With Superdelegate Reform, is the Democratic Party Now Democratic?

New Democratic Party rules scale back the influence of superdelegates in choosing the presidential nominee. But DNC Unity vice-chair Larry Cohen of Our Revolution says the party still has a long way to go towards real reform

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Story Transcript

AARON MATE: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Mate. The Democratic National Committee has taken a big step towards becoming more democratic in addressing one of the key issues to come out of the contentious 2016 primary between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. The DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee has voted to curb the role of superdelegates in selecting presidential nominees. Superdelegates are a group of hundreds of party activists and insiders whose votes are counted on top of the general primary results, and curbing their role has been a top priority for supporters of Bernie Sanders inside the Democratic Party.

Well, joining me is someone who has helped lead that fight. Larry Cohen is Board Chair of the Bernie Sanders campaign offshoot, Our Revolution, and he is Vice Chair of the DNC Unity Reform Commission. Welcome, Larry. So, talk about these new rules. Under the change, now superdelegates will no longer be allowed to vote on the first ballot at the convention, only if it goes to a second ballot. But let me ask you, why even have superdelegates at all ?

LARRY COHEN: Well, that would be a good question. I’m quite happy that we have some results from two years of work, and it still has to get voted on on August 25 by the four hundred and forty seven DNC members who are all superdelegates themselves. But that might be an interesting question for another time at this point. We’re happy to move on. I mean, the general theory would be that you have a balance between the public and voters, caucus voters, primary voters. And the people who work in the party every day lead the party members of Congress. And so, in this case, we’re saying all those folks are delegates at the convention, but they won’t vote on the first ballot for president. There hasn’t been a second ballot since 1924. So, I think, you know, big progress here.

AARON MATE: Let’s just remind people why this is so important to Bernie Sanders supporters. I want to go a clip from CNN. This is early on in the primary, in February 2016, right after Bernie Sanders has beaten Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire by more than twenty points. The DNC chair at the time, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, she goes on CNN and Jake Tapper says to her that Bernie Sanders is coming away from New Hampshire with about the same number of delegates as Hillary Clinton, even though Sanders has just beaten Clinton. And this was Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s response.

JAKE TAPPER: It looks as though Clinton and Sanders are leaving the Granite State with the same number of delegates in their pockets because Clinton has the support of New Hampshire’s superdelegates, these party insiders. What do you tell voters who are new to the process, who says this makes them feel like it’s all rigged?

DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Unpledged delegates exist really to make sure that party leaders and elected officials don’t have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists. We are, as a Democratic Party, really highlight and emphasize inclusiveness and diversity at our convention. And so, we want to give every opportunity to grassroots activists and diverse, committed Democrats to be able to participate, attend and be a delegate at the convention. And so, we separate out those unpledged delegates to make sure that there isn’t competition between them.

JAKE TAPPER: I’m not sure that answer would satisfy an anxious young voter. But let’s move on.

AARON MATE: So that is Debbie Wasserman Schultz in February 2016, speaking to CNN’s Jake Tapper. Larry Cohen, so you have Wasserman Schultz there saying that superdelegates exist, in part, to basically protect party elites and insiders from the grassroots. Do you feel as if that mentality is still prevalent inside the DNC leadership and do you think that the reforms so far that you’ve managed to win, including the superdelegate victory that you just had, have addressed that?

LARRY COHEN: Well, the Unity Reform Commission has thirty pages of reforms. And the question is still not clear how many of those will get voted on on August 25 at the full DNC meeting, four hundred and forty seven members in Chicago. But if we were to implement all those or most of those or even the ones that the Rules Committee, in the previous four meetings this year, have considered, we’re going a long way towards making this a grassroots party but at the same time a party. So, you get into a philosophical discussion about, well, what is a political party? It has to have some structure to it in terms of people deliberately joining, building at every county. There’s more than three thousand counties in America.

Part of what’s been lacking is no party in many of those counties, maybe even half of them. And so, you do have to have some balance, pushing aside her answer, between building a party- and most of the superdelegates are nothing to party leaders. The question then is, well how did those party leaders get elected? Are they elected by grassroots members of the party, are we encouraging grassroots members to join in all fifty-seven states? And that’s the much bigger issue. You have fifty-seven different parties. The DNC is only really there to pick the presidential nominee. Important as that may be, much more important is reforming the fifty-seven parties. Long way from that.

AARON MATE: Right. Okay, so on that front, let’s talk about a few key cases. You have a gubernatorial race in New York between Cynthia Nixon, seen as the progressive favorite, and the incumbent governor, Andrew Cuomo. How is the fight over rules, and this suspicion that the rules are rigged against progressives like Nixon, playing out when it comes to that race?

LARRY COHEN: It’s huge in that race because there’s three point six million unaffiliated voters in New York. They’re not in any party. They were registered without a party, in many cases almost automatically, when getting a license. Many of them are young and they had to join the Democratic Party on October 13 of 2017, exactly eleven months before the gubernatorial and legislative primary. It doesn’t even stop with Cynthia Nixon.

As you likely know, or viewers would know, there’s eight people, eight senators in New York that are Democrats from heavily Democratic areas that caucus with the Republicans. They all have challengers. In fact, we’re supporting all those challengers. Those challengers can’t look to those millions of unaffiliated voters, the ones who live in those districts, because they’re shut out because they didn’t switch last year. We’ve been pushing all year to change that. In fact, the Democratic Party itself could change it in New York. And at their convention a few weeks ago, they tabled the resolution to do so.

AARON MATE: Finally, Larry, let me ask you about the impact of last week’s victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, defeating the incumbent Congress member, Joe Crowley, widely seen as being in line to become the next Speaker of the House. Your sense, from talking to your colleagues in the party and activists, about what that victory means for people and what kind of energy it’s generating?

LARRY COHEN: Yeah. So, first, we were proud to be one of the few large organizations that endorsed Alexandria. She is awesome. Ironically, she won with these incredibly closed rules. So, the party machine, which is what it is in Queens, Jackson Heights in that area, and part of the Bronx, turned out fewer voters than she did because she created real excitement. And the turnout is so low that she was able to run with the win, with the rigged rules. So, that shows the enthusiasm for her, that even though she couldn’t appeal to younger nonaffiliated voters, she was able to win anyway.

What it means is that as we approach the state primary, as I said on September 13, the energy level, the enthusiasm for candidates like Jessica Ramos, running against one of the Independent Democratic Caucus senators, Peralta, who caucuses with the Republicans, which means that even though there is a Democratic majority you can’t pass anything, this is what New York has been for years. And I think we may be close to a new day. We still need party reform. We need it in every county in New York. We need in terms of, who are the county chairs? They have obscene power in New York and we need it in terms of how government functions in New York, the corruption level in New York.

And it’s not just New York. It’s New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Illinois. It’s many states, not all, not even most, where this kind of what what you call “rigged” system definitely makes it harder for change to occur. But Alexandria is amazing and I think that that spirit will build in Queens, in the Bronx, across the city and across the state. It still makes it very hard for Cynthia Nixon because on a state level, you have these three point six million unaffiliated voters in the same way they couldn’t vote for Bernie Sanders in 2016. Because in that case, the presidential primary was six months after the registration deadline. He wasn’t even running then. You know, these barriers need to go.

AARON MATE: Okay. And quickly, Larry, looking ahead to 2020, do you think by the time that primary comes around that the concerns of the Bernie Sanders supporters who felt as if the deck was stacked against them, that party elites would not give up control of the party no matter what- do you think that there is going to be, by then, there’s going to be enough progress made to address that sizable contingent’s concerns?

LARRY COHEN: Well, I think we’re making a lot of progress. And let me credit the current chair, Tom Perez, of the party. He has actually embraced the Unity Reform Commission reforms totally. And his leadership is key. We never would have passed that without it. Jen Dillon, she came. She was named by Clinton, as I was named Vice Chair by Sanders, she was named Chair, and she is looking for massive change. She’s still only forty years old, but she’s helped lead lead this effort for significant change. So, I think it’s no longer about Sanders, per se. This is about, can we have a party that can win, can we have a party that appeals to younger voters and diverse voters? And I will continue to work for that. I’ve been doing it, really, for three years, since I entered the Sanders campaign. And I’m hopeful that that one day soon we can have a Democratic Party that is democratic and that all voters, young and old, can say, “Hey, I want to join this party. I want to fight for change in our nation.”.

AARON MATE: Larry Cohen, the Board Chair of Our Revolution, Vice Chair of the DNC Unity Reform Commission. Thank you.

LARRY COHEN: Thank you.

AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.