GUEST OPINION: The Muddy Depths of Democracy

By on May 31, 2016

An inside look at the Cowboy State’s democratic process during the Wyoming Dem Convention.


JACKSON HOLE, WY – The last time I voted it was for Bob Dole. I grew up in an Evangelical Christian family. Unlike Bill Clinton, I had never gotten a blowjob and frankly didn’t know any better. The Occupy movement and a few more years passed. Then Bernie happened and volunteering was a gateway drug that got me into the hard stuff—the Wyoming State Democratic Convention. Similar to a drug bender, attending the state convention cost me about $750 and I have little to show for it. Except perhaps for the first time in my life, I had a clear understanding of how democracy works… or does not work.

Teton County’s Hank Phibbs was pulled into a closed-door meeting to discuss the Kusaba Petition Friday morning when the platform committee was short members. The Kusaba Petition could be the title of an unpublished Robert Ludlum novel, but it is also a compelling letter by delegate Richard Kusaba alleging that the state party violated its own bylaws in allocating delegates and subsequently shorting Bernie Sanders. To avoid a fight on the convention floor, both campaigns agreed to the state party’s plan forwarding the Kusaba petition to the DNC for review.

The platform committee, which I found myself on to fill Phibbs’ seat, was slated to meet from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. We had 16 sections to cover with riveting titles such as “Health Care.” The meeting proceeded with countless motions, objections and arguing over the most ridiculous minutia of wording in careful observance of Robert’s Rules of Order. We spent about 45 minutes debating whether, if by endorsing universal health care as a basic human right, we would be suggesting a replacement of the Affordable Care Act.

By 2 p.m. we had skipped our lunchtime recess and I was crabby. Matthew, a young man from Laramie County, approached me with a plank endorsing worker-owned cooperatives. Now, I’m a socialist, but pragmatically I did not want to slow the meeting down from our current snail’s pace. All planks are supposed to be drawn from county level party platforms. Laramie County delegates didn’t know if the plank was actually in their county platform.

Since Matthew did not have standing on the platform committee he was not allowed to speak. In an extremely magnanimous gesture, Teton County’s Mike Gierau addressed the committee’s chair in support of Matthew’s right to be heard. As a member with standing, I then proposed the plank for inclusion and the motion carried. Like America’s involvement in the Middle East, the meeting dragged on, interminably, until well after midnight.

Saturday morning began with breakfast and speeches by candidates for our national delegate. In what was either a simple clerical error or a conspiracy reaching to the highest levels of the state party, my name was not on the list. I was allowed to speak next to last—to a half empty room. It seemed like a good time to denounce Hillary Clinton’s support for our “wars of aggression against oppressed peoples.” Afterward, I was thanked by some old 1960s radicals, including a guy named Bob.

Bob was in the front row at a protest in ‘68 when the police attacked the crowd and beat the protesters. The support meant so much more to me than actually having a chance of going to Philadelphia.

The main convention wore on after breakfast like the U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia. A large contingent of Sanders supporters led by Captain Ed sought to include more planks in the state platform, essentially duplicating the work of the platform committee. Out went Thomas Jefferson, replaced by Alexander Hamilton, but the document still lacked the flair of either. Mercifully, I ended up sitting next to Representative Andy Schwartz who has a wicked sense of humor.

A senior member of the Sanders delegation who shall remain nameless called the state party platform “political fluff.” The main body lost patience and voted to suspend Robert’s Rules and approve the party platform in its entirety. This led to several angry and justified outbursts.

In a major victory for the Sanders camp, Jackson’s own Jessica Chambers was deservedly elected national committeewoman. I was so impressed by Gierau’s gesture in the platform committee that I voted for him in spite of his being a superdelgate and Clinton supporter. But it wasn’t enough to save Gierau’s gig, as Sanders supporters rallied around Jon Gardzelewski for national committeeman.

In theory, the caucus for national delegates should have been a relatively painless process. In reality, numerous ballot mistakes for district level national delegates bogged the process to a contested four-hour marathon, during which the Sanders camp held an impromptu open mic sesh led by Samantha Rise.

Every year something has gone wrong with ballots, the excuse has generally been an overworked state party comprised of only three employees. So I certainly didn’t blame the resulting complicated and legal system of account transfers state party leaders chose when they snagged some money from the Hillary Victory Fund to hire an additional employee.

The meeting approached its conclusion when Captain Ed’s group proposed switching from a caucus to a primary system. I don’t have room here to explain the difference. Once again, Matthew rose and implored the body: “The people of Wyoming elected you to represent them. You don’t just get to go home because you are tired.” The meeting then devolved into chaos when most of the body chose to go home because they were exactly that: tired.

I briefly attended the Nellie Tayloe Ross Gala with the “party elites.” At this point I was completely exhausted, hoarse and constipated from the cuisine at the Little America. I found better refuge with a small contingent of Sanders supporters in the restaurant. The two groups were in sharp contrast. The Sanders contingent felt our state party had no interest in hearing what they had to say or including them in the process.

Do I think it’s important to be involved with the Wyoming Democratic Party? Absolutely. It’s the only chance we have to expand Medicaid and send Liz Cheney back to Virginia. But I came into this process as an anarchist with zero expectation of effecting change in the party structure.

And now I understand how utterly disheartening it is when idealism comes crashing into party procedure. PJH

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