1. The Missouri Experiment
Some amazing things just happened at the Missouri Democratic Party’s (MDP) state convention in Sedalia this past weekend. Despite having a nearly equal number of allocated seats on the convention floor, Sanders delegates in attendance outnumbered Clinton delegates 453 to 321. It did not take MDP staffers, congressional district chairs and the party’s state chair, Roy Temple to do the math. The supporters of the revolution and grass roots movement that Bernie Sanders has been championing for more than a year owned the state convention before Temple ever banged the opening gavel.
There are numerous back stories about all the organizing that led up to the eventual outcome: a complete, peaceful and totally democratic and Democratic takeover of the MDP State Convention by the Sanders delegation. By that I mean the entire process was played out by following the rules of the MDP’s Delegate Selection Plan.
Missouri’s Democratic presidential primary was very, very close. The difference in the popular vote was one-fourth of one percent (0.25%). Statewide delegates for both presidential candidates were elected at hundreds of “Mass Meetings”, an almost micro-level of representation, depending on where one lives. In the urban cores, MMs are held at the precinct level. The precinct that Tessa Sheehan, a Sanders field organizer, lives in, met in U.S. Representative Emanuel Cleaver III’s church in Kansas City. Only a handful of people showed up and Sheehan, who went only to observe and document the process, unexpectedly found herself faced with either nominating herself, or losing a valuable statewide delegate position for Bernie. Cleaver is one of only two Democratic Congressmen from a state with eight districts.
That’s right. Once true-blue, 75% of Missouri’s congressional clout today is redder’n than the lipstick on that pig over there. Oh, sorry. Some of you probably don’t know the MDP’s statewide convention was held at the Mathewson Exhibit Hall, built in 1988 and designed to hold about 3500 people—in the bleacher section, that is—to watch livestock shows, concerts and other events at the Missouri State Fairgrounds.
Lifelong Democrats and recently minted independents who were willing to don the Democratic label long enough to vote in the presidential primary, participating in a process they did not understand, and often could not even comprehend, took the steps required to carry Bernie Sanders’ campaign for a revolution forward to the next level, that I will refer to as the movement from here on. We were literally herded and guided, eventually to the floor of the hall, which was divided into a grid of 16 “corrals”, one for each congressional district’s two delegations. While there was freedom to move about, delegates were required to return to their corral for voting on paper ballots that were collected and machine counted to be reported back to the chair.
Prior to the convention, more than 200 Sanders delegates met at the aptly named Liberty Park Convention Hall across town from the MDP convention site to discuss and formulate a response to reports of “shenanigans” being play by the MDP. Delegates were told that the MDP’s Nominating Committee would present a slate of four candidates—two men and two women—to represent Missouri on the National Democratic Committee for the next four years following the convention. All four were establishment candidates and Clinton supporters. Within an hour, this impromptu and unofficial Sanders caucus nominated and voted for their own slate of grassroots activists, to be proposed from the floor at the proper time.
By now, a path to assume control of the party was clear. Temple knew the Sanders delegates literally owned the convention. He was determined Missouri would not become another Nevada, or worse, and he pledged to bring the convention together as transparently as possible. Temple was meeting with Persephone Dakopolos a very well known Sanders activist who had been made chair of the party’s Resolutions Committee, which played a role in what happened later that day. Dakopolos had been given assurances that both our slate and our resolutions would be allowed to compete with the committees’ version in a well-documented and verifiable system of voting.
Some key strategists, like Tao Weilundemo, who also happens to be Dakopolos’ fiance, fretted about whether or not Sanders’ delegatoin would have “the numbers” needed to succeed, and he would remain anxious until the Credentials Committee confirmed as the convention convened later that day that the Sanders team had not only succeeded in seating more delegates than did the Clinton side, but that they had a commanding majority of any votes that would be taken.
As delegates arrived and checked in at their CD tables, which stuck out into the middle of the already crowded concourse that encircled the hall, delegates wandered around, trying to anticipate when and where we were to go. The convention floor was not yet opened, while CD chairs hustled to replace absent delegate positions with alternates. Once again, the Sanders group was better prepared for this by having a surfeit of alternates on hand. Delegates were “credentialed” with a badge and lanyard, which were required to get onto the floor.
Other than a handful of security guards checking for badges there no noticeable presence of uniformed security or law enforcement. There were no mobile television crews parked in the lot. No metal detectors or bag checks were deployed. If anyone expected trouble, you would never know it from the approach. For anyone who thinks it odd that I even mention these things, realize that it had been just one week since the Pulse massacre occurred in Orlando, and yes, these kinds of things were on my mind. Not all of the delegate selection process had been a happy and pleasant journey. Along the way I had encountered some unstable and disturbed men, but fortunately none of them put in an appearance.
There were problems from the very opening of the convention. Temple, his microphone, the sound system, or some synergy of the combination made his words unintelligible to nearly everyone on the floor. Only after numerous repeated complaints did the chair halt the proceedings while technicians made some changes that finally helped. Digital feedback squawks were just the beginning. There was an unbelievably inappropriate “invocation” by a pastor who did everything but issue an altar call for Jesus, followed by a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. So much for the dangers of mixing religion with politics. As one Sanders delegate said: “it was so 1950s.”
Finally we were ready to get down to business. Before Temple could even get started, someone on the Sanders side interrupted with a challenge to remove him as the chair of the convention. That motion failed, as the rules require the party chair to chair the convention. A few similarly nonsensical and futile delaying tactics were deployed by individuals, agitating the Clinton side and not winning much support from the majority of Sanders supporters. Most of the delegates on both sides of the floor wanted to get to the business at hand and diversions were being dismissed as quickly as possible, while allowing those who insisted on being heard to speak.
The exception was a pair of men wearing shirts with the United Auto Workers logo on them. They wanted to revisit the decision by the Sanders campaign to pare his list of at-large candidates. Even Berners were growing exasperated with their persistence. Those who tried to ask them to cease were met with hostility. Finally, after another break, as the convention was preparing to resume, the Sanders delegation started chanting “Not me… Us,” an obvious and organic, but deliberate message to both those delaying the convention as well as the Clinton delegation that the vast majority of us wanted to move forward. It seemed to work, and there were few substantive disruptions after that.
After some perfunctory details were dispatched we broke into our caucus groups to vote for at-large national delegates. On the Sanders side, one delegate issued a challenge to the caucus chair and was granted the microphone. She was angry that the Sanders campaign had utilized a rule for removing at-large delegates from the process, claiming that it was the only time he had done so. Muttering amongst the delegation grew as she asked for support to protest the Sanders campaign. The delegation literally booed her off her soapbox when she stated that all candidates on the list had posted content on Facebook that would not only disqualify them, but that they would not even be allowed to attend as a result of investigations by the Secret Service.
Once these dramatic exercises of free expression, free speech and protest played out, the pace of the second half of the convention ran much more smoothly, though the pace was still plodding.
There was another long break while all the paper ballots for at-large delegates were distributed, collected and the votes counted by machine.
It was after the AL delegates were selected that the process really took off. Numerous Clinton delegates left the convention after fulfilling their obligation to elect at-large delegates, which only served to increase the strength of the Sanders delegation. Whether it even occurred to anyone on the Clinton side to appeal to them to stay is not known, but probably not. They had already lost when they saw the numbers of seated delegates. More importantly, even if those numbers had been close, the Sanders delegation continued to coalesce and consense to a common objective, with only a very tiny number of outliers remaining.
As the nominating committee’s slate of recommended candidates to represent Missouri on the DNC was presented, another Sanders delegation motion to nominate was made from the floor and within minutes the overhead screens had not four candidates, but eight. Every candidate was then allowed to give a speech. The establishment candidates’ speeches were, frankly, tepid and uninspiring. They faced the Sanders side of the hall, trying to convince us they desered our vote. Meanwhile, we could see behind them that the Clinton delegation continued to abandon ship and fewer and fewer people remained on their side of the hall. One of the establishment candidates even seemed to think that it was a good idea to point out to us how involved she has been during the time Missouri turned from being a blue state to a red state.
The speeches by the Berniecrat-backed candidates, on the other hand, were far more impassioned. They moved and turned, speaking first to the Sanders delegates and then turning to reassure the Clinton delegates that they were us, too. I hope to be able to share videos of the speeches and other highlights soon for folks to see for themselves. Everything was recorded.
Another round of voting commenced. By this time, everyone was getting the hang of the process and as we waited to get the results all this old ACT UP activist could think of was chanting “Do the Math. Do the Math,” but better minds and hearts than my own quickly persuaded me that it would only antagonize potential allies, and at this point we were committed to unity, a mission and concern of victors, not losers.
I don’t have the vote totals as I write this, and it doesn’t really matter. The Sanders delegation, by an overwhelming majority, replaced four establishment member of the DNCs with “Bernicrats”.
In short order the convention moved to the next piece of business, voting on resolutions to present to the DNC platform commitee. Although more than 80 resolutions were submitted by Sanders delegates, only one was presented to the convention by the state platform committee, an endorsement for universal healthcare. And again, a motion was made from the floor to adopt a document containing 19 resolutions*, all of them key elements of Bernie Sanders’ revolutionary campaign platform.
We knew the surrender was complete when the convention adopted the Sanders-backed resolution by unanimous acclamation. I don’t recall hearing a single nay uttered.
The last bit of dramatic theater worth mentioning occurred shortly after the sweep of DNC members and resolutions by the Sanders delegation. Monta Welch, a Sanders delegate, requested time to speak during the new business portion of the agenda. From the platform, she proposed that the MDP approve another resolution to acknowledge that Hillary Clinton is under investigation by the FBI. I think she dropped the “indictment” word as well. Most of those still remaining in the Clinton delegation started booing, and there were more Sanders delegates shaking their head negatively than nodding. The chair received applause when he ruled that the time for proposing resolutions had already passed and that the motion was out of order.
A few minutes later, Temple, who has been praised by many Sanders delegates, gaveled the convention closed.
In short, the system worked. Oh, there are still one or two in the Sanders camp who are grumbling and insisting we didn’t “win”, but I’m not sure what more could have happened. The outcome exceeded all expectations for every delegate I’ve discussed this with. The process of selecting delegates, with all of its flaws, proved to be an incredible training experience for those who might consider running for public office. The party’s rules worked, and in this case a group of mostly inexperienced citizen activists who put unity ahead of differences were able to use them to great advantage.
It is important to consider this victory an experiment. Just as the New York Times has labeled Governor Brownback’s tax plan “The Kansas Experiment,” because it has taken years to even begin to see the consequences, so this can be considered The Missouri Experiment. What happens over the next few months, years and election cycles depends on whether the obviously successful Berniecrat movement in Missouri will be a flash in the pan, or a model for a new political system.
- Correction: the original article said 15 resolutions.
-Jonathan Barnett is a disabled social change activist from Kansas City, Missouri. He founded the AIDS activist group ACT UP/KC and was the first person in Missouri to run for public office as an openly gay candidate for city council in 1991. He was also seated as a Sanders delegate at the Missouri Democratic Party’s state convention.
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