Primer on Massachusetts Democratic Party Politics
by Jesse Gordon, jesse@CambridgeDems.org, (617) 320-6989
[This is a sketchy version so we have something to discuss prior to the May 14 2005 convention. It needs some fact-finding to make the non-sketchy version].
The Democratic Party is run by committee. Some committees you can join, some are appointed, and some are elected. In this primer I discuss the myriad of committees relevant to Massachusetts Democratic politics. In particular, I detail the two special commissions related to the 2006 election – known as the Barrios Commission and the Dukakis Commission. First the basic structure of the Democratic Party.
You’ve probably heard of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The current chair is Howard Dean, elected in early 2005 for a 4-year term. (Massachusetts’ own Steve Grossman is a former DNC chair too). The DNC consists of a bunch of elected committee members from each state – 9 or 10 from Massachusetts. The DNC decides national party policy, writes the national party platform, and provides funds and consultants for federal campaigns (presidential, U.S. House, and U.S. Senate). They don’t have much relevance to state politics, except that DNC members are elected from each state’s Democratic State Committee.
Each state has a Democratic State Committee (DSC, although different states use different names). In Massachusetts, half the DSC members are elected on public ballots in Democratic primaries, and half are elected by Democratic Town Committee (DTC) members. The DSC decides state party policy, writes the state party platform, and provides funds and volunteers for state campaigns (governor, State House, State Senate, etc.). There’s a separate primer on the DSC for details.
Every town and city in Massachusetts has a municipal Democratic Town Committee (DTC). These are known in other states as "Democratic Clubs", or "County Committees", or other such variations – in Massachusetts we’re organized by town, and by wards in cities. Members are elected on public ballots in Democratic primaries, or voted in by existing members between elections. The DTCs provide volunteers for Democratic campaigns’ local operations, and are considered the grassroots of the party. There’s a separate primer on the DTCs for details.
The DSC has a chair, currently Phil Johnston. He is elected by the members of the DSC annually (Johnston got re-elected in autumn 2004). The DSC chair is a paid position but Johnston does not accept the salary. There are a handful of paid staffers for the DSC, all of whom work at 10 Granite Street in Quincy (the DSC headquarters). They are listed at:
The DSC has several subcommittees (often called "standing committees"), all of whom are appointed by the DSC chair. Generally, Phil Johnston appoints a chair for a subcommittee, and then that chair appoints and removes members for one-year terms. The subcommittees are made up mostly of DSC members, but they have some slots for non-DSC members. For the non-DSC slots, they prefer that you’re a DTC member, but if not, you can still get appointed if you ask nicely and have an interest in attending.
I got briefly appointed to the Public Policy Committee as part of a negotiated compromise that we would not introduce a charter amendment about the Mass Scorecard at the 2004 convention. The Public Policy Committee was charged with implementing the Mass Scorecard, so I got a voting seat on that committee, and my colleague got a seat on the Platform Supportcard Subcommittee (created for the purpose of implementing the Mass Scorecard). We were both summarily dismissed from our appointments when the party decided not to implement the Mass Scorecard, even though all appointments are supposedly for one year. Other progressive reformers have managed over the years to get appointed to many of the committees listed here, so it IS possible. But in summary, you serve at the whim of the subcommittee chair.
Most of the subcommittees have their membership listed on the www.MassDems.org website (because we insisted on their posting the membership rosters so we could lobby them – prior to that most had non-public membership, and some still do). You can look up contact info by cross-referencing to the main DSC membership list. The two lists are at:
The standing subcommittees, and their basic functions, follow. The Mass Dems do not describe the purpose of the committees on their website nor the meeting schedule (just the membership list), and only the party establishment actually understands their functions, much less how one might attend or get appointed. Hence I apologize in advance for the inevitable errors inherent in the opaque subcommittee structure, but this is the best an outsider can do. There are also two ad-hoc committees in this list -- ad-hoc means they crate the committee for a specific purpose then it disbands.
Field Services Committee
The Field Committee runs volunteer operations for Democratic political campaigns, from the presidential level down to any local races they’re interested in. The Mass Dems are very proud of this committee’s work in electing and re-electing Democrats – it’s the bulk of their campaign work.
I believe the Field Committee is evidently also responsible for overseeing the MassDems.org website. I’ve suggested on numerous occasions how to edit the website to make the party structure less opaque and make the website itself less oriented toward incumbency protection. It’s unclear who to approach about these issues, since the Field Committee only meets to plan campaigns, and at convention sessions where the Field Committee presides, they have declined to have sessions on the Internet. But evidently they sometimes listen (or at least, other people have suggested the same thing as us), for example:
We asked for a list of which DSC members were elected by which mechanism (2-year, 4-year, add-on, and 20-year seats), so that we could know who represented us and how people might run for DSC seats. A few months after we requested this information from the party staff, this information appeared on the MassDems.org website. They never responded to our request, so we don’t know if we should claim credit or not.
On the other hand, we also asked for a blog (a discussion forum) and lo and behold! one appeared on the MassDems.org website one day. Several of us quickly posted messages on our pet party projects and – serious lo and behold! – they appeared instantly on the website. Alas, a few days later, all of our postings disappeared, and a few weeks later, the discussion board itself disappeared. Once again, there was never a response to our postings, so we don’t know if we should claim credit or not.
Affirmative Action Committee
The Affirmative Action Committee is intended to do outreach to minority groups and bring representatives into the party structure. What they do very well is get good speakers to come to DSC meetings. Ward and Town committees also have affirmative action officers for the same purpose.
Campaign Services Committee
I'm not clear how this committee differs from the Field Services Committee. Maybe some of the functions I describe there are really done here. This is a good example where one paragraph of description on the MassDems website would remove a lot of opaqueness.
Youth Services Committee
The Youth Services Committee is intended to do outreach to young people and bring representatives into the party structure. There's also an independent group called Massachusetts Democratic Future (MDF) who have regular meetings and heavy cross-membership with this party committee. I like MDF because they endorse in Democratic primaries (usually endorsing young candidates, which the party defines as "age 35 and under"). They endorse and use the term "Democratic" which is against the party charter and is exactly what the party threatened to sue me for doing. MDF is always my first counter-example when some party aficionado brings up how I deserve to be sued. The difference is that the party establishment likes MDF and doesn't like progressives, but laws like MGL 56-40 don’t allow distinctions based on who is liked and who is disliked, and I believe this is why the party has not followed through on their lawsuit threat.
The Rules Committee
The Rules Committee is the final arbiter of rule changes. They take advice from the other committees and then decide the final rule proposals, which are voted on by the DSC. This applies to rules for the 2006 convention, most recently – the Rules Committee made a report to the DSC in March 2005, after hearing from the Dukakis Commission, the Platform Committee, and the Charter Committee.
I submitted a rule proposal to the Rules Committee in 2004. The Dukakis Commission proposed to allow attending the Democratic caucuses even if you register as a Democrat just one day prior to the caucuses (as was the rule in 2002). The DSC vetoed that rule change. The Rules Committee made the final decision (supporting the DSC). Even though I authored the proposed rule change, I was not allowed to speak at either the DSC vote or the Rules Committee meeting, so one can judge for oneself the openness of the relevant committees.
I believe the Rules Committee also deals with changes in the convention rules. Hence if one wanted to lobby, for example, to revise the reductions in elected delegates to the 2005 gubernatorial convention, this would be the right committee to write to. It’s unclear to me where are the lines between the Charter Committee and the Rules Committee. They have a high overlap in their membership, so writing to the many names in common would be appropriate in either case.
The Charter Committee
The Charter Committee rewrites the party charter every four years, and recommends amendments to the charter to each year’s state convention. They hear input on what should be changed in the charter, whenever such issues come up. They don’t meet regularly – just in advance of the convention, while preparing the charter for the convention.
I attended a charter committee meeting for presenting a proposed charter amendment regarding the Mass Scorecard in 2003. I believe they called that meeting just to hear us, i.e., they don’t have public hearings like some of the other committees do. There’s a more detailed section on the party charter in the Platform Primer.
The By-Laws Committee
One would guess from this committee's name that they are responsible for periodically rewriting the party's bylaws, which appear at:
One would not gain any additional insight from studying the Mass Dems website, since all they do is list the membership.
The Public Policy Committee
The Public Policy Committee advises state legislators on the party’s public policy preferences, and strategizes with legislators how to frame debates and votes in the state House and state Senate. In my brief tenure as a voting member (exactly one meeting), I had the good fortune to participate in the framing of the Constitutional Convention debate on same-sex marriage. Several state legislators attended, and I contributed the "activist viewpoint" that opening any window allowing same-sex marriage, no matter how briefly opened, would allow all sorts of pro-gay activism in other states because couples married here could move elsewhere. That’s the sort of thing they discuss, and then send memos to legislators.
The chair of the Public Policy Committee, Martina Jackson, also served as the chair of the Platform Committee in 2005. This makes sense because the two committees are closely related – one for policy in the legislature, and one for policy in the party. Some might say that there’s an anti-democratic feel to having the same chairs all over the place (Martina also chaired the EOC Testimony Committee, see below, and many other subcommittee chairs are the same faces over and over again), but that’s up to the DSC chair to decide.
The Platform Committee
The ad-hoc Platform Committee rewrites the party platform every four years. They meet prior to the convention, like in January 2005, and plan numerous public hearings to get input on changes to the platform. In off-years, they do the same (with fewer hearings) for the Action Agenda (annual amendments to the platform and charter).
I attended several platform hearings in 2005 and in earlier years. They are publicized and well-attended. It’s best to submit written notes, and also email, because otherwise you’re relying on the note-taking ability of the committee members. There’s a more detailed section on the party platform in the Platform Primer.
The Convention Committee
The ad-hoc Convention Committee meets to organize for the annual state convention. I believe they also run the annual event called "DCA Activist Day" (formerly known as "Chairs Day"). I have not dealt with this committee personally, so I can’t attest to its opacity versus openness. I do know that the DSC wants a convention that is controversy-free. For our compromise on the Mass Scorecard, our only strength was that we could bring a controversial issue to the floor of the 2004 convention, and they wanted "unity."
The DSC established two special committees (often called "commissions") in the wake of the unsuccessful 2002 gubernatorial election. The members were appointed by Phil Johnston, and the final reports of both commissions were made public in spring 2005. I served on both of these commissions (so Batman fans may call me "Commissioner Gordon").
Election and Outreach Committee
After Shannon O’Brien lost to Mitt Romney in 2002, the DSC decided to investigate what might be done to turn the tables in preparation for 2006. So they formed a special commission to focus on outreach to independent voters, with the goal of getting independents to vote Democratic in the 2006 election. The DSC resolution on this issue was introduced by Senator Jarrett Barrios (representing the progressives) and Senator Guy Glodis (representing the centrists). Somerville Mayor Dorothy Kelly Gay was added as a third co-chair. The EOC Report, as it has become known, was posted on the Mass Dems’ website in spring 2005 at:
The DSC has a difficult relationship with independents. First, they call them "unenrolled," and inherent in that term is their belief that independents cannot commit to one party or the other. Many DSC members believe that unenrolleds are halfway between Democrats and Republicans, and hence the way to reach them is to be halfway between Democrat and Republican in our principles and policy. In contrast, many progressives believe that independent voters are independent because they are disenchanted with the halfway-compromises so often expressed by party politics. That difference formed the core of the debate on the EOC.
The DSC also has a difficult issue with how to address independents. In the original resolution that formed the EOC, there’s a phrase about listening to unenrolled voters. Several DSC members proposed changing "listening" to "educating", i.e., that we should inform independents why they should support the Democrats, rather than listen to why independents don’t vote for Democrats. The vote was close, but the EOC was based on "listening", not "educating". Independents are the focus of the EOC because they are the majority of Massachusetts voters – 51% – and hence are decisive in all statewide elections.
The EOC held public hearings in 2003 all over the state, and then wrote a report in three sections plus a general summary:
The EOC’s conclusions were mixed. Overall, I think if gubernatorial candidates follow the EOC recommendations, they’ll do better than Shannon O’Brien did (but maybe I’m co-opted by having been a committee member!). The findings include:
Convention Reform Committee
The Convention Reform Committee (known as the CRC) was formed in the wake of the 2002 gubernatorial convention. The goal was to make the convention more efficient for the attending delegates, and more effective at getting statewide candidates elected (especially governor). The primary complaints from 2002 were:
The CRC made several key recommendations on each of the above issues. Then the DSC voted to change or defer the most important recommendations (at the March 2005 DSC meeting). The Rules Committee still has another pass at the rules, I think, until they’re published late in 2005. I cannot be very specific on CRC recommendations because the final report has still not been published. But some of the key recommendations and the DSC modifications are:
Some of the lesser recommendations that address issues raised in the Convention Primer are:
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All opinions expressed above are those of Jesse Gordon and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the DSC or any DSC members. Jesse has expressed the rules and procedures to the best of his knowledge; if you find any factual errors, please contact Jesse at jesse@CambridgeDems.org, (617) 320-6989, or write to 1770 Mass Ave #630, Cambridge MA 02140.