Primer on Massachusetts Democratic Party Politics

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

Democratic Town and City Committees

Every municipality in Massachusetts has a Democratic Town Committee or a Democratic City Committee. The members of the Town and City Committees are the grassroots organization of the Democratic Party. The members (usually) are the lead organizers for political campaigns from the municipal level up to the presidential level. They run phone banks and canvassing during election campaigns; elect half the members of the Democratic State Committee; and have special (generous) rules for collectively donating to political candidates. The state convention caucuses are run by the chair of the town and ward committees as meetings of those committees (caucuses are discussed in a separate article).

You will find both progressives and establishment Democrats on most City and Town Committees. Some have formal progressive caucuses, such as the Progressive Action Committee, a caucus of the Cambridge Democratic City Committee. Some committees are hotbeds for political activism, and some are primarily social gatherings.

Getting elected to your municipal committee is an open process. The process is described in the state party by-laws, at http://www.massdems.org/about/bylaws.htm, which most municipal committees use, either directly or modified, as their own by-laws. The basics and the politics are described here.

Types of Democratic municipal committees

There are three types of municipal committees: Town Committees, Ward Committees, and City Committees. All are comprised of elected members. To start with some definitions:

Some City Committees never meet collectively (the most important example is Boston, which never meets as a City Committee but has numerous active Ward Committees). In most smaller cities, such as Cambridge, the Ward Committees sometimes meet individually and sometimes meet as part of the City Committee meeting. Ward and Town committees are required to meet four times annually, but many meet more often than that. We'll use "DTC" as an abbreviation for both Ward Committees and Town Committees.

Membership in each DTC is required by state law to be set at a fixed figure between 3 and 35 people. That number is decided by the DTC in the summer before the presidential primary election (the last decision point was August 2003, and the next one is summer 2007). "Associate members" can be voted in by the full members with no limit. Associate members generally have all of the rights of members except if there is a contested vote on an issue (details on associate membership below).

Democratic State Committee members are ex-oficio members of the Ward Committee or Town Committee where they reside. Ward and Town Committees also have 20-year members, which means after being elected members for 20 years, they are granted membership-for-life. Those two categories of members don't count in the membership limit. Hence a DTC can have considerably more members than the membership limit. For example, the Cambridge Ward 11 Committee has a limit of 20 members, but also has one ex-oficio State Committewoman member, a handful of 20-year members, and several Associate Members, for a full voting contingent of about 30.

Getting Elected to DTC seats

All DTC seats are elected for four-year terms. 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"). People can vote for up to the number of seats that the DTC allows (so people in Cambridge Ward 11 can vote for up to 20 candidates).

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 5 signatures of registered Democrats from your ward or town. When there are contested races for these seats, candidates might go door-knocking or mail some campaign material, like in any other contested race.

The usual way that a DTC ballot is comprised is by "slate." The incumbent DTC members often run as a slate, with the number of candidates on the slate matching the number of available seats. You CAN run as an independent candidate, but running as a slate greatly improves your chances of winning, because your slate-mates will tell their friends to vote for you as well as for them. Slates are marked on the ballot as slates, so voters can readily identify them. A hotly contested race will have two competing slates, both with a complete list of candidates to fill all the available seats. Voters CAN vote individually for each candidate, but more often will vote for one slate or the other.

Generally the DTC races get a light turn-out, which greatly favors the incumbent slate. (People may turn out heavily to vote in the presidential primary, but many don't vote in the down-ballot races). Hence the best way to win a seat is to get onto the incumbent slate. The best way to do that is to become an Associate Member (or a full member) in between elections -- details on that below.

You can also run a write-in campaign for DTC seats. You would need to distribute stickers or instructions to people throughout your town or ward, but if you get enough votes, you win (in a race with 20 seats, you only need to get enough votes to come in 20th place). There's a special rule that you must get at least 5 votes in order to be elected. In wards and towns where there are not enough people on the incumbent slate to fill all the available seats, anyone who gets 5 write-in votes wins an elected seat. That strategy worked successfully, for example, for a dozen write-in candidates in Cambridge Ward Committee races, organized by Mass for Dean in February 2004.

Getting DTC seats between elections

Sometimes, DTC seats open up because the incumbent moves away or resigns. The rules for moving to a different ward or town are that you may stay on your DTC until the end of the calendar year. (You are also usually granted membership in the DTC in your new place of residence if there is an open seat -- subject to attendance rules and other rules that the new DTC determines). Sometimes members reach the 20-year mark and get a seat-for-life, and then their regular seat opens up. Generally, new members get voted in from the Associate membership list whenever a seat opens up -- it's most likely in January but could be anytime during the year.

Voting for new members is done at a DTC meeting. The members present simply vote and it's usually uncontested. Some DTCs enforce the rule that they must announce that there will be an election of new DTC members at the next meeting. If the seat is contested, they will certainly do that, but in the dozen DTC elections I've witnessed, I have not seen any contested seats between elections. Generally these elections are pro-forma votes of promotion from Associate Membership to full membership.

Generally, DTCs which do not have a full membership roster are willing to vote in new people at any time. Many such DTCs exist -- the Cambridge Ward 3 Committee, for example, currently has only 3 members but has a membership limit of 20. DTCs without full membership rosters are similarly open to including new people on the incumbent slate for the 2008 election. DTCs which DO have full membership rosters will usually not be open to including new members on the slate, unless some people are about to become 20-year members or unless you can persuade them to increase the membership limit prior to the election.

Getting DTC Associate Membership

DTC members can vote in as many Associate Members as they like -- no limits apply. Most DTCs are willing to vote you in as an Associate Member as soon as you attend your second meeting (or sometimes your first meeting, if you promise you'll show up again). Associate Membership status is the easiest way to get involved with a DTC and is the best way to get a full membership at the time the next seat opens up.

Associate Members attend meetings and voice their opinions and are generally treated the same as full members. The only exception is for contested votes, which includes election of the conference attendees for 2-year DSC seats. Associate Members are eligible to get elected as conference attendees, but they can't vote. Associate Members are also eligible to run in the caucuses for state convention delegate seats, and they CAN vote in that election. Actually, any registered Democrat can do all of those things too, but the Associate Members will usually win because the rest of the DTC members already know them.

Basically, Associate Members may vote unless the vote is contested. Of course, that means that Associate Members can vote anytime that their vote does not matter. Nevertheless, Associate Members are treated with respect by other party members and sooner or later they do get elected to regular membership if they stick it out.

The one exception to the contested vote rule is that Associate Members CAN vote in the 2-year DSC seat elections for SSD-wide conference attendees. Since those are generally the MOST contested votes (if there's more than one candidate), this exception can be important for getting progressives elected to the DSC.

The basic requirement for Associate Membership is just showing up at DTC meetings (Woody Allen once remarked that 90% of life is just showing up. In politics, I believe, that's a gross under-estimate). Hence you need to know when and where your DTC meets.

Electing DTC officers

Each DTC has a chair, a vice-chair, a treasurer, a secretary, and an affirmative action officer. These positions are elected annually, in the spring (the dates are determined by when the presidential primary was held in Massachusetts).

Current DTC members vote for each officer position. Usually these positions are decided by acclamation, after the person interested lets the rest of the members know that they plan to seek the officer seat. Sometimes people must be drafted for these positions, since there is not so much interest in being a ward treasurer if the ward committee has little money, for example (which is a common example). The officer seats can be contested, of course, and then getting your supporters on your DTC to show up at the election meeting is the most important means of winning. Associate Members may vote unless the vote is contested.

The City Committees have separately elected officers of the same titles (this only applies to cities which have citywide committee meetings). These officers are elected at a meeting of the City Committee in the spring of each year. These votes are often by acclamation also, after the candidates have arranged for sufficient support before the meeting. Sometimes they are contested, in which case getting your supporters to show up is the most important means of winning.

City Committees usually have an Executive Committee which is comprised of all of the ward chairs plus the officers of the City Committee. This body meets to decide the agenda and logistics of the City Committee meetings.

DTC chairs have several important rights and responsibilities. Most importantly, they get to attend the state conventions as ex-oficio delegates. That means they automatically get to vote at the convention even if there are contested votes for delegates at the caucuses (which there always are, in gubernatorial nomination years). The DTC chairs also organize and chair the caucuses themselves. DTC chairs are also the official point of contact for the Democratic State Committee to the wards and towns. The State Committee sends the ward and town chairs an information packet about the caucuses sometime around December each year for the following years caucuses. The State Committee also sends organizational information, re-election information, and all other official documents to the ward and town chairs.

Finding your DTC meetings

The meeting times and places of some of the Boston Ward Committees are the best-kept secret in the Democratic Party. For the rest of us, the Internet serves as a pretty good means to find out when and where your DTC meets, or to figure out who to call so you can attend the next meeting.

First, there's a list of several dozen DTC websites at http://www.massdems.org/getlocal/websites.htm (the Mass Dems have a program to give DTCs websites. So do I -- you can host for free, forever, for any DTC or regional Democratic group, and our current list is at http://www.democraticstatecommittee.com/dsc.htm#DTCs )

Second, if there's no website, or if the website doesn't list the next meeting, you can find your DTC chair at http://www.massdems.org/getlocal/chairslist.cfm -- some have email addresses and most have phone numbers. Calling your DTC chair to introduce yourself is appropriate -- they are elected party officials and it's one of their responsibilities to inform potential new members about upcoming meetings.

Many DTCs have regularly scheduled meetings at the same place each month, and hence are very easy to find. For example, the Watertown DTC meets at 8:00 PM at the Watertown Town Hall on the last Thursday of every month. For others, you must check the website, or call the chair.

All DTC meetings are open to the public, under state law, even if they are held in private homes (which they often are). Many people attempting to get initiated into their DTC have hit roadblocks of the DTC chair not informing them of the meeting even when repeatedly asked. If you run into trouble like this, you have the law on your side -- you can crash the party legally.

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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 DTC 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.