so changed, the power of his voice changed the way that the country is right now. I’m from New England, so the entire Kennedy family has been somewhat heroic to all of us. Very excited about young Joe in Congress as well, and having gotten to know some of them has been an amazing experience.
That said, obviously as a small child or teenager working on Jimmy Carter’s campaign, seeing him go from nothing to winning the New Hampshire primary to winning the nomination to being elected president, and then the work that he has done post-presidency. He will forever be a hero to me. And what Bill Clinton has done, and the millions of lives he has impacted post-presidency as well has been phenomenal. But Barack Obama took it to a whole different level as president, for what he has done for the LGBT community, for health care. He has touched the lives, there are literally millions of Americans’ lives who will forever be better because of his presidency. So I look at him and then I go back to Johnson and the Great Society. I was helped as a small poor kid by some of those programs. One of my first jobs when I was 14-15 years old, the Food Stamp Program, and the Surplus Food and all those programs that we survived with.
What do you consider the biggest success in your political career and your biggest setback? What lessons did you learn from both of them?
My biggest setback, let’s start with that. My failure in 2000 to convince Nashville – i.e. the national Gore campaign – to invest more resources in New Hampshire.
If he had won New Hampshire, the outcome in Florida would have been irrelevant.
Exactly. It is a burden that I take seriously, and I have vowed that never again will a Republican carry New Hampshire. As long as I am alive, they never will. New Hampshire’s four electoral votes will be Democratic, if I have to drag every 15th cousin twice removed to the polls to make sure that happens. It’s just not going to happen, because the world was negatively affected by those eight years of George W. Bush, and I feel a responsibility. I believe that if I had been able to convince somebody in Nashville, and I tried, I tried my best but I was unsuccessful. That will be forever the darkest times for me in politics, whether it was the economy in the second part, or the Iraq War and the hundreds of thousands of lives around the world that were extinguished because of that. I take that very personally.
As for success, I have to say that it probably changes a lot. I don’t have one overwhelming. I will say that two weeks ago, sitting in the Senate gallery watching Jeanne Shaheen – who I’ve known since I was 15 years old – as the senior U.S. senator from New Hampshire escort Maggie Hassan, who I’ve known for many years as well and am very personally friendly with. These are two women who are my personal friends and I adore them so much, and to have the two of them on the Senate floor to be sworn in, and then see the two of them casually chatting together, that made me so proud.
Read other installments in the “Future of the DNC” series: