Primer on Massachusetts Democratic Party Politics

by Jesse Gordon, jesse@CambridgeDems.org, (617) 320-6989

The Democratic State Committee

The Democratic State Committee (DSC) is the main body of the official Democratic Party of Massachusetts. The DSC has several hundred members who meet 6 or 7 times a year, but also participate in many other subcommittee meetings. The DSC members run the State Conventions, elect the paid party officials, and chair the party's subcommittees. Along with elected officials, they constitute the party establishment.

There is no formal progressive caucus in the DSC, although there are a few dozen members who consider themselves progressive reformers. Out of a membership of 372, that's only enough to make proposals at DSC meetings and usually not enough to win contested votes. The lack of a progressive caucus is a primary reason that progressive reformers feel ignored by the Democratic Party.

Getting elected to the DSC is an open process. It is described in the party by-laws, at http://www.massdems.org/about/bylaws.htm. The basics and the politics are described here.

Types of DSC seats

There are five types of DSC seats, of which the first three types are elected. The methods to run are described below, but first the five types:

Because all the DSC seats are slotted separately for men and women, the members are called "Democratic State Committeeman" and "Democratic State Committeewoman" (i.e., it's not politically incorrect to use the gender-specific term, since the seats are gender-specific).

Getting Elected to 4-year DSC seats

To get elected to a 4-year seat, you run on the ballot in an open election. The election takes place on the presidential primary ballot (next one in early 2008). Anyone can vote for you as long as they are eligible to vote in the Democratic primary -- that means, registered Democrats plus independents (whom the party calls "unenrolled").

To get on the ballot, you follow public election rules, as outlined on http://www.sec.state.ma.us/ele/eleidx.htm -- basically, you file a petition with 50 signatures of registered Democrats from your SSD. The major difference for state committee races is that campaign finances rules do not apply -- people can donate without limit, and you can spend without reporting your spending, since it's a party office and not a public office. When there are contested races for these seats, candidates put up lawn signs and go door-knocking, like in any contested race.

Generally the state committee races get a light turn-out, which greatly favors the incumbent. (People may turn out heavily to vote in the presidential primary, but many don't vote in the down-ballot races). Hence to win a contested 4-year seat, you need to seriously campaign. You have a much better chance if there is an open seat. That most often happens when your state committeeperson reaches their 20-year mark, and hence their seat opens up. The party does not report on their website how many years each member has served, but you can call and ask, or ask the person (their phone numbers and emails are listed on http://www.massdems.org/Contact/DSCcommittee.cfm ).

To figure out who your 4-year state committeeperson is, look up your State Senate District (SSD). Your SSD is listed when you put in your address at http://www.wheredoivotema.com/, next to your State Senaor's name. The SSDs are described by number and county, for example "Second Suffolk & Middlesex District", which is one of two districts that spans those two counties. The SSDs are often abbreviated with 3-letter codes, such as "2SM" -- those districts, with those abbreviations, are how the state convention seating and voting is arranged. The SSDs of each incumbent are listed on the DSC website. You can figure out who is your 4-year state committeeperson by looking for the person of your gender, in your SSD, with the "4-year" seat type.

You can also run a write-in campaign for 4-year state committee seats. You would need to distribute stickers or instructions to people throughout your SSD, but if you get more votes than your opponent(s), you win. There's a special rule that you must get at least 50 votes, which is sometimes not reached in open seat races.

Getting Elected to 2-year DSC seats

One person of each gender also represents each SSD for a two-year term. These elections, early in even-numbered years, are not on a public ballot. Instead, members of the ward and town committees within each SSD vote to elect the 2-year members. The next 2-year seat elections will be held in early 2006.

To run for a 2-year seat, you need to get to know all of the members of the ward and town committees in your SSD. You can figure out which wards and towns are in your district by clicking on your state senator's page on http://www.mass.gov/legis/memmenus.htm . The "District Represented" lists all of the precincts that are in your district.

Time for some definitions:

For getting elected as a 2-year DSC member, people who are members of Ward Committees and Town Committees within your SSD vote for you. They do so at a SSD-wide Conference (meeting) held for that purpose. Your task to get elected is to get to know Ward and Town Committee members, then get them to come to the SSD-wide Conference to vote for you.

If your election is uncontested, there's no Conference -- you just win by acclamation. The best way to win a 2-year DSC seat is to get to know the members of your ward and town committees. If an opponent sees that you know enough of them and have their support, they won't force a Conference. The best way to get to know your ward and town committee members is to attend their meetings. They are held at least quarterly, and sometimes monthly. There's a list of SOME of them at http://www.massdems.org/getlocal/websites.htm -- but the best way to find when they meet is to contact the chairs, who are all listed at http://www.massdems.org/getlocal/chairslist.cfm

It is a difficult but possible task to take on an incumbent for a 2-year seat election. If you attend several town and ward committee meetings and your incumbent opponent does not, you will gain votes. The number of votes is very small -- a couple hundred total votes in a typical SSD -- so getting to know and get the support of (for example) 100 people is a do-able task. You do have to attend a lot of meetings, and they are not held frequently, so you need to start in 2005 if you want to run in 2006.

To illustrate how to find the appropriate meetings, here is an example for the 2SM district. It comprises 9 ward and town committees:

The Cambridge meetings can be found at www.CambridgeDems.org; the Boston meetings can be found at www.BostonDems.org (sparsely, so calling the four chairs is necessary); the Watertown meetings at www.wdtc.us; and the Belmont meeting requires calling the chair.

The total membership in each Cambridge ward is 20, and in all the others is about 30. Hence the total number of ward and town committee members is about 240, of which about 200 are eligible voters (not all are eligible; see next paragraph). Hence gaining the support of 100 committee members would assure an electoral victory. The numbers work out about the same in most SSDs.

You'll note that some wards and towns are split between two SSDs. For example, in the 2SM district cited above, all four Boston wards and two of the Cambridge wards are split by precinct. Hence some precincts in one ward have one state senator while other precincts have a different state senator (Sen. Steve Tolman or Sen. Jarrett Barrios in this case). Towns are sometimes split by precinct too, but in this case they're not. For the DSC election, only people who reside in your SSD can vote for you for DSC. That's obvious in the election for the 4-year seats because the ballots are printed differently. But since ward committees meet as a whole ward (and never by precinct), only SOME of the members of the split committees are eligible to attend the SSD-wide Conference and vote. They know who they are by knowing who their state senator is (who'll be the same as yours).

The details of the SSD-wide Conference are a little complicated too. Attendees to the conference are elected by their ward and town committees. Only committee members in the right SSD can get elected to attend the SSD Conference, but ALL committee members get to vote for who gets to attend. So getting to know all the committee members, even those outside your SSD in split wards, is the means to get elected. The key, in summary, is attending the relevant ward and town committee meetings.

If a 2-year seat or a 4-year seat becomes vacant mid-term, then an SSD-wide Conference is held to fill it. If the seat is uncontested, then the single candidate is voted in by acclamation at ward committee and town committee meetings.

Getting Elected to add-on DSC seats

All elections for all types of add-on seats are held at DSC meetings, with only DSC members eligible to vote. Hence the key to getting elected to these seats is to get to know as many DSC members as possible. Attending DSC meetings is the best means to do that. You can find the meetings listed shortly before each meeting on the www.MassDems.org homepage.

The add-on seats are usually contested, but they are voted for in a group. For example, for the male affirmative-action seats in spring 2004, 17 candidates presented themselves for 16 seats, and the DSC members voted for up to 16 candidates. Sometimes a candidate or two will withdraw so the rest can be elected by acclamation, as happened in several races in 2004. This makes the DSC members happy since there's no need to count votes, and generally the person withdrawing is then favored in another category (if they're eligible).

To campaign for the add-on seats, you can print a mailing to all 372 DSC members (which would cost about $150 to print and mail). Many candidates do that, or call as many DSC members as possible, or both. All candidates bring printed materials to the DSC meeting when the election takes place, and the tables get piled very high indeed with candidate flyers, and goofy paraphernalia like bags of jelly beans, fortune cookies, or pens emblazoned with candidate names. Shmoozing with the DSC members at the election meeting is a good way to build support -- the classic political "smoke-filled room" except that smoking is no longer allowed.

Mass for Dean organized to run several candidates for add-on DSC seats in the election in spring 2004. Some of their campaign literature appears on the www.DemocraticStateCommittee.com website in the section labeled "Massachusetts Democratic State Committee candidates". Several Dean and Kucinich supporters won seats in that election, including Laura Carmen Arena and Monica Palacios-Boyce whose campaign links appear on that page.

All of the add-on seats are elected at the same meeting (which is how people can run in several categories). The sequence of the seats is relevant, because if you are eligible, say, for the gender balance, affirmative action, AND youth seats (age 35 and under), you can run in the earlier races in the evening, withdraw if it looks like you'll lose, and have another chance later in the evening. The sequence of voting generally follows this official order (from the ByLaws art. 2, section 1), but in 2004, affirmative action got bumped ahead of youth seats:

All of the add-on seats are four-year terms. Sometimes, add-on seats open up because the incumbent resigns (or more often because they reach the 20-year mark and get a seat-for-life, and then their regular seat opens up). Then there's a special election to fill out the term, at a DSC meeting (except for the gender-balance seats, which do not get filled until the next 4-year cycle). Those elections are less paper-intensive because there are fewer elections (sometimes only one) at one meeting. The open seats are announced in the meeting agenda for the DSC meeting, linked from the www.MassDems.org homepage.

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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.