Burton’s Behavior as Chair: Epic Fail

The general buzz leading up to last week’s California Democratic Party Convention was mostly about the need to energize and motivate the party faithful for the 2010 midterm election.  The conventional wisdom is that the party faces an uphill battle in the midterms due to historical trends (the president’s party generally loses seats in the midterms), and political ones (the teapartiers bring nothing if not enthusiasm).  There is also the general ennui that has set in since President Obama’s inauguration in January, 2009.  The reality of governance has created tension within the party, and there is general concern that liberals and progressives will stay home on election night.  All of these factors set the stakes very high for John Burton’s first convention as Chair of the party.  I wish I could say that he was able to answer the call.

From all appearances, it looked like the Chair was barely able to answer the call to get out of bed.  Sporting a red bowling shirt (Note to John: the party color is blue.  The other guys are red) with an uncooperative white t-shirt underneath on Saturday, Chair Burton stumbled and grumbled around on the dais as if nursing a very bad hangover.  Apparently there is some charm in his preferred demeanor, but I was unable to grasp it.  I realize that the Chair should not be the source for words of inspiration, but is some enthusiasm too much to ask?  From handwaving through the votes by acclamation to searching for the next item on the agenda, there was the appearance that the Chair was winging it.  For Saturday’s agenda this was not such a serious problem, since the general session was primarily a series of speeches, including very good ones from Senator Boxer and Governor/Mayor/Attorney General Jerry Brown.

On Sunday, however, the Chair’s inability to adhere to procedure had some very detrimental effects on the proceedings, and, at least for this delegate, on the enthusiasm of the audience.  Sunday is the day for business at the convention.  We vote on endorsements, platform issues, rules, etc.  We also find out the results of the endorsement votes that were held Saturday afternoon.  The Chair gave the results between speeches as if he had something better to do.  Then it came time to vote on the endorsement for the 36th Congressional District.  Jane Harman is the CA36 incumbent and is being challenged by Marcy Winograd.  An endorsement caucus had been held on Saturday, which Harman had won.  Winograd was able to gather enough signatures, however, to force a final vote on the floor on Sunday.  It almost didn’t happen.

The Chair garbled the endorsement question so badly that I was not sure what we were voting on.  Apparently I wasn’t the only one.  The first vote was a voice vote, and the “Ayes” and “Nays” sounded pretty equal to my ear; nevertheless, the Chair ruled that the Ayes had it.  I was puzzled, not only because of the ruling, but also I recalled that when we had a floor vote two years ago (Leno versus Migden), both sides were given 4 minutes to present their case.  This time the vote was taken without speeches, even though Winograd’s troops were lined up at one of the microphones.  Fortunately a delegate went to another microphone and asked basically what we had voted on and protested that it wasn’t clear.  The Chair bristled.  While he was bristling, Winograd’s forces had made their way up to the dais and protested that they had not been able to speak.  The Chair first berated Ms. Winograd for asserting her rights under the rules, then went back to the parliamentarian for a ruling.  Both flustered and frustrated, the Chair allotted 4 minutes each to Winograd and Harman.  

Both sides passionately presented their case.  The Winograd team made the argument that the endorsement reflects on the party as a whole, so it is only fitting that the entire delegation have a chance to overturn a district’s vote.  Harman’s forces took the opposite side, questioning the fairness of the ability of the entire delegation to overturn a district’s endorsement.  The vote would proceed by a show of delegate cards, but even this didn’t go smoothly.  Supposedly cards were counted, but many delegates did not see counters in their region.  The vote had to be done again.  The second time took longer and it appeared as if there were enough counters, although some delegates were still not sure if they were counted.  Again the Chair looked as if this were his first time doing this, and was not in control of the proceedings.  As the counts were tallied, another speech or two intervened.

Finally the vote was announced, and it was rather close.  The Chair made some crack about nobody being bribed for their vote, which was really bush league.  I guess it was an attempt at humor to lighten the mood.  Winograd protested on another point, but I was unable to hear what it was.  Burton again rebuked her, telling her she should get her people organized better.  This was again bad form on the part of the Chair.  The Chair is in a privileged position and should not be taking potshots at people who are asserting their rights as candidates, delegates, etc.  The Chair should rule but not opine.  Full disclosure:  I  did not support Winograd’s bid to overturn the endorsement; I agreed with the Harman camp reasoning.

One final episode cemented the impression that Burton was winging it the entire weekend.  The platform committee did not recognize the author of an item that the committee had sent over to the Rules Committee even though this person had been standing at one of the microphones during the Platform Committee (PC) report.  The  PC report was then voted on without discussion.  The Chair failed to see the speaker as well, but tried to make amends by allowing the speaker to address the audience from the dais for two minutes later on.

The session limped home to an odd but fitting conclusion when one delegate asked for a quorum call even though there was no more business at hand.  Maybe they just wanted to leave.  Apparently the convention ended, and we were headed out the door.  No calls to action.  No rousing finish.

None of this criticism is meant to take away anything from John Burton’s years of exemplary public service.  He has done more for California than I could ever hope to do, but the party’s “Back to the Future” gambit is having the effect I feared that it would.  Many of the young democrats and Obama supporters who put the party over the top have never heard of John Burton, and don’t know a thing about Brown’s governorship.  There was nothing said or done by the Chair that gave me confidence that the party is connecting with these vital new voters.  If the goal of the Chair for this convention was to energize and motivate the base for 2010, my conclusion is that he failed, epically.

2 thoughts on “Burton’s Behavior as Chair: Epic Fail”

  1. Despite his gruffness and penchant for off-color remarks, I believe that Burton has done a very good job in resuscitating the party. First, the bowling shirt? That’s a United Farm Workers (UFW) shirt. Given the Democratic Party’s legacy of union support, it seems like the perfect attire.

    But, I will say this for Burton and his team, they found a party that was essentially adrift and out of money. Since that time, they have raised the money necessary to continue operating, built a strong training program, and generally lifted the party out of its doldrums.

    I won’t argue that he’s the world’s greatest on Robert’s rules, but what John Burton is is a true progressive leader. Hell, when others weren’t saying it, he called for us to get our troops out of Afghanistan last year. Yes, he’s gruff, but he makes up for it and then some.

    Every year, there is always something like this, and the convention always peters out near the end.  Nobody stays for the full final day, as they are trying to make their way home.  I’d like to see a lot less time spent on the procedural stuff, and more on the training. Ideally, people would view the conventions as much as a training opportunity as anything else.

    John Burton has been a huge step forward for the CDP, this isn’t really a gig that just anybody can do. Perhaps he didn’t handle the Winograd situation perfectly, but the guy gets things done.

  2. Okay, our Chairman John Burton is old, irascible, profane, impatient, and yes, at times, even rude.  He’s also reliably progressive, passionate, committed to changing our state, country and party, and, I’m convinced, the only person who could have pulled us out of the swamp that our party had sunk into over the last decade.

    When John Burton goes to the donors who had fallen away or stormed away from our party when it asked for money, they often believe he’ll deliver on real change.  And the skeptical ones are coming around too, because we didn’t just get John Burton when we he won the election for chair of the CDP.  We got Shawnda Westly, Angie Tate, and Mollie Culver and a whole slew of new programs as well.

    John’s behavior isn’t the point.  We knew what he was like when we elected him; we like it when the “fuck you’s” are directed at the Republicans.  I have three reasons why I’m not focused on John’s behavior at the convention:

    One – His politics

    Two – what he’s doing to preserve and grow our party

    Three- Although he made two gaffes at the convention, one wasn’t so bad, and he apologized for the other and made the injured party whole that same day.

    Just yesterday there were two emails responding to the Goldman Sachs debacle and tying Meg Whitman into it.  This is the kind of response we need from our party chair.  In the past year there have been statements deploring our President’s stepped-up war against Afghanistan, newspaper ads attacking Wally Herger in CD 2, an online campaign against caving in to Republican demands for the 2009-10 state budget, and a plank added to the platform opposing the death penalty.

    When John assumed the office of chair there was $1.12 in our operating account.  Yes, there were funds in our federally qualified account, but John won’t spend that money to keep the lights on.  He wanted it kept available to get the door hangers out in time for the November election, and lead the support for Sen. Barbara Boxer, Governor Jerry Brown, and the other races coming up in a few months.

    So John, with the invaluable help of Shawnda, Angie and Mollie, started asking for money.  I don’t think he had a meal by himself for the first six months; there was always a donor sitting across the table.  And those donors weren’t rushing to pull out their checkbooks.  They wanted to know why Democratic registration had fallen, why 13 counties had gone from Blue to Red, why the Democratic legislators, in the majority in the Assembly and Senate, weren’t standing up to Republicans.

    In the meantime, Angie and Shawnda were trying to keep the doors open and the lights on.  Cutting costs was one part of it, but reaching out to donors, listening to the litany of what the party had done wrong in the past, sweating out cash flow to cover payroll, was the larger part.  Mollie was spear heading targeted voter registration, putting the Learn to Win program in place, mediating disgruntled factions in the county central committees, and oh, yeah, asking everyone she had ever worked with for money.

    By the convention John and our staff had covered the costs of the convention, socked away 6 weeks of cash to keep the office open, and negotiated a solution to a $300,000 lawsuit.  And hosted 10 Learn to Win trainings with three more scheduled, flipped AD 5 and Fresno to Blue, gotten Riverside and San Bernardino close, filled the vacated regional director spot in RD 10, had 9 monthly regional director calls, 9 monthly caucus chairs calls, hosted a special session on caucuses, and the first regional directors all day training, added a Spanish language webpage, improved the response time on calls and emails between activists and our staff, and even had the offices painted and recarpeted.  While saving almost 20% a month over our previous overhead costs.

    I myself wonder why Marcy Winograd – after running against Jane Harman for six years – couldn’t get the club memberships and Assembly District support to win the endorsement in that district.  I would have been embarrassed to use the by-law window a second time to overturn the local endorsement.  If you can’t get enough Democrats to vote for you in the tiny world of CDP politics the second time you run, how can you expect to win the election?  This is not the year to give up a seat in congress on to the Republicans in a quest for ideological purity.  This is the mid-term election, people!

    After conferring with our parliamentarian Joe Wyatt, and the other officers, John decided there was a way to override the protocol which kept Dale Axelrod from making his remarks about the platform decision.  (Which, by the way, will be on the rules committee agenda in July.)  It’s unfortunate that by then many of the convention attendees had left rather than staying to honor the grass roots activists who were being recognized by their regional directors.

    News flash – Sunday’s general session is the one where we make decisions and have intra-party debate.  So stick around – you could say something.

    Hopefully, by next year, if the DEM2010 program inspires giving by donors up the food chain, it won’t matter that every hour up until 2 pm costs us $1,400 and every hour or portion of an hour after costs us $1,800.  That will make everyone more patient.

    John Burton and the staff have proven themselves to be more than competent, more than capable.  They have brought us to this point where we can actually compete against the millionaires and billionaires who are poised to buy California.  Is there someone else ready to step up and raise $20 million next year and $30 million in 2012?  Someone else who can organize statewide training and voter registration, get our progressive message out in readable, publishable format two, three and four times a week?  Who knows the names of all the candidates, potential candidates, opponents, the registration spread of every assembly district and Senate district?  Is set to give up private life, the kids’ track meets, the cousins’ anniversaries, the nephew’s bar mitzvah?

    If so, introduce me.  Maybe I’ll sign up.  But in the meantime, I’m sticking with John Burton and the California Democratic Party that he leads.  The future of California means more to me than being polite at the podium.

    Hilary Crosby, Controller, California Democratic Party

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