If you’ve never attended a party convention (Democrat or Republican, or even Green, or whatever) you’ve probably never been exposed to the maze of rules that govern the convention, and the party itself. While years of media campaigns and self-funded candidates have reduced the influence of convention meetings, there are still times when a dramatic intra-party contest can provide some entertainment, and teach a lesson about grassroots organizing.
The 21st Assembly District in California is located in Silicon Valley, made up of the cities of Palo Alto, Redwood City, Woodside, Menlo Park and other cities in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. The seat is currently held by Assemblyman Joe Simitian who is now running for the State Senate in District 11.
Four Democratic candidates have filed for the primary: John Barton, Palo Alto School Board Trustee and architect, Ira Ruskin, who serves on the Redwood City City Council, Barbara Nesbet, a Monte Sereno Councilmember, and John Carcione, who serves on the West Bay Sanitary District board.
Polls currently indicate that Barton is the front runner, and records indicate he’s the only candidate who’s raising money (versus loaning money out of his pocket) and has no campaign debt. The question for delegates from the 21st AD was to decide to recommend whether or not the state Democratic Party should make an official endorsement of one of the candidates.
This is where things get interesting. The rules were pretty simple – one had to get 60% of the votes cast to win the endorsement. However, votes for “No Endorsement” would count against anyone in the lead for the nomination. This meant that even if one got the majority of votes, the “no endorsement” votes essentially counted as votes against whomever was the front runner. And here’s where the bargaining and politicking began.
Ira Ruskin, although not the front runner in polls, did have some advantage with the people who actually attended the convention. John Barton had a significant block of support as well. Barbara had the least amount of support, and told delegates who supported her to vote “No Endorsement” instead of for her – thus possibly blocking the endorsement for one of the others.
There was added buzz because Assemblyman Joe Simitian is locked in a tough battle with former Assemblyman Ted Lempert in Senate District 11. The overlap between the 21st AD and the 11th SD ensured a high amount of attention being paid by delegates by many campaigns and the lobbying and organizing began in earnest.
One of the most important things you can have in a situation like this is a person who can count. Now that may sound simple to you, but it really isn’t. One has to count not only how many votes one has, and how many the others have, but also how many people are actually in the room when the votes are cast since you have to get a certain percentage (or deny someone else a certain percentage) of the vote. You also need someone who’s good at corralling people and make sure they stay. Many votes in legislatures and conventions have been lost because someone went to the bathroom for “just a minute” – only to return to find that their candidate or bill lost by one vote.
I hung out with the Simitian/Barton crowd and listened as Assemblyman Simitian told assembled supporters the stakes for his campaign – he had the votes but needed them to be there! Most of Simitian’s supporters were also Barton supporters, so the work Simitian was doing to get his people to the convention floor would have some impact on who showed up for the vote on the 21st AD endorsement.
Simitian’s people had a very sophisticated operation, with no less than six “whips” who were in charge of 10 delegates each to make sure they knew what was happening and what to do. Very fun to watch and the sign of a smart camapign.
It wouldn’t be a Democratic convention without at least some confusion and once again, the CDP proved dependable on this point. The actual location within the convention hall where the delegates were to meet changed from what had been announced previously, and there was no longer any amplified sound for candidates to make their 2-minute speech to delegates with.
It proved to be quite disoriented and confusing to all involved, but the Simitian and Barton campaigns quickly made sure that assembled delegates knew where to go. I decided to make a quick sign out of my notebook and point people in the right direction, just so there’d be a fair shot for everyone.
Each candidate gave a short speech and it was clear Barton was the best speaker of the four. Ruskin has more supporters attend the meeting, and in fact at a pre-convention meeting on this same endorsement he’d landed 56% of delegate votes. Now it was time to see if he’d get the 60%, or if he’d fall short once again.
The ballot was taken by voice, kind of like when you’re a kid in school and the teacher calls your name for attendance. I provided assistance as an “auditor”, noting on a list of delegates how each delegate voted as their votes were cast, to provide backup in case there was a challenge as to who voted how. Then they started calling the names, while also providing a tally on an oversized notepad up front for all to see.
Each name was called and delegates shouted out their choice: “Ruskin!” “Ruskin!”, “Barton”, “No Endorsement, “Barton” and so on. Everyone was quiet and listening, and more than one person was keeping their own count like I was. High drama indeed.
Early on it seemed Ruskin was going to get it. As each campaign’s crew kept up their own tally, some were feeling good and some were starting to sweat. But just when it seemed that the great majority of votes were a runaway train for Ruskin, everything changed. The votes were starting to come in for Barton one by one, and the rest were for “No Endorsement.” Just as quickly as Ruskin had surged, he fell. Barton and No Endorsement were starting to dominate the vote tally.
The vote ended. After making sure everyone had their vote counted, the long division and multiplication began. Final count was as follows:
Total Votes Cast: 72
Ira Ruskin: 36
John Barton: 21
Barbara Nesbet: 1
John Carcione: 0
No Endorsement: 14
Thus, Ruskin fell short, getting only 50% of the delegate vote, a drop from his 56% in December. Barton, who had more community group and constituent support but not as much support amongst party regulars, moved up, and Barbara Nesbet’s bid for No Endorsement seemed to help – although one delegate ended up voting FOR her, even though she didn’t want any votes!
Barton’s campaign was clearly heartened by the news, since they’ve been leading in polling and organizing for some time, but like many campaigns, don’t always have the support of every single party regular who’s the type of person who shows up to these sorts of gatherings on a regular basis.
His surge in support, combined with many people who decided it was best to let voters decide who the best Democrat of the pack would be (and not the party), showed new strength for Barton amongst party regulars. Ruskin’s decline clearly caught his crew off-guard, since it is unusual for someone to decline in support like this.
Now the campaigns will all continue to raise money and recruit supporters. While some independent party organizations such as the Sil con Valley Democratic Forum (who have endorsed John Barton) may make endorsements, no one will be able to call themselves the 100% official party-approved candidate. In a crowded race such a label might help votes, confused by their choices, to pick a candidate. Now each candidate will highlight other endorsements and issues to help voters make the best choice on primary day.
The drama was over. The votes were counted and cast and everyone moved on to the Simitian/Lempert race. Simitian’s challenge was simple – he had 60% of delegates committed – but he had to get them all there and make sure they stayed.
I’d had my fill of delegate debates and counting strategies and took off for the convention hall to watch the latest LaRouche Loony Parade out front and take a break.
For those who think politics is dull – spend some time at a delegate fight like this and put your money on one of the contenders. Then you’ll see just how much interest these things can generate. Fun stuff.
It is unfortunate the Elders of Kobol or whoever is in charge of the Democratic Party in DC have spent years trying to make the national convention a coronation ceremony instead of a deal-making interactive process since it made participating in all these things more interesting – and more important. For a view of such a system, try renting The Best Man starring Henry Fonda. It’s worth a look!
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