Have you ever wondered about the delegates to the Democratic National Convention, how they got there, and what difference they make? Well, you may see me during the television coverage of July 25-28 because I am one of them this year. Over the last several months I have had a unique opportunity to learn how our electoral system works first-hand and I must confess that the process is byzantine and less than democratic. I am documenting here how I became a delegate and what my experience at the California Democratic delegate convention was like. Later I intend to share with you about my experiences in Philadelphia during the Democratic National Convention.
At the age of 51, and as someone who has been actively involved in politics most of my life, it is surprising that I had no idea how delegates were selected. Now that I understand better I can see why I and most citizens have no clue: the process is nearly secret.
For me, the first step to Philadelphia was going to the California Democratic Party website and filling out a form and submitting it by fax by April 13. Delegates are chosen by congressional district and in Congressional District 20, which includes Monterey, Santa Cruz, and San Benito counties, there were about 60 applications to be Bernie Sanders-pledged delegates and about 20 to be Hillary Clinton-pledged delegates. More on this in a moment, but what does “pledged” mean?
Haffa is a professor at Monterey Peninsula College and a member of the Monterey City Council. The Partisan will be following him on the road to the DNC in Philadelphia. Stay tuned for future installments.
As it turns out, there are four types of delegates: Pledged and elected delegates like myself, PLEOS (Party Leader Elected Officials who are pledged), at-large delegates who are pledged, and super delegates who are unpledged. Each congressional district is assigned a number of delegates based on the population and how many people voted in the last election. In CD20, which is Sam Farr’s district, we were allocated three male pledged, three female and one alternate. At large, PLEO and super delegates are not allocated by district and I’ll talk about them in a subsequent post. Back to the pledged delegates.
So, you submit your paperwork: now what? What I did was join a slate. My slate included three nurses—you want some women and some men to balance your slate because the delegates are divided equally between men and women. Each of us on our slate was supposed to turn out as many of our friends and supporters as possible to the Sanders’ caucus and there were other slates doing the same both at for Sanders and for Clinton.
Our slate looked like this:
I emailed friends and also contacted folks on Facebook. Honestly, I didn’t work as hard at it as I should have and didn’t expect to win, but I was looking forward to the caucus because I would see other people who shared my values and those of Sen. Sanders. We didn’t know where the caucus would be and it could have been anywhere in the three-county area. Ultimately the two campaigns decided on Salinas, and the Sanders’ caucus was at Hartnell College and the Clinton caucus was at the Laborer’s Local 270 Union headquarters.
As it happened, there were almost 300 people at the Sanders’ caucus and around 100 at the Clinton caucus. Electioneering at these caucuses is not only permitted, it seems to be encouraged. All the candidates and various slates moved up and down the line of people waiting to get inside, handing out printed materials and talking to voters. Now, raise your hand if you knew about this vote? Right. Most of us never hear about this and it is not usually advertised much in the media, if at all. Almost everyone there was there because some candidate had asked them to be there along with party insiders who know about these caucuses from past elections. Normally, party insiders are a large enough bloc that they can potentially sway these elections. At the Sanders’ caucus, however, there were almost no insiders present. It was a diverse group of people, younger more than older, wearing their Sanders T-shirts and buttons. With other candidates, I walked the line and asked for people’s votes, greeted and hugged friends, and handed out my slate’s flyer.
Finally the door opened and people could enter and vote. They had to be registered Democrats and were asked if they would pledge to vote for Sanders although this pledge was not binding. It was heart-warming to see so many friends there; maybe I had a chance. There were also many people there wearing red “National United Nurses” scrubs.
But would these people who didn’t know me vote for me because I am on the same slate as the nurses? People could vote for four men and three women, and I think this was my advantage because I was on a slate with three women and no other men. Some people voted and left but many stayed to hear the candidates. Of the nearly 60 certified candidates, maybe 20 were there to speak and we each had exactly 30 seconds. It is hard to be persuasive in 30 seconds but as we stood in line I tried my best to arrange three key ideas. Who am I and why am I worthy of representing hundreds of thousands of voters on the Central Coast at the convention. Why I support Bernie? What kind of delegate I will be. After everyone spoke, I felt like we would be well represented no matter what because there were so many well spoken and passionate people.
Then we waited around for about two more hours as volunteers counted the ballots. It is an understatement to say I was surprised when it was announced that I was the highest vote-getter. I never expected to win. So, there were four men and three women, but how many would actually go to Philadelphia and the convention? That would depend on the percentage of the vote that Sen. Sanders got on June 7 in Congressional District 20, during the state primary. At this moment, we still don’t know the final count. Election night it appeared Secretary Clinton won CD20 with 54% to 46%. That meant there would be three Clinton delegates plus one Clinton alternate and three Sanders’ delegates. A week later, the vote flipped as Sanders moved ahead in our district, so then three Sanders delegates plus one Sanders alternate and three Clinton delegates would represent our district. The votes are still coming in and Sanders’ lead is growing somewhat; if he were to get more than 57% the delegate distribution would be four Sanders and two Clinton and I don’t know what would happen to the alternate! If this sounds confusing, it is.
Here are my takeaways from this process. A very small number of people select the actual delegates, basically a few hundred. Most of those people are there because someone who was running asked them to show up and vote. Is this the most democratic process? Do I even need to ask? I won and I am grateful, but the process is so secret and so few people participate that it seems less than democratic. This year the Sanders’ campaign brought many people into the process who don’t normally participate, and our caucus was larger than most, but even so, 300 people picked the delegates for a district that includes some 700,000 voters. People either voted for people they knew, voted because the person they knew was on a slate and voted for the other people running with their friend, or voted based on a 30-second elevator speech. This seems less than a thorough and in-depth way to choose delegates. The whole process seems a bit elitist, to be honest.
I am honored that I won, but was it really me or the quality of my fellow slate-mates and perhaps the recognition I enjoy being an elected official? I do think our district is well represented. In addition to myself, we have two nurses, Jennifer Holm and Sandra Martinez, plus the alternate is land-use activist Gary Patton, the attorney and former Santa Cruz County supervisor. I can’t speak to what happened at the Clinton caucus but they also have fine delegates: Tony Russomanno, Carole English, and David Kong.
In a subsequent post, I will tell you what happened at the state delegate convention where the elected “delegates” and our super delegates picked the PLEOs and at-large delegates and also chose delegates from our state caucus to serve on committees. If you think this will be a simple and transparent process, you may be surprised: I know I was.