Primer on Massachusetts Democratic Party Politics
by Jesse Gordon, jesse@CambridgeDems.org, (617) 320-6989
Party Platform and Party Charter
This primer explains the foundational documents of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, and how you can affect changes in them.
The Democratic Party Platform
The party platform is the Democratic statement of principles. Its intent is to provide an overview of what the party stands for, and also to provide specific guidance on anticipated upcoming legislative issues. The 2001 version is available online at:
The platform is re-written every four years, in anticipation of the gubernatorial race. It is finalized at the state convention the year before the gubernatorial election year (2001, 2005 and 2009). There is a semi-open process for re-writing the platform, detailed below. Here we’ll describe the existing platform.
The 2001 platform (valid until May 2005) consists of 11 sections:
Each section has several subsections, which detail the party’s issues stances (called "planks" of the platform). The planks elaborate what the party says Democratic legislators should do on anticipated legislation, and what Democratic candidates should consider as their own issue stances. There is no obligation (nor expectation) to follow EVERY plank – they are for guidance, not for litmus testing.
The 2005 platform will likely add several new planks for issues that were not relevant when the platform was written in early 2001, such as supporting stem cell research, opposing the Patriot Act, and further details of same-sex marriage.
Since it’s not possible to anticipate every issue for four years hence, there is an annual "Action Agenda" to modify the platform and focus on new issues in the intervening years. The Action Agenda amends the platform at the off-year conventions (2003, 2004, 2007, and 2008).
The 2001 platform is a very progressive document. It outlines a full-throated progressive viewpoint on every issue at the state level, and many issues at the federal level. The party establishment generally considers the platform to be the means of satisfying the progressive wing of the party – we get the platform, while they get to run the rest of the party. The problem comes when the progressives insist on enforcing the platform…. That’s detailed below.
How to Change the Platform
There is a semi-open process for re-writing the platform. The Democratic Party appoints a Platform Committee, who hold hearings around the state, and synthesize what they’ve heard into the new platform. That platform is presented as a recommendation to the state convention delegates, who can amend it as they see fit.
The hearings are open to the public – in 2005, there were a couple dozen hearings all over Massachusetts, with attendance in the range of 20 to 30 people per hearing. People generally go with a prepared statement, speak for a minute summarizing their proposed plank, and then submit the prepared statement in writing. The party also set up an email address for submitting testimony.
It’s only a semi-open process for several reasons. First, only party establishment members get appointed to the Platform Committee (that wasn’t always true, but it is for 2005). Second, only the members of the Platform Committee see the process for converting people’s testimony into planks, which planks got dropped and why, etc. Third, there’s no acknowledgement of receipt of testimony submitted by email (or by mail), and no means to check the notes of the hearings – you just have to hope they heard you. And fourth, there is no published platform until very close to the Convention, so there is no means to address what was missed until almost too late.
I say "almost too late" because with sufficient organization, you CAN address an issue on the Convention floor. To do so, you must gather a petition of 500 delegates’ signatures to call for a floor vote to amend the platform. The petition should be for ONE plank – one specific issue, in the wording that will be included in the platform if the vote passes. To gather signatures, you attend the pre-Convention parties the evening before the convention to gather signatures, and then arrive early on Convention day to gather more signatures. Only delegate signatures count in the requirement of 500 signatures.
You CAN gather signatures in advance, but if the delegate does not attend the convention, the entire petition page is thrown out. Hence I recommend using single-signature-per-page petition sheets before the convention, while 10-per-page, or whatever fits conveniently, is adequate at the convention itself. Samples of 1-per-page and 10-per-page petition forms are on this web site at:
(These are petitions to include Instant Runoff Voting, as proposed by Governor’s Councilor Peter Vickery).
Since there are only about 3,000 delegates to the convention, gathering 500 signatures is a formidable task. You will need about a dozen people to gather signatures, both on Friday evening (the parties are where the delegates all hang out, and expect to see petitions there) and early Saturday morning. You will need a central table to collect the petitions and count them, so they can be presented in an organized manner to the podium. (For the 2005 convention’s IRV petition, the CPPAX table in the convention hallway will be the gathering place. You can call me at 617-320-6989 to coordinate where to go).
The petitions are presented to the podium before the end of the allowed period. You never know when that will be – sometime after the convention is called to order, but not TOO long after – maybe 10 AM at the earliest or noon at the latest. It’s best to have all the petitions completed, with well over 500 signatures, at the opening of the convention, which is at 9 AM. If you gather well over the required 500, no one will question the individual signatures. If you barely make the 500, they may check for individual attendance, proper readability, etc. – hence it’s best to get well over 500.
How to Enforce the Platform
The platform is not enforceable. This is the main reason that the party establishment is happy to allow us to put many progressive planks into the platform. There have been several efforts by progressives to enforce the platform, and the party establishment fights all of them. To wit:
The party charter says that Democratic legislators and committee officers must adhere to at least half of the platform (the party charter IS enforceable). Each individual can decide which half of the planks they choose to adhere to – hence there’s plenty of room for issues of conscience. This party charter clause was the result of progressive dissatisfaction with conservative Democratic leadership in the State House.
There is also a clause in the party charter that legislators’ adherence (or lack of adherence) to the platform can be publicized, as the means of enforcement. This party charter clause was the result of another progressive action several years ago. We capitalized on this clause with the "Accountability Amendment," which publicized which platform planks each legislator voting in agreement with, or in disagreement with. The 2003 convention passed the Accountability Amendment 60% - 40% but the party establishment refused to implement it. The full story, plus our own implementation for 2003-2004, is at www.MassScorecard.org.
The reasons the party establishment gives for not enforcing accountability to the platform are summarized below (I’m biased on this issue, of course, but I give their usual argument and then my response):
There are numerous rules prohibiting Democratic legislators and officers from endorsing Republicans. These rules ARE supported by the party establishment, and the party’s general counsel (Jim Roosevelt) reports that there will be a new rule that anyone who endorses a Republican will be excluded from the convention for a year after that endorsement. There have always been rules that you cannot endorse an opponent of the Democratic nominee, but this is the first instance of an actual enforcement mechanism that will be generally applied. Progressives should note, however, that the same rule applies to endorsing Greens. What exactly "endorse" means is subject to interpretation, but it generally means, stating your name publicly in support of a non-Democrat in a race where there is a Democrat running. You can WORK for Republicans or Greens, you can DONATE to them, but you can’t state publicly that you support them.
The Democratic Party Charter
The party charter is the statement of rules for how the party operates. Its purpose is to provide information on how to run party elections, caucuses, conventions, and ward and town committees. The 2001 version is available online at:
The charter is re-written every four years, in anticipation of the gubernatorial race. It is finalized at the state convention the year before the gubernatorial election year (2001, 2005 and 2009). There is a semi-open process for re-writing the charter, detailed below. Here we’ll describe the existing charter.
The 2001 charter (valid until May 2005) consists of 9 sections:
Unlike the party platform, the party charter CAN be enforced. There is a party Judicial Council to hear complaints. Of course, its members will be the party establishment, but it’s a public mechanism with public repercussions.
The party charter is usually just modified in each 4-year cycle (whereas the platform is, in theory, re-written from scratch).
There are also party By-Laws which follow the same methods as the party charter – modified . The by-laws are more to address internal party functions. The by-laws area available on-line at:
Finally, there are "Rules for the Convention." These are written each year well in advance of the convention, and are approved or amended by the state committee. The vote for the 2006 convention rules occurred in March 2005. There is a party-appointed "Rules Committee" to write the convention rules. The convention rules are discussed in more detail in my Primer on DSC subcommittees, since one such committee was intended to rewrite the convention rules.
How to Change the Charter
The party has a standing committee called the Charter Committee. They hold hearings which are (in theory) open to the public, to discuss matters that people want changed in the party charter. The party charter is very much an insider process and the charter committee is very much comprised of party establishment people, so you must know all the rules before going to a hearing. Here’s one story.
After the party declined to implement the Mass Scorecard, we considered calling for a party charter amendment to enforce its implementation. We (the Progressive Democrats of Somerville and the Progressive Democrats of Cambridge) submitted our suggested charter amendment in writing, signed by several of us, and then asked when the charter committee would meet. We were the only group seeking a charter amendment in 2004, and I assume the charter committee would not have met at all, but for us.
We came with a half-dozen people prepared to speak (plus a few others for support), and the charter committee numbered less than us. The first thing they asked was how many of us were members of our Democratic City Committees – most of us were – see my Primer on that topic! They heard our case for an hour, and asked pointed questions, and listened to our responses. They then voted unanimously to reject our proposal.
This process is important for introducing a charter amendment at a convention. To get a floor vote for a charter amendment, you need 500 delegate signatures AND you need to have presented the exact wording to the charter committee. (NOTE: there was some discussion at the CPPAX Convention in April 2005 that this rule would be applied to platform amendments. No, it ONLY applies to charter amendments. In a public venue, the Cambridge Democratic City Committee meeting of April 20 2005, I asked about it, and the answer was that platform amendments need not be submitted in advance but charter amendments must be. I asked Jim Roosevelt, the general counsel of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, and Rep. Alice Wolf, a member of the Rules Committee, and both responded with the interpretation above).
This Rules Committee, in theory, would hear modifications to the rules and by-laws. In theory, their meetings are open to the public, since all party meetings are open to the public, according to the party charter. I attempted to attend a Rules Committee meeting (regarding the 40-day pre-caucus-registration rule, detailed elsewhere on this website) and was told that I may not even enter the room. When I asked why, since public meeting rules should apply, they cited "Executive Session," which is a rule that allows legislators to exclude the public from negotiations. That rule does not apply to any party committee, but nevertheless, the public is physically blocked from attending meetings of the Rules Committee. I have also written memos to the Rules Committee asking how to amend rules – they have not been replied to, nor even acknowledged.
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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.