Last week, Nevada Democratic Party Chair Judith Whitmer and I appeared before the party’s Resolution Committee at the Democratic National Committee’s summer meeting in National Harbor, Md. We were there to speak in favor of our resolution calling on the party to ban the use of “dark money” in Democratic primaries.
We made the decision to introduce our resolution because, as Democrats, we believe that our elections shouldn’t be shaped by the corrupting influence of special interests able to spend millions to silence those who oppose them.
Despite the 2020 Democratic Party platform directly calling for a ban on unregulated, non-reportable expenditures from PACs and 501c4 groups, this year alone we saw tens of millions of dark money dollars spent targeting progressive candidates across the country—including races in Ohio, North Carolina, Texas, Oregon, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, and more. For example, $6 million in dark money was spent to defeat former Maryland representative Donna Edwards, more than $4 million to defeat Representative Andy Levin of Michigan, and another $4 million to defeat Jessica Cisneros in Texas. Even progressives who won—Representative Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Representative Cori Bush (Mo.), and Pennsylvania state Senator Summer Lee—had to withstand an onslaught of a combined $10 million in negative ads designed to tarnish their reputations.
Because it appeared that some of the party’s leadership was not displeased with the effort to stop the advance of progressive candidates, we knew we had an uphill fight. For several reasons, however, we felt certain that at least we would start a much-needed debate on this critical issue.
Progressive leaders in the party like Senator Bernie Sanders and members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus made clear their support for our effort. Leading progressive publications like The Nation and organizations like Progressive Democrats and Our Revolution wrote about it and urged readers and members to show their support. It’s important to note, as well, that our resolution had been endorsed by over three dozen other DNC members.
Given this support from an important component wing of the party and the fact that our resolution was grounded in the party’s own platform, what happened at the meeting left me shell-shocked.
We introduced the resolution and spoke about why it was important, mentioning the damage that dark money does to our democracy and to the reputation of candidates slandered by the ads purchased by these shadowy groups. We explained the feelings of frustration and powerlessness that the massive expenditures create in voters who see elections bought and sold by the highest bidders.
In her powerful statement to the committee, Judith Whitmer noted:
Letting our primaries devolve into auctions, rather than elections, has done more than simply create an unequal and unfair playing field. In races around the nation, we’ve seen these underhanded tactics used to silence debate on critical issues, with competing views buried under an avalanche of dark money-funded messaging. This same anonymity has been used to not only defeat capable Democratic candidates but to smear their names and tear down their reputations. Faced with the prospect of an uneven playing field tilted by millions in untraceable funds, many would-be candidates have been discouraged from running at all—costing our party not just young leaders but the trust of underrepresented and marginalized communities we most need to reach. While any one of those issues alone would be cause for action, most alarming of all has been the insidious effect dark money has had on faith in our democracy.
And she concluded with:
Our elections are not for sale. Every voice in our party deserves an equal say, and every vision deserves a free and fair chance. Our democracy is only as strong as the public’s faith in it. It’s up to our party to lead by example.
After our presentation, the Resolutions Committee chair asked if any member of the committee wanted to put our resolution up for a vote. There was dead silence in the room. With not one of the two dozen committee members in attendance willing to call for a vote, the resolution died.
I had been a member of the resolutions committee for over two decades and served as its chair for 10 years. During my tenure I saw how staff, under the direction of party leaders, would work to whip votes to defeat resolutions they deemed unacceptable. Because members of the committee are all appointed by the chair, many feel they need to accept direction to stay in the good graces of the party.
I had a similar experience in February of 2003 when party leaders and staff browbeat members of the committee to oppose my resolution calling on Democrats to oppose the Iraq War. Because I refused to withdraw my resolution, I was allowed to introduce it and speak on its behalf. And then, as now, I was forced to watch as the party faithful sat in silence and accepted the chair’s call to refuse that the resolution be considered for a vote.
During my time as chair, I rejected this practice. I wanted resolutions to be debated and voted on. It’s called democracy. What happened to our resolution last week was the opposite of democracy. It wasn’t just that that the party gave a pass to dark money groups to continue to despoil our elections. It was also the use of pressure by party leaders to silence debate and refuse to allow a vote in the resolutions committee on an issue of importance to the future of our party and democracy itself.
As Democrats, we are right to be concerned about the dangers posed by Republican state legislatures acting to make it more difficult to vote; false claims about voting machines; and the continued threat of violence by extremist groups. Given this, it is deeply troubling to watch our party fail to protect the integrity of our own primary contests by refusing to act to ban dark money groups from spending millions of unreported dollars raised from billionaires (including Republicans) to smear and silence progressive voices.
Because we believe that banning dark money is vital to future of our democracy and our party, we will not be defeated. We will return at the DNC winter meeting with stronger support—more endorsements from DNC members, members of Congress, and Democrats nationwide. Because we now know how the game is being played, we will work to insure a debate and a vote on this critical issue.