Let's save the Democratic Party — by holding corporate Dems accountable

There is a never-ending debate among progressive Democrats about whether to break away from the Democratic Party.  Recently, that debate has heated up — for example, on discussion forums of progressive Dems in Washington State.

The victory of Socialist candidate Kshama Sawant over long-time Democratic stalwart Richard Conlin should have been a wake-up call to Washington State Democrats.    Now State House chair Frank Chopp is being challenged by a young Socialist woman, Jess Spear, who helped spearhead the successful campaign for a $15 minimum wage in Seattle. A loss by Chopp in November, or poor performance in the primary, would be disastrous for the Democratic Party.

If you listen to Democratic Party defenders, they’d say that the Republicans are to blame for the failure of the Dems to enact many progressive (and centrist) policies. There is much truth to this spin, both in Washington State and in D.C.   Here in Washington, the Senate Majority Coalition thwarted several progressive initiatives, on women’s health, transportation, the environment, and revenue.    In US Congress, Republicans have opposed virtually every progressive or even moderate policy initiative of the Democrats.

But you can’t blame just the Republicans.

In Seattle why didn’t the Dems take the lead in pushing for a $15 minimum wage?

Why did the Dems go along with the granting of $9 billion in tax breaks to Boeing. You can’t just blame Boeing for that. Governor Inslee spearheaded the move, despite the already cash-starved state treasury and despite the McCleary decision by the State Supreme Court mandating more school funding.

Why aren’t the Dems doing something to fix our upside-down state tax system, the most regressive in the nation?   They should be holding hearings and writing articles for newspapers. It should be a central part of their messaging.  They’re largely silent on the issue.  Neither Governor Gregoire nor, especially, Governor Inslee has taken any lead in calling for progressive taxation.

In the state legislature, it’s not just turncoats Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon who have betrayed Democratic values.  Rep. Ross Hunter led the effort to grant tax breaks to his former company, Microsoft.  See Ross Hunter Wants to Give Microsoft $100 Million Tax Break, Washington Still Poor and The Third Anniversary of Washington States’ Big Tax Gift to Microsoft and Microsoft Tax Scam Costs our State $1 Billion per year!.

Nationally, if Dems are sincere about their desire to help the middle class, why were they silent when the leader of the Democratic Party surrounded himself with Wall Street cronies, filled regulatory agencies with corporate hacks, prosecuted whistle blowers, crushed Occupy, expanded the NSA, enacted a health care plan designed by the Heritage Institute, etc., etc., etc?

A decade earlier, President Clinton repealed Glass-Steagall and passed NAFTA.

Indeed, GOP front-runner Rand Paul is running to the left of Democratic front-runner Hilary Clinton on two issues: support for Wall Street and militarism.  See Shockingly, Rand Paul Could be the GOP Nominee and Trouble for the Dems and Hillary’s Candid Motto for Democratic Party: “Represent Banks”.

Lots of young people, especially in the cities, think the Democrats are little better than the Republicans.  Obama’s defense of the security state and his friendliness to Wall Street  have convinced many young people that libertarianism will help them.

In 2008, the country was fed up with the corruption and mismanagement of the GOP and was ready for real change. That’s not at all what Obama delivered. Anyone in the know realizes that Obama ruled as a moderate, not as a liberal and certainly not as a progressive. As Obama said of himself, “My policies are so mainstream that if I had set the same policies … back in the 1980s, I would be considered a moderate Republican.”

History will show the extent to which Obama betrayed the Democratic Party.

Many Dems would privately agree that Obama has been a disappointment, or even a disaster. But, most Dems would say that we need to keep this inconvenient truth secret, lest the Dems lose big in the midterm elections and in 2016.  We must hold our tongues, swallow our pride, and suppress our rage.

For what?  So Hilary can be president? She’s even more corporate and hawkish than Obama.   True, she’d be better than any likely GOP nominee, including Rand Paul.   But need we set the bar so low?

Now, I think the Republicans are, in fact, much worse the Democrats. And libertarianism — or its close cousin, anarchism — would be a giveaway of control to the corporations and a reversal of many decades of progressive legislation and programs.  There are many good Dems, and the party platform, especially in Washington State, is a progressive document.

But unless the party holds accountable the corporate, militaristic Dems among its ranks, and unless it is more welcoming to leftists, it will have trouble convincing the American people that it deserves their support.  Millions of people will flee the party, towards socialism or libertarianism, or people will skip voting.

Save the Democratic Party. Kick out the corporate Dems. Speak the truth about our unfair economy — and act on it.

On reinventing Democratic politics

At last night’s meeting of the 41st LD Democrats there was a discussion about how to attract more people to become PCOs and about how to get more existing PCOs to attend meetings and work on campaigns.

The discussion began with the question: what’s the purpose of the 41st LD Dems? One guy said: to elect Democrats. I replied: not just Democrats, but good Democrats; after all, Rodney Tom is a Democrat.

The discussion continued for almost and hour, with several people agreeing with me on the importance of supporting high-quality (progressive) candidates who are likely to defend our values (e.g., on economic fairness). Others were more interested in making the Democratic Party a “big tent”; such people thought the job of PCOs is to knock on doors, make phone calls, and pay their dues.

Most everyone agreed that the org should host interesting speakers and make newcomers feel more welcome.

I said: most people who get involved in the Democratic Party do so because they believe that the Party and its candidates are most likely to support the policies they favor. Very few people will want to become PCOs just so that they can elect Democrats as Democrats. In other words, people support the policies first and the party derivatively.

In fact, I’m sure a lot of people think both the GOP and the Dems are self-serving factions that do little to help them.

Chair Karol Brown spoke on the importance of politeness towards people with opposing views. I said I disagreed: I think good Democrats need to be more vocal and partisan about weeding out marginal and turncoat Democrats who often vote with Republicans. I said we need more accountability. Most people disagreed with me, some vehemently, but I think that if the  Democratic Party is going to thrive and recover its soul it needs to turn back to its ideals.

A lot of people in, say, Seattle, regard Eastside Dems as little better than Republicans. Perhaps that’s the best we can do over here given the realities of money and power.

Subsequent events at the meeting illustrated some of my points.

Bellevue City Council candidate Steve Kasner was at the meeting. He is behind Republican opponent Kevin Wallace by about 200 votes, out of about 29,000 validated ballots. Wallace has claimed victory, and Kasner is deciding whether to go ahead with the effort to chase ballots and pursue a recount. Wallace outspent Kasner two to one.

Rebecca Bryant, political director for US Congressman Adam Smith, came to speak briefly at the meeting, as she is wont to do. I sharply asked her why Rep. Smith endorsed Kevin Wallace. She apologized and said that Wallace and Smith had had some sort of past business relationship. Others in the room had worked very hard for Kasner — I too walked my precinct with him — and expressed their displeasure to Ms. Bryant. Someone said that Smith’s endorsement of Wallace probably was enough to cause Wallace to win.

Someone spoke critically to Ms. Bryant about Rep. Smith’s early strong support for the NDAA. Again, Ms. Bryant was apologetic. In recent years, Rep. Smith has made efforts to backtrack from his rather militaristic and reactionary support for defense spending and the security state.

For me, LD meetings are often boring and frustrating because of the (usually but not always useless) formality  — “Can I hear a motion to accept the minutes from the last meeting?” — and because of the ineffectiveness and unwillingness to promote progressive values and hold lawmakers accountable. As someone said, lawmakers welcome LDs’ help to get elected; thereafter, they show little interest and often ignore platforms and resolutions.

About 25 people showed up at the LD meeting out of about 101 PCOs — not bad for a post-election meeting in an odd year. Someone mentioned that the 48th LD meeting had only 11 people show up — which is sad, because the 48th LD will presumably be working to elect a replacement for Rodney Tom. I asked and apparently no candidate has yet emerged to challenge Tom in the primary.   Perhaps Tom will run as an Independent: it might actually help his candidacy.

A few months ago, the 41st LD elected Tana Senn as a replacement for departing State House member Marcie Maxwell. The meeting was filled with dozens of new PCOs — most of them specially recruited by candidates to vote for them in the election. Few of those new PCOs have returned.  One who did said she hadn’t felt welcomed when she first came.

As was pointed out at the meeting, many Democratic orgs are struggling. I personally know a lot of passionate Democrats (not to mention people further to the left) who no longer attend Party meetings or who have dropped out of working with lefty groups, because nothing gets accomplished or because they feel excluded.    People rarely work together; everyone wants to lead.  The King County Dems have been in disarray since the chairmanship was wrested from Steve Zemke by Karl de Jong; various vice-chairs and council members have resigned; some people circulated angry letters; experienced committee chairs were fired (because they were thought to be loyal to Zemke); and people complained of being ignored and mistreated.  Several of the 41st LD reps quit, including the 1st Vice-Chair, Sojna Rossman.

The State Dems are preparing to select a replacement for departing state chair Dwight Pelz. Discussions on facebook are similar to the 41st LD discussion about the purpose of the org. What sort of qualities should the party look for in a state chair? Is it enough that she or he be skillful at managing and fundraising? Or should he be chosen to support certain policies?

In Seattle, long time Democrat Richard Conlin lost to Kshama Sawant in a close race that has become nationally emblematic of the problems facing the Democratic Party. Conlin received the endorsement of numerous Democratic orgs but still lost.

I think the Dems should move to the left and promote populist and righteous policies such as economic justice. But they should not move so far to the left that they lose like they did in 1972 with McGovern. Bit by bit. Strategically.

Will progressives take back the party from the centrists? Will they be too polite and compliant, or too disorganized, to make the effort? Will the progressive and independents be willing to do the work required to fix the party? Can they do so and still win elections?

The left needs better messaging, so the voters stop voting against their own self-interest.

Can the establishment Dems welcome the progressives and disaffected independents?

On Kshama Sawant's likely win in Seattle

According to the Washington State Democrats Endorsement finder, Richard Conlin got the endorsement of all of the Democratic Party organizations. “Endorsed by King, 11th, 32nd, 34th, 36th, 37th, 43rd, 46th” I think it’s time for us to do some soul searching. Not just because our electoral infrastructure might not be up to the task in off year elections, but if the voters of Seattle disagree with the Democratic Party in this municipal race, where else are we failing to connect with the voters we depend on to put candidates into office that will help us enact our agenda? (It’s the PLATFORM, Stupid) Was Kshama closer than Richard on our platform issues? Raising the minimum wage, fighting corporate greed, etc. I read her issues page, and thought “wouldn’t this be cool”, then voted for Richard because I know him and trust him. I guess my first impression was right. Seattle is about to show just how cool it is.

Could a Socialist Actually Win in Seattle’s City Council Race?

Conlin vs. Sawant: The Politics of Character Assassination

Character assassination is easy. The great thing about it is you don’t actually have to prove anything. You can use any number of techniques. Guilt by association with other people. Tying the person to something seemingly in contradiction to their values. Vague innuendos that sound like questions. Taking details of a person’s personal life and weaving them into a false narrative. Drawing conclusions from isolated facts. And if all else fails, claiming the subject is not being honest or open when they won’t play along with your “when did you stop beating your wife?” type of questions.

Like I said, it’s easy. It’s just not ethical. It’s also not honest journalism. It is normal electoral politics though, when you’re running scared. And Richard Conlin is very scared indeed. A four-term incumbent, he is running a tight race against someone who he may have laughed about when she filed against him: Kshama Sawant. He’s certainly not laughing now.

Kshama Sawant

Fortunately, he’s got Erica Barnett and PubliCola to come to his rescue, or so he thinks. After he realized that desperately flailing away about Kshama’s supposed lack of civic engagement didn’t produce much, now he’s back with a story about hypocrisy, and the inability to identify with the needs of the 99%. Imagine in a race between two candidates, one of them Conlin, and the other candidate is being charged with hypocrisy and lack of empathy for workers. It would be funny, if it weren’t so sad and sordid.

In a way, you can’t blame Erica. She’s just feeding off of what’s being offered her. It’s not like she went online and dug up the F1 form showing Kshama’s husband’s income. No, in the business of electoral politics, this goes under the delicate name of “opposition research.” Goldy captured it perfectly in The Stranger:

“We all know how this game is played: Conlin pushes the smear to PubliCola. PubliCola publishes. Then Conlin sends out an attack mailer citing PubliCola as his independent source, giving the charge an air of credibility. That’s electoral politics.”

He forgot to add that this is best done just before ballots are sent out, so as to keep the latest dirt fresh in voter’s minds, but well said, regardless.

So we can say that Ms. Barnett is just playing the typical role of amoral press flack, hoping to serve someone well enough to earn their gratitude, and whatever comes with it. Nonetheless, you have to stand on what you write publicly. So let’s begin the dissection with the actual facts, shall we?

Kshama had a husband. She separated from him, but hasn’t divorced him yet. He works at Microsoft. Salary undetermined, but above $100,000. She now lives with someone else. She takes no money from said husband. In fact, she works part-time as a college professor. That’s it. Nothing remarkable, it could be a story about any of us.

The actual remarkable thing is this: She’s running for office against Richard Conlin, on a strong progressive platform, including a call for a minimum wage of $15/hr. She got 35% in the primary. She is probably within striking distance of Conlin now. And she is scaring the pants off the 1% and the political toadies that serve them.

But that’s not what Ms. Barnett wants to write about. Not the remarkable thing, but the unremarkable personal details.

Much as I dislike quoting mud, here’s the relevant parts of Ms. Barnett’s article:

“… according to a financial disclosure document filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission, Sawant’s husband (whom Sawant listed as a source of her income) makes “$100,000 or more” (potentially a lowball number for his income given that $100,000 is the largest amount that’s possible to report on the form)—as an engineer at Microsoft? (Microsoft is also the top identified employer of Sawant’s contributors.) Sawant’s financial disclosure report also lists her own income at her part-time jobs as between $4,000 and $19,999, and assets in two accounts—a checking account and an insurance fund—that are each worth between $40,000 and $99,999.

Taking the minimum possible amount for all their incomes and assets, then, the Sawants have at least $80,000 in their accounts and together earn at least $108,000, though the true amount is probably higher. That’s a pretty big chunk of change for a self-proclaimed representative of “the 99 percent.”

In her second hit piece, she doubled down with the emphasis on hypocrisy:

“…it’s hard to see how someone with a top-bracket income can be truly in touch with the poor in Seattle. Conlin isn’t simultaneously trashing corporations and simultaneously benefiting financially from one of the specific corporations that are evidently ruining America; Sawant is. (Not only does her husband work for Microsoft, Microsoft is the top employer of her contributors)”

So the charges are:

  • Kshama can’t really represent the 99%, because she’s too wealthy. Or her engineer husband is, who Erica darkly hints, probably makes gazillions of dollars. (All engineers at Microsoft now have official permission to break into shrieks of laughter.)
  • She’s a hypocrite because her contributors happen to work at Microsoft while she attacks it.

As for the first charge, it’s pretty ridiculous to characterize Kshama as a member of the 1%, but others have spoken to that, so I’ll let that alone. Instead, let’s examine the premise: if you make too much money (what level is that exactly, Erica?) you can’t represent the 99%. By way of exploring this idea, let’s have some fun by thinking of the two most famous revolutionaries that ever existed: Karl Marx and Frederich Engels. Great revolutionaries for the proletariat of their time, despite neither one actually being an industrial worker. So imagine the scene:

(Frederich Engels walks into the reading room of the British Museum to see Karl Marx, a draft version of The Communist Manifesto in hand)

“Listen, Karl, I’ve got some bad news about this piece. But before we get into that, here, let me lend you a few pounds. At least you can get the heat turned on in your garret this way.”

(Marx recoils with horror) “Frederich, are you mad?? I can’t take your money! I’m writing about exploited workers, who live in misery!”

“So?”

“So? How can I write about exploited workers living in misery unless I’m living in misery! My God, are you trying to turn me into a petty bourgeois?”

“Karl, it’s not so much for you as for your family…”

“My family! How do you think the workers would feel if they knew my family was living in some comfort? Oh, the hypocrisy would incense them! Someone would probably write about it in one of the gossip rags and that would be the end of me.”

(Engels pauses in thought, frowning.) “Well, Karl, I see your point. In fact it was that very point that I was going to bring up about this Manifesto piece you wrote. I’m afraid it just won’t work.”

“But why? Isn’t it all true? Isn’t it well argued? Isn’t it inspirational? Tell me, what could be wrong with it?”

“Oh, there’s nothing wrong with it. There’s something wrong with you writing it.”

“Eh?”

Karl, this was written for the industrial proletariat, for the industrial proletariat, yes?”

“So?”

“Karl, you’re not the industrial proletariat. You’re barely proletarian at all, and certainly not industrial. You’re a part-time journalist when you are working, which isn’t much, hoping to get a book published someday. Nothing industrial about that.”

(Marx pales, as sweat breaks out on his brow.) My God, you’re right! And in fact, it’s even worse than you think, I’m afraid.”

“How’s that?”

“Well, you know that book you wrote that was sympathetic to the English workers? You know, “The Conditions of the Working Class in England.”

“What of it? Very well researched, I thought.”

“But Engels, my dear man, how could it be? You’re not only not a worker, you’re a capitalist for God’s sake, the very opposite of a worker!”

(Both men freeze, undone by the hypocrisy they have displayed.)

So I think we get the point. One’s income, former income, former husband’s income, etc. do not determine one’s consciousness. Of course, no doubt there are wives separated from their husbands at large multinational corporations who may be total hypocritical radicals or Tea Party zealots. Kshama just doesn’t happen to be either.

But let’s think for a moment of what conditions might provide one with a sense of genuine empathy and justice for the 99%. Let’s name a few, and then check Kshama’s record:

  • Working part-time and therefore being underpaid for your talents. Check!
  • Having that employer try and fire you for political activity. Check!
  • Being jailed for your social justice work. Check!
  • Working to defend an Occupy encampment. Check!
  • Working with a radical political organization. Check!
  • Campaigning among low-income workers for a $15/hr minimum wage. Check!

You see, it’s what you actually do in the world that determines your sense of justice and empathy. This is probably difficult for Ms. Barnett to understand, given what she does in the world, but it’s true.

Now for the second charge, being that both her husband and many of her contributors work for Microsoft, which she attacks. This is hypocrisy, supposedly. NOT!

Allow me to get personal for a minute. I am a contributor to the Sawant campaign, for a few hundred dollars. I am also a policy analyst for the Port of Seattle Commission. Does this mean that Kshama can’t ever say anything bad about the Port henceforth? (Actually, too late, I think she already has.) But hypocrisy if she does, yes? No, actually not.

You see, I work for the Port of Seattle, but I am NOT the Port of Seattle. Allow me to introduce Ms. Barnett and all of you to my work life. Sometimes my bosses ask my opinion. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they listen to what I say. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes I like what they do. Sometimes I don’t. Such is life. One of the benefits of working for the Port though, is it allowed me the freedom to give a few hundred dollars to the Sawant campaign. Now can anyone seriously conjure up an image of me handing the Kshama campaign a check and then saying, “I hope you realize how hypocritical it will be from here on in if she criticizes the Port.” Let’s be real, please.

No doubt, the Conlin campaign is chortling over this supposed “expose.” One can only imagine the conversation. “We got Erica to throw mud! The Sawant campaign is taking up precious time answering our charges! Maybe we can frighten away potential contributors! Maybe those damned poll numbers will finally start moving in our favor!”

Dream on. Here’s a free prediction. The Sawant campaign sticks to the real issues. Sawant contributors donate more money, not less. And those damned poll numbers continue to move in the wrong direction.

Good luck, Richard, you’re going to need it. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the Sawant website to donate another $100.