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The battle is joined: Lessons of the 2017 California Democratic ADEMs


The battle for the heart of the California Democratic Party has begun in earnest. November 8th taught millions of progressives an indelible lesson: the age of the part-time citizen is over. For too long, we have delegated power to those who hungered for it, who used it to enrich and aggrandize themselves, and who failed our Party, failed this great nation, and failed the Earth. I and millions like me awoke November 9th with an iron resolve to bring our principles to power.

codypIn the two months following the November 8th Presidential election, I joined nearly a thousand progressives running to become delegates to the California State Democratic Convention. Here in San Diego, we assembled slates in all seven districts of our county, contacting, vetting, and recruiting potential slate members, guiding and facilitating ‘get out the vote’ (GOTV) efforts, and sharing campaign literature across slates.

It was an overwhelming feeling to look up in the aftermath of our own races and recognize that we had been part of a tidal wave of progressive struggle and triumph. Progressives won stunning victories across the state in these Assembly District Election Meetings (ADEMs), taking nearly 60% of all seats. This progressive landslide was a grand repudiation of Nancy Pelosi’s denial that “Democrats want a new direction,” and a signal to Democrats in California and across the nation that change is coming to the Party, from the bottom up.

Over the last two weeks, I have spoken to many candidates throughout the State about their experiences in these races. These are some of the most salient lessons of the process and their implications for the future of our movement.

The Legacy of Bernie 2016

Many, if not the majority, of Progressive slates were organized and coordinated by delegates for Sanders to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. This is one of the essential lessons of the 2016 Presidential primary. In spite of the failure of Bernie’s primary election bid, the campaign profoundly affected many of its participants. For many Bernie volunteers, supporters, and DNC delegates, their involvement in the Sanders campaign provided them with consciousness, confidence, experience, and relationships of enduring political value.

The Sanders campaign prepared hundreds of thousands of progressive activists to participate vigorously in the political process. But its central contribution should never be obscured: Bernie Sanders himself. Without Bernie Sanders—as an individual, an example, a leader, and a spiritual figure—there would be no progressive sea-change. Slate members argued about how central Bernie should be in our messaging and how to present our issues in ways that were genuinely welcoming to voters who had not supported Sanders in the Primary, but none of us had any doubt about why we had come and who had called us.

The Sanders campaign built a vast social infrastructure. While some groups had wound down their participation after the Philadelphia convention, many had continued to meet frequently and most were in regular contact online. Henry Huerta, the new Berniecrat EBoard representative in Assembly District 57, explained that “We had a lot of political capital, we just hadn’t used it. The ADEMs provided an opportunity to recapture and use this capital.” Bernie delegates and other campaign participants recognized that Donald Trump’s victory was not only an unprecedented political catastrophe but also an opportunity to return the Democratic party to its populist, progressive roots, reverse years of political decline and decisively defeat Trump and the Republican Party. Their participation in the 2016 Bernie campaign had also prepared them to take positions of responsibility and authority within the ADEM process. Even Bernie delegates who had exited the party after the primary coordinated slates, volunteered for GOTV and came out to re-register and vote.

The GOTV efforts were truly awe-inspiring: phonebanking, text-blasting, online advertising, thousands of personalized Facebook messages, booths at farmers’ markets, mailers, flyers, door-to-door canvassing, line-walking, speeches. Nothing like this would have been possible in the brief window of opportunity had the Bernie campaign not trained a generation of progressives to get to the front line and fight. It is increasingly likely that Bernie’s campaign will be seen not as a failed presidential run, but as the proving ground for the Progressive seizure of the Democratic Party in the wake of Trump’s victory and the Third Way Democratic establishment’s abject failure.

The victories of Berniecrats in the ADEMs were especially extraordinary given the extremely truncated timeline. I spoke to many Berniecrat candidates and slate coordinators, and none had begun preparations for the race prior to November 8th. Even among the armies of Clinton skeptics, her victory was such a foregone conclusion that few Berniecrats had actively prepared for her loss. The result was a frantic recalibration and gearing-up. We had a bit of luck with the CDP EBoards taking place in San Diego the weekend of November 18-20th, prior to the ADEM registration deadline. Many Berniecrats made it down for Nina Turner’s speech at the CDP Progressive Caucus meeting and were able to share information, enthusiasm, and strategy.

DNC delegates organized an ‘Enough is Enough’ impromptu press conference at the event. DNC delegate Lauren Steiner specifically called out Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer for taking more money from Wall St. than any other senator and newly re-elected House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for claiming that she didn’t “think people want a new direction” for the Democratic Party. Steiner also denounced Eric Bauman, LA County Democratic Party Chair and candidate for State Party Chair, for receiving payment from Big Pharma to defeat California Proposition 61, which would have lowered prescription drug prices for 14% of Californians and was endorsed by National Nurses United and Bernie Sanders, who came to California three times to hold rallies in support of it.

The grassroots organizing of ADEM slates vastly outpaced any of our progressive institutions. Information about the ADEMs spread online and by word of mouth. Individuals with shared values and pre-existing relationships contacted each other and quickly coalesced into slates. GOTV strategies were developed in living rooms and conference calls. Except where vote counts were extremely close, the impacts of state- and national-level institutions were limited. Although there was substantial communication between progressive candidates in different districts, these races were won or lost by individuals and slates urging their friends, family, and local communities to the polls.

To be fair, 80 simultaneous, two-month races would be exceedingly difficult for any institution to respond to. Nonetheless, we need more effective coordination and collaboration between the grassroots and state and national progressive organizations. Our institutional support is growing in size and effectiveness. Institutions like Our RevolutionCourage CampaignRootsAction, and National Nurses United are powerful resources in the development and promotion of progressive campaigns. However, if we wait for them or any other organization to give us marching orders, we will lose.

On the contrary, local activists must reach out to these organizations and tell them what we need on the ground. Organizations will learn to be responsive to feedback from the grassroots, or they will go the way of the Clinton campaign. Local activists need state and national organizations to provide overarching and unifying principles, platforms, and agendas; but these organizations, in turn, need local activists adapting practice and messaging to local contexts and cultures, and pushing them out into their networks and communities.

Friend from Foe
In the wake of November 8th, the Democratic Establishment went undercover. They ditched their HRC flair, picked up Berniecrats as camouflage, and ran on ‘progressive reform.’ You would have thought there had never been an establishment. That we’re all Rebel Alliance. In the context of the ADEMs, this meant that it was essential to successfully identify oneself and one’s slate as genuine progressives. Several web resources assisted in this, including adems2017.vote and progressiveslates.com, an effort spearheaded by members of the Progressive Democrats of America and the Progressive Caucus of the CDP.

Berniecrats Karen Bernal and Katrina Bergstrom were tireless in vetting, promoting, and supporting progressive candidates. Bernie DNC delegates and volunteers were able to refer back to their participation in Sanders’ primary campaign. Many slate coordinators agreed, however, that the most effective approach was running on issues, principles, and policy. This involved producing online and paper literature that explicitly referred to platforms and policy positions and engaging potential voters in policy discussions rather than narrow personal promotion.

Numerous Berniecrats were co-opted by establishment slates. This was problematic at a number of levels. At the most basic, it meant that even if Berniecrat candidates ‘won’ on these slates, they would be outnumbered in their districts by establishment delegates. If generalized, this strategy would ensure the continued dominance of Third Way Democrats at the state convention. The fact that ADEM-elected delegates must share the floor with delegates drawn from Central Committees and selected by Elected Officials, both of which will favor the establishment, means that Berniecrats needed strong majorities in ADEM elections in order to have any hope of swaying endorsements and the election of party officials at the Convention.

A second problem was that co-opted Berniecrats blurred the ideological and institutional distinctions that were necessary to defeat establishment slates. Establishment slates throughout the state used co-opted Berniecrats to green-wash themselves. The inverse was also a problem, as progressive slate members and coordinators recruited candidates of questionable ideology and commitment in an attempt to enlarge their slates and secure additional votes. Angel Rodriguez, a Berniecrat candidate in AD 31, noted that “There wasn’t enough time to put together ideologically solid slates. It would have been better to do more vetting and form smaller, ideologically consistent ones.” The pragmatism that, to varying degrees, informed slate formation will likely complicate the process of building and maintaining consensus on policy and endorsement within our progressive ADEM caucus moving forward. We are entering into a Party environment of complex enmities and alliances, many of which are personal rather than ideological, and if we can’t maintain our collective values and solidarity, we will quickly be pulled down into it and apart.

ADEM Reforms

This was, in many ways, an unprecedented ADEM election. Turnout in some districts doubled and even quadrupled previous records. Peripheral districts in which there had never been a contested ADEM election saw competitive races for the first time. This was surely in part a general ‘Trump bounce’ in Party participation, but Berniecrats were a major element in this increase. Anticipation of this surge encouraged some establishment politicians to treat ADEMs as full-fledged extensions of their personal campaigns. These forces put significant pressure on a formerly obscure, in many ways quaint, exercise of direct democracy within the Party.

The ADEMs are internal party elections, and therefore not governed by partisan election law. Electioneering is allowed and, in fact, part of what makes ADEMs vibrant, communal election activities. In general, candidates and slates worked hard within the rules and norms of the ADEM process, but several elected officials engaged in the sorts of hardball, rules-bending machine politics that can undermine faith in the fairness and impartiality of the process. These activities included large-scale busing of constituents, use of public office and staff to promote candidates, concurrent events, rental of contiguous event locations, wholesale line-cutting, proxy voting by campaign staff and volunteers, and altered reproduction of slate literature.

Delegates to the state convention will be drawn roughly equally from ADEM elections, Central Committee allotments, and Elected Official appointments. It is therefore somewhat disturbing that both Central Committee members and Elected Officials became heavily involved in many ADEM races, effectively undermining the intended independent determination of ADEM delegates. This was especially problematic in the case of Democratic elected officials, who have large voter bases and lists, considerable campaign budgets provided by corporate and individual donors, paid political staff, precinct walkers, and the delegated authority of public office. If the Party had intended Assembly Members, for example, to appoint 19 delegates to the state convention, they would have drafted bylaws to reflect this, rather than the five they are currently assigned.

In AD 64 (convened in Carson), where the most egregious violations took place, representatives of elected officials called the police to preemptively exclude and vilify Berniecrats, hosted a concurrent breakfast in the rented, larger, central portion of the conference hall in which the ADEM took place, and began the ADEM line inside their private, rented portion of the hall, from which non-invited guests were excluded, so that non-affiliated voters literally had to cut in line in order vote.

The progressive slate in AD 17 (San Francisco), was able to heroically eke out a narrow victory against the slate of Assembly Member David Chiu and his busloads of constituents, but it required extraordinary effort and organization. Ben Becker, one of our new progressive ADEM delegates in the district, described the effort required: “We worked our tails off. Phone banks, twice a week, four hours a day. Batch texting. Online outreach. Facebook messaging. Forms set up for pledged votes. Donation pages. Printed slate cards. We went to all the Democratic Party clubs in the district, events, progressive clubs. We hosted events the day before. Gave speeches. Walked the line. Fought to prevent line-cutting and proxy voting.” It’s inconceivable, however, that non-establishment individuals and slates could consistently compete in this manner with elected officials and their political machines in ADEM contests. Without reform of the ADEM process to limit the participation of elected officials and Central Committee members, the only democratic element of the state convention process will be determined by elected officials and their political machines.

In AD 76 (convened in Oceanside), the convener summarily stopped the counting process immediately prior to the final tally, boxed the ballots, announced he would tally them himself at his law office, called a police escort, and carried the boxes off into the night. Fortunately, progressive slate members were able to virally livestream his removal of the boxes, precipitate his resignation from the San Diego County Central Committee, and win the EBoard seat and all but one of the district’s fourteen delegate seats.

Berniecrats and other concerned party members should identify and promote reforms that would curtail these and other abuses while preserving the direct democratic character of ADEM races. These might include multilingual balloting, non-affiliated conveners and election monitors, standardization of ballots, improvement and potential automation of vote tallying, elimination of proxy voting, and restriction of concurrent rental of venue locations. Many participants expressed dissatisfaction with ‘slates’ as a form of organization; though it seems difficult to avoid the formal or informal development of slates in response to a 14-delegate race.

Online and Down the Street

These ADEMs brought out a paradox at the heart of modern campaigning. On the one hand, organizing and getting out the vote takes place increasingly online. If you have qualms about being on Facebook, get over them. You need to familiarize yourself with Facebook ads and other forms of online advertising. Social media is an integral part of our political life, and elections will be increasingly decided by their effective use. This applies not only to GOTV but also to communicating within our organizations. Candidates who were inactive on Facebook were frequently out of the loop on organizing and had to be called or emailed individually to keep them in sync. They were certainly out of touch with the larger community of Berniecrats and many of the members of their own extended social communities. We have popular elections in the United States; and we consequently have to go where the voters are. They’re online.

On the other hand, the candidates with deeper roots in their communities won their races. We live in an era in which individuals and families must increasingly relocate in search of jobs, education, and opportunity. Particularly in California, many activists live and organize in communities in which they are new or temporary residents. It is vital that we become integral, intimate parts of our communities. Not just online communities, but living, breathing, brick-and-mortar communities. Canvassing, protesting, and other forms of political involvement are important, but they cannot replace roots.

We need to begin participating more actively in the life of our communities. If you have kids, join the PTA. If you’re religious, join a local church. Shop at local small businesses. Meet people. Become a morning regular at your local café. Become an important element not just of political organizations but also of local civil society more generally. We must do this not only because it’s good for our communities and for ourselves but also because these are the most effective means of winning hearts and minds and getting out the vote come election season. Our collective victory will be rooted in our local communities. Grow into them.


Cody Petterson is Director of the Sequoia Foundation, a non-profit social science research firm dedicated to impact assessment, climate mitigation, and community resilience. He is also a newly elected delegate of the 78th Assembly District. His polemical and conservation writing can be found on Medium and Instagram, under the handle @theguessworker.

Photo credit: John Loughlin