Raucous protests at the 37th District Democrats meeting: Two views

(Comic by Megan Kelso)

Opinion by Cliff Clawthon:

This piece was originally published in the South Seattle Emerald and has been reprinted with permission.  

If there was ever a time for radicals like myself to be present — even in the most uncomfortable and mainstream spaces — to fight Trump, now is the time. I went to the 37th Legislative District Democratic Party meeting with the perspective that I was there to get beyond petty party foolishness and deal with any bitter disagreements, even though I know from experience that legislative districts have a reputation for that rancor. What’s a revolution without the occasional argument, right?

But on Monday night, the 37th Legislative Democrats meeting ended in a shouting match with some members denouncing the leadership of the organization for racially discriminating against Black candidates for precinct committee officer positions. The incident is another example of why the Democratic Party needs to do things differently.

On the agenda Monday was the selection of precinct committee officers (PCO’s) — party officials responsible for educating and marshaling their neighbors in precincts. Though a racially mixed group applied for the positions, the applicants who were excluded from consideration by the larger group turned out to be older Black men. That group and their supporters protested the results and called out the party leadership over the apparent bias.

It wasn’t the first time accusations of bias have surfaced in the 37th. In December there was a similar PCO-related controversy during the process to replace the State Senate seat vacated by now-Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal. Rebecca Saldana was appointed to fill Jayapal’s seat.

There has been a long-standing tension from the lack of diversity at multiple levels of leadership in Democratic party politics.

On Monday, that became clear as a group of Democratic party activists who aligned with former state representative (and perennial candidate) Jesse Wineberry faced off with the current party leadership over the recruitment of the PCOs. Jeanne Legault, the third vice-chair, recruited many of the candidates on Monday.

The day after the meeting, Legault told me that those whose applications weren’t processed and presented to be considered by the membership did not belong to the faction aligned with Wineberry. She expressed frustration with their outburst and how they applied. Party activists also recruited candidates, but none of them were considered.

Legault said that “[she] was sent a file with 25 people and had only two days to review them all” before Monday’s meeting. The procedure, as is explained on their website and that she reiterated is that she receives the applications, screens them and assesses whether the person: a) lives in the precinct; b) is registered to vote; c) is a Democrat-leaning individual or completely unaffiliated, usually through checking social media or by calling the person; and, d) understands the position and can engage in outreach and get out the vote activities. According to Legault, she was not sent the applications directly and had to get them through an individual (who asked to remain nameless) who was playing intermediary. She said that because of that time constraint, only some of the activist applicants were screened prior to the meeting and invited to stand.

She also suggested that some of those late applications were people who had “agendas,” yet she didn’t exclude those applications initially; she says that she didn’t have time to review the applications based on the aforementioned criteria. However, that meant the applications from those who were recruited by party activists were not considered at this meeting. To add salt to the wounds, many of those who were excluded are older and Black, which contrasts with the whiter and more female roster that Legault recruited.

The applicants who were called did run the gamut of age, race, and gender, yet those who were excluded were overwhelmingly Black and male. We’ve seen racial representation not in parity with the district before.

But those who hadn’t been selected weren’t going to be silenced by Robert’s Rules of Order.

The excluded PCO candidates and their supporters began singing the song “We Shall Overcome,” as seen in a Facebook video attributed to Paul Jackson. The protesters directly denounced the leadership and the members for not including all of the new PCO candidates recruited from local party activists.

Unfortunately, some of the outburst included ugly sexist jabs from one of the protesters, Kevin Amos, who told Tandy Williams, the Sergeant-at-arms, to “quit acting like a man and sit down.” It was at this point that the protesters started to get booed by the other members.

Disruptions like the one that occurred on Monday squandered a moment to get things done and opened up a whole new conversation about racial divisions within the local Democratic Party.

Akilah Stewart attempted to regain order and told the crowd, “there are more important things to argue over.” She later clarified that she was referring to the Trump administration. The situation continued to degenerate to the point where a couple people from the crowd and Williams, the Sergeant-at-Arms, called for the meeting to be adjourned and the Chair,  Stewart, ended the meeting.

To me, party leadership’s lack of communication and support of the activists shows disdain and frustration. But disruptions like the one that occurred on Monday squandered a moment to get things done and opened up a whole new conversation about racial divisions within the local Democratic Party.

Those who protested that night wanted to be heard and certainly came to take power in the meeting, probably to support changing the party leadership. The disruption by Wineberry and other members of that faction on Monday didn’t just squander a meeting. If disruptions continue, our moment and “agendas” will get squandered as well — which is pointless and dangerous as we fail to engage in creating a bigger coalition.

The party is changing and for good reason — we lost. There are a number of underrepresented and diverse communities who are natural parts of what people ideally think of as the Democratic coalition. Like Monday, many have shown that they are angry and disenchanted. As a result, we didn’t have a wave of resistance against Trump, we had complacency.

The Democratic Party leadership has to continue to be more transparent with its membership, reach out to neglected communities who have been rightly left behind, and be dauntless in efforts to include marginalized voices. Taking this path and shaping a culture like the one I’ve described will drown out any opportunists or people who do want to create a so-called ‘good ol’ boys’ club based on favoritism and white supremacy, money and sexism.

I don’t say this lightly. The meeting being quickly shut-down by the chair and sergeant-at-arms and members angrily confronting Black protesters was bad. So was some of those protesters saying heinously sexist things like “act like a woman.”

Nevertheless, the 37th is special. It contains a wide and expansive pool of activists, artists, communities of color and worker- leaders and organizers.  Nationally, people are mobilizing and vigorously calling on progressives and leftists like Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minneapolis) to take the lead in the Democratic party and vanquish Trump.

We can have a populist, dazzling, bold and irresistible party and continue the trend that we’ve already started here in Washington. We also elected the diverse and activist-orientated state chair and vice-chair combination of Tina Podlodowski and Joe Pakootas.

Shutting down meetings defensively or attempting to create factions isn’t going to do that. Stop playing politics and start organizing.


    1. Hi Emmett – There were some PCOs elected in the fall. The ones selected now are appointed or acting as PCOs for precincts that don’t have an elected PCO.

  1. I thought all of the PCOs who were approved seemed competent, and definitely were full of fight. That’s good, because we’re going to need a lot of people in order to overcome the power of the Republicans and Trump. I’ve been a Dem since 1958, but I’ve only been a member of the 37th since December (have lived in Col City for 10 yrs). I’m very encouraged by the 37th people so far.

  2. This was my experience as a PCO installed on 2/13: although I had been trying for months to volunteer, it was a surprise to hear my name called that night. So I had no idea of the precinct, which will be temporary, as my own precinct already has longstanding PCO. As a member, I’d say other members want to understand just what is required in the screening (vetting?) process. Clearly, the process needs to be smoother and open to all who are willing to do the work.

    It seems a small group of people know what’s going on, but do not feel obligated to let the rest of us in on it. Everyone who shows should be honored or at least respected by our leadership.

    It was obvious during last year’s caucuses that our leadership had agendas, primarily to convince us of their personal and political choices. We understand this. Are we saying folks with agendas are not allowed?

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