The Democratic establishment has gone mad -- and 2016 will be last stand for party hacks

Democrats keep losing Congress because they rally around lame centrists. Time to take a lesson from Sanders success

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published March 12, 2016 2:30PM (EST)

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Bernie Sanders   (AP/Keith Srakocic/Alan Diaz/Photo montage by Salon)
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Bernie Sanders (AP/Keith Srakocic/Alan Diaz/Photo montage by Salon)

Early last October, after New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan announced she would run against GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte next year, Politico reported that despite this piece of good news in the Democrats' quest to retake the Senate, “their path to victory is being blocked by potentially ruinous primary challenges in other key states.” Pesky voters! Who let them in? More specifically:

In four key states, each among the Democrats’ best bets to take over Republican seats, upstart challengers are mounting primary contests against the candidates party leaders feel have the best chance next November.

In Ohio, 31-year-old Cincinnati City Council member P.G. Sittenfeld is challenging establishment-backed, 75-year-old former Gov. Ted Strickland. In Illinois, former Chicago Urban League president Andrea Zopp is challenging another establishment candidate, Iraq War veteran Rep. Tammy Duckworth. In Pennsylvania, former Rep. Joe Sestak, whose unconventional style has consistently irritated Washington Democrats, is taking on Katie McGinty, a protégé of former Gov. Ed Rendell. And in Florida, liberal firebrand Rep. Alan Grayson is loudly attacking his House colleague Patrick Murphy, the establishment favorite, in the race for Marco Rubio’s seat.

It would be oversimplifying things to portray these races simply as reflections of Bernie Sanders’ challenge to Hillary Clinton, and nothing more. But given the dynamics of how top-down party endorsements and funding work, and the kind of grass-roots energy needed to challenge them, there is no denying that strong similarities are present.

In fact, when 78-year-old former Ohio governor Dick Celeste endorsed Sittenfeld recently, he directly invoked what was happening in the presidential race. "What we're seeing in the presidential campaigns across the country is a growing level of discontent with party leadership in both parties. And I think it was a mistake for the Democratic Party of Ohio, for example, to make an early endorsement in the Senate race,” Celeste said. "PG Sittenfeld represents a fresh way of moving forward," he said, pointing to Sittenfeld's hands-on engagement in dealing with a multitude of urban issues.

"What we have here is a race between the future and the past,” Celeste continued. “When I say the past, I’m talking about the Democratic Party itself. It is trying to operate in an old way. And that old way was insiders who tried to make decisions and insiders who tried to call the shots. And that's not what people want."

What’s different in the different races is sometimes striking—both on the establishment side and amongst the outsiders, who in at least two cases could plausibly have been establishment picks. The strongest establishment candidate, in terms of résumé, is former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, who lost re-election in 2010, his last time on the ballot. The weakest, Kathleen McGinty, in next-door Pennsylvania, has never won a campaign before. She only ran once, coming in fourth in the 2014 Democratic primary for Pennsylvania governor, with 7.7% of the vote. The other two are two-term congressmembers who’ve never run statewide. If it sounds like a motley crew for the establishment team, with no candidate truly in their prime, well, it is—a further sign of how weak and ineffectual the party establishment is. That alone is reason enough to doubt the soundness of their reasoning, even on their own terms.

In contrast, party elders are spurning at least three progressive outsider candidates who have complementary strengths that could help anchor the Democratic Party’s growth in years to come. In Ohio, as already suggested, P.G. Sittenfeld is the very epitome of a fresh face, a near-perfect embodiment of the promise that millennials can bring to politics, with a strong sense of how issues that Strickland barely seems to notice are intimately interrelated. Politico noted that “National Democrats were initially excited when he entered the contest earlier this year. His youth, relatively brief career in politics, his liberal stances — all set up strong contrasts with well-funded GOP Sen. Rob Portman,” contrasts that are strikingly absent in Strickland, who last won an election a decade ago, having lost in 2010, when John Kasich defeated him in his re-election bid. In Florida, Alan Grayson already has a national reputation as an outspoken, no-nonsense progressive, though he’s adopted a more subtle, get-things-done-incrementally approach in the current GOP-dominated House. Thus he’s been both strikingly more progressive than Patrick Murphy—the Republican-turned-Democrat the establishment is backing—and more effective as well.

In Pennsylvania, the party is shunning both Sestak—a retired admiral who lost by just 2 percent in the GOP’s 2010 wave election –and John Fetterman, the Harvard-educated mayor of Braddock, whose fight to revitalize that Rust Belt town echoes powerfully with the message of Bernie Sanders, whom he has endorsed. In Illinois, though, Zopp’s long experience—in public policy, not politics—is the sort of thing one expects the establishment to value, and perhaps if the establishment were still at the top of its game, they would have backed her—or at least not endorsed someone else. The common thread throughout all these races is not only the inward-looking arrogance of decision-making without public input, but also the lack of any sort of long-term vision guiding party leadership. Even if their anointed candidates all won, it’s extremely dubious they would advance the party’s fortunes in the long run—much less the people they are supposed to serve. Let’s look at each of the four states in turn, to see what sorts of lessons could be learned.

Ohio: Sittenfeld vs. Strickland

At the most obvious level, this race pits an aging, backward-looking insider against a young, forward-thinking outsider. As Celeste said, it’s “a race between the future and the past.” But the past also means an aging candidate significantly at odds with his party’s voting base—though with varying degrees of obfuscation—who has repeatedly refused to debate his opponent… for good reason, it would seem.

On guns, Strickland bragged to a radio caller last year, “As a Congressman I had A and most of the time an A+ rating with the National Rifle Association.” He went on to brag that he voted against the 1994 assault weapons ban that Ohio Gov. John Kasich voted for. As governor, he signed a so-called “castle doctrine” law  that was opposed by Ohio prosecutors and police chiefs associations, who said it would provide legal cover for bad guys hurting folks who had no intention of harming them. He also supported a bill that would allow firearms in family restaurants and bars -- a measure opposed by police groups, which was blocked by the speaker of the state assembly at the end of the 2010 session. He now claims to have undergone a conversion, but even so he admitted, “My record is mixed and spotty and I could be criticized for that.”

On the environment, Strickland got a 100 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters just one year out of 12 he spent in Congress, as opposed to seven years with scores in the 60s and 70s, and four in the 80s. He voted repeatedly for coal and fossil fuel subsidies (1993, 1994, 1997, 2001), against higher fuel economy standards (2001, 2003, 2005), and against protecting public forest lands (1999, 2000, 2003), along with a range of other anti-environmental votes.

Although Strickland calls himself “pro-choice,” his record is more multiple-choice. He did score 100 percent twice on NARAL's scorecard, but also scored in the 30s twice, and 60 or lower five times. He cast multiple votes that would restrict abortion rights, including a 1998 vote to override a Clinton veto. As governor, he signed an abortion-ultrasound bill that drew anti-choice activists’ praise.

On all three of these  issues, Sittenfeld’s progressive positions signal a clear-cut break with Strickland. He’s pledged that he will only support a Supreme Court nominee who pledges to uphold Roe v. Wade. He’s got a comprehensive agenda to reduce gun violence: first, by closing loopholes to make background checks truly mandatory; second, by holding gun manufacturers and dealers accountable; and third, by keeping violent weapons out of dangerous hands. On the environment, Sittenfeld has a proven leadership record on the city council, chairing the committee overseeing all environmental issues. When a GOP plan was launched to defund the city’s  Office of Environmental Quality (OEQ) as part of a cost-cutting plan, he alerted local activists to fight back, pointing out that “OEQ saves tax-payers more money each year than the Department costs -- so axing it would represent broken fiscal management and in no way be productive for our budget situation.” Regarding global warming, he supports Obama’s Clean Power Plan, opposes the Keystone Pipeline, and says “the need to act has never been more urgent or more important.”

But beyond these key issue positions, reflecting the vast majority of Ohio’s Democratic base, Sittenfeld has a mature sense of how intricately different issues and ideas interweave and synergize with one another, based on his own lived experience. Before being elected to city council, Sittenfeld served as the assistant director of the Community Learning Center Institute, which played a key role in dramatically transforming the city’s public schools. He described the result in a speech laying out his urban agenda last year:

Virtually all of our schools are new. But instead of using them only during the school day — and then shooing the kids out of the building and into the streets — we’ve turned them into bustling, round-the-clock community centers.

Co-located health and dental facilities…. adult education programs… and enhanced cultural and recreational opportunities have removed barriers to student learning, boosted academic achievement, and sparked broader neighborhood revitalization.

Rather than seeing education through the narrow lens of high-stakes testing of individual students, destroying neighborhood schools in the process, as has happened in Chicago and other major cities, Cincinnati’s approach was the complete opposite, seeing education as the process of a whole community creating a better future by investing in its children holistically, synergizing different support systems that had previously been disconnected, or even absent. Similarly, a careful reading of his issue agenda shows a constant awareness of how different pieces of the progressive policy puzzle fit together.

Under the heading of “rebuilding the middle class,” he says he will “fight for a livable minimum wage, expanded overtime pay, better child care assistance, family leave, and paid sick days,” and “reject bad trade deals that create an uneven playing field for American workers,” pledging to “always be steadfast in standing up for workers' rights, including collective bargaining,” which Ohio Republicans have fiercely attacked since 2010. At the same time, he won’t be pigeonholed as defending dying industries of the past, saying, “We won’t rebuild the middle class by yearning for yesterday or clinging to a past that will never return. We must embrace innovation, champion change, and understand the tools of tomorrow, including ensuring fast, affordable internet for all Americans.”

His positive stance toward innovation is reflected in other issue areas he stresses as well—most notably education and the environment. And he has a detailed urban policy agenda, encompassing four major components: ending mass incarceration, improving police-community relations and better gun safety, jobs and economic opportunity, and improving urban schools and making college affordable. This is not a laundry list of issues in his view, but a tightly interrelated set of concerns. Being grounded in the reality of that interrelation is arguably Sittenfeld’s greatest strength—and given the nature of the Democratic Party’s diverse constituency, it’s just the sort of leadership strength the party desperately needs. “All of us want our best selves represented by who we cast a vote for,” Celeste said. “And I believe PG Sittenfeld represents the best of us.”

But the party also needs leaders who can bring people together in different ways. And that’s precisely where the outsiders excel over the anointed insiders in the other three states as well.

Florida: Grayson vs. Murphy

In Florida, the outsider, Alan Grayson, needs no introduction to most progressives. When he was first elected to Congress in 2008—in a seat no Democrat had won in more than 20 years—Grayson was known as the blogosphere's representative in Congress. When my old Open Left blogmate, Matt Stoller, posted an interview with Grayson at the site—an interview conducted at Netroots Nation—he wrote, "Usually I have to push candidates to become more aggressive, in Grayson's case, he pushed me." Stoller became a senior advisor to Grayson after the election, but we were just one of many sites where his message resonated.

But Grayson’s campaign announcement video presents a much broader view of who Grayson is, starting with a multi-ethnic, multi-racial working-class childhood in the Bronx, a childhood that helps explain why he’s strongly reminiscent of earlier generations of Democratic activists, lawyers and politicians who never stopped fighting for the people they came from, even as they took on new struggles. Grayson was also seriously ill as a child, and was fortunate that his parents’ union benefits included health care—a gut-level reason he’s such a strong advocate both for workers and union rights, and for universal healthcare.

During the Bush years, he made a name for himself representing whistleblowers in the Iraq War. “I'm the attorney of record in every single case now pending in Federal court involving war profiteers in Iraq,” he told Stoller in that interview. “The Florida civil rights association named me Humanitarian of the Year for my work in this regard, taxpayers against fraud named me lawyer of the year, and I've been featured in Vanity Fair magazine, in media like CBS evening news, 60 minutes, and even Dailykos, imagine that.”

But his childhood experience—and the kind of effort required to make something of himself, working his way through Harvard, literally cleaning toilets—gave Grayson a depth of humanity and moral gravitas that many have missed by focusing on his YouTube videos (like his famous description of the GOP health plan, "Don't Get Sick! And if You Do Get Sick, Die Quickly!") It also gave him a solid foundation to fall back on and develop a new approach after he lost re-election in the GOP’s Tea Party wave in 2010 and returned in a new seat, taking a very different approach to be effective in the hostile environment of a GOP-controlled House, which was infamous for not getting anything done. As David Weigel reported during Grayson’s first year back:

The new strategy is simple. Grayson and his staff scan the bills that come out of the majority. They scan amendments that passed in previous Congresses but died at some point along the way. They resurrect or mold bills that can appeal to the libertarian streak in the GOP, and Grayson lobbies his colleagues personally.

It wasn’t a strategy for getting big things done—because, frankly, no one is getting big things done in Congress these days. But it was a way to make the best of a difficult situation, and it was a clear demonstration of Grayson’s fundamental pragmatism, and ability to adopt very different approaches in different situations, without compromising his core values.

In announcing for Senate he said, “In the past two years in Congress, I’ve written more bills, passed more amendments on the floor of the House and enacted more of my bills into law than any other member of the House -- No. 1 out of 435 of us,” a claim that Politifact, after its typical long-winded analysis, finally admitted was “accurate,” adding that it “needs additional information, so we rate it Mostly True.”

The establishment doesn’t like Grayson, which is just one more reason why the base does. But the establishment pick, Patrick Murphy, 32, is a walking caricature of what’s wrong with the establishment, including attacks on the party from the right. First off, he was a lifelong Republican (donating $2,300 to Mitt Romney's 2008 presidential campaign) until just four months before first declaring his candidacy running for Congress as a Democrat. He has won just two house elections—the first a squeaker, the second by comfortable margin, thanks in part to spending over $5.3 million, the most of any Democrat seeking re-election. At least he has the money side of being the establishment candidate down. But he’s stabbed Democrats in the back on the Keystone pipeline and on Benghazi—two of the GOP’s favorite sweet spots. He’d make more sense as a GOP establishment up-and-comer, not a Democratic one.

On May 22, 2013, Murphy voted in support of the Northern Route Approval Act, allowing Congress to unilaterally approve construction of the Keystone Pipeline without presidential approval. Republicans voted for it, 222-0, Democrats voted against, 175-19. Murphy was one of the 19, the only Democrat in Florida to do so. As a report by The Hill explained, this was “much less than the level of Democratic support in the last Congress,” due to the shift from simply setting a deadline for the decision to eliminating the president’s executive role entirely, “which many Democrats saw as going too far." The Hill explained:

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), who supports the construction of the pipeline, said Republicans lost his support because of this change.

"Last Congress, I voted for every piece of pro-Keystone pipeline legislation that was brought before this body," Rahall said. "Something's happened along the way between then and now. And that something is called a hijacking of this bill by the right wing."

Rahall and other Democrats added that they don't support a congressional grant of any permit to any company…. "We don't even do that for our domestic companies."

So, this was not just a vote against the environment, it was a vote against the separation of powers generally, seeking to usurp the powers of the executive branch, and a vote against President Obama specifically. This is not just unusual behavior for an anointed establishment Senate candidate, it’s unheard of.

But it wasn’t unusual for Murphy. In May 2014, Murphy voted to create the select committee to investigate Benghazi—after it had already been thoroughly investigated seven times by House committees. He was one of just seven Democrats to do so. “Six of them face tough reelection races this year,” The Hill reported. This investigation was transparently aimed both at President Obama and at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then the Democrat’s presumed 2016 candidate for president. A more naked act of betrayal to the party would be difficult to conceive.

And yet, rather than seeking out a challenger to run against him in the primary, the Democratic establishment picked him to run for Senate!

And why not? The alternative is Alan Grayson, a candidate whose passion, intelligence, integrity and guts have a tendency to remind folks of what they’re missing. Of course that’s not how his opponents in the party want to put it. They argue that he’s “too liberal” for Florida voters, but as Politico noted:

Grayson’s team disputes claims that his outspoken liberalism would hurt the party's chances in Florida, arguing that Murphy’s moderation would be more of an impediment. Kevin Franck, a senior adviser to Grayson’s campaign, notes that President Barack Obama won Florida twice, while the moderate former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist lost the 2014 gubernatorial race.

“National Democrats have a fundamentally outdated view of how to win statewide elections in swing states,” Franck said, insisting Grayson’s boldness is necessary to excite low-turnout, Democratic-leaning demographics, adding: “Which candidate in the primary is more like President Obama, and which is more like Charlie Crist?”

The Crist comparison is actually too flattering to Murphy, as his Keystone and Benghazi votes underscore. As for Grayson’s boldness, he’s got that in spades, but he’s got something more as well: the ability to bounce back from adversity, and to reinvent himself as a political actor without sacrificing his moral core. Given the state of the Democratic Party nationally, it’s this latter capacity, to bounce back and reinvent, that makes Grayson even more valuable for the party—if the voters can get him past the party gatekeepers.

Pennsylvania: Sestak and Fetterman vs. McGinty

The situation in Pennsylvania is more complex. By all rights, Joe Sestak should be an ideal establishment candidate, a retired admiral, who the party originally recruited to run for Senate in the 2010 cycle, before Arlen Specter switched parties, knowing he would lose his primary fight to Pat Toomey. The party then embraced Specter—from Obama and Biden on down—but Sestak refused to bow out, defeated Specter, and came close to winning the seat in the Tea Party wave election of 2010.

When Sestak announced again last year, party insiders seemed to hold a grudge. “There just isn't a really warm feeling toward him among many party insiders,” one observer said at the time, in a story that also cited a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, saying that Pennsylvania had “a lot” of Democrats who could beat Toomey. But months later, a long string of them had bailed out, and the party seemed to be moving toward accepting Sestak, before veering away again.  The fact that they settled on Kathleen McGinty—as already mentioned, an electoral nonentity—signals something profoundly wrong with the party.

But there’s also a very exciting outsider candidate as well. John Fetterman, the 46-year-old tattooed Harvard-educated mayor of the majority-black working class rustbelt community of Braddock, Pennsylvania, a man who despite his town’s small size has taken on enormous problems, and gained a national stage, appearing on various TV shows—David Letterman, Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, etc. Fetterman has polled virtually as well against Toomey as Sestak or McGinty in a recent PPP poll, and recently endorsed Bernie Sanders, explaining at Daily Kos:

Bernie Sanders and I are both running for the same reason: we believe that politics is about standing up for people instead of catering to corporate influence. We represent everyday working people who have been cut out of the political process by big money.

From small-town mayor to U.S. Senate might seem like an enormous leap. But it’s the sort of leap that his community needs, as he told In These Times recently:

I want to have an impact on the direction of this country that I can’t have as a mayor of a small community. The country needs a champion for the forgotten legacy cities. You see the horror that’s emerging in Flint, Michigan. Well, Braddock was no different. Every community needs a champion, and I want to be the champion for legacy cities like my own.

When asked if he considered himself a populist, he replied:

I would describe myself as a realist. It’s real that you can’t live off $9 an hour. Climate change is real. I think we can all agree that you shouldn’t hear gunshots at night. I don’t call that populist. It’s just the commonsense characteristics of a compassionate democracy.

The specific content of the struggles that Fetterman is engaged with are different from, yet similar to those that Sittenfeld has faced. And they echo those that Grayson has encountered since his childhood in the Bronx. What connects them is the concrete realism of their politics. They see bold solutions as practical solutions, because faced with big problems, they’re the only ones that can work.

Illinois: Zopp vs. Duckworth

The least questionable of the establishment candidates in this bunch may be Tammy Duckworth, while her opponent, Andrea Zopp, may be the least obvious outsider. It would be relatively easy to imagine their roles being reversed. But it really helps to know a bit of recent history here.

Duckworth, like Murphy, is only a two-term representative, but a wounded Iraq War combat veteran (double amputee) who credibly fits the establishment mold, even if she is obviously being rushed. But being rushed is her Achilles heel. Duckworth lost her first race for Congress, in part because she was running in a district she didn’t live in—just as she’s currently lacking in statewide experience. In 2006 she was recruited by the  Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) to run against a grassroots, anti-war, single-payer activist, Christine Cegelis, who was responsible for making the district competitive in the first place, with her 2004 run against long-time incumbent Henry Hyde (of the “Hyde Amendment” infamy). Cegelis ran without DCCC support (they considered the seat "unwinnable") but with the support of Howard Dean as one of the "Dean Dozen." Despite being outspent 3-1, Cegelis got 44% of the vote in what was still a fairly solid GOP year, and she never stopped organizing in the district. Her strong showing was credited by some with getting Hyde to retire, and with the seat now open, the DCCC then decided to recruit Duckworth, who narrowly beat Cegalis in the primary, but then lost to the Republican candidate that November. Presumably, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee likes Duckworth now for the same reasons the DCCC liked her in 2006. And they could well be making a similar mistake.

Of course Democratic Party elders like wounded warrior candidates a whole lot more than anti-war ones. The former have broader ideological appeal. But it raises the question of what, exactly are they going to accomplish? Running wars “more responsibly” and “taking care of our veterans” more faithfully may sound all warm and fuzzy, but if the act of going to war itself is the problem—as decades of blowback now overwhelmingly suggest—then what? Does Duckworth show any signs at all of being able to grapple with that possibility? Is it even fair to ask?

The “outsider” in this race is Andrea Zopp, who quit her post as president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League to run for the Senate. She shares some things in common with the other outsiders, such as a grasp of how disparate forces and issues combine, and the importance of social spending investments, as the Chicago Defender described:

If anyone thinks that the violence is not tied to the dramatic decrease in services because of the lack of state funding, then they are mistaken. Job, after-school, training, mental health and addiction programs – all of these things are being cut. We need to start standing up immediately, at the governor and at the leaders. We have to find a pathway; this is not acceptable.

But in other ways she is noticeably different:

To the legal and business community, Zopp’s name is familiar and associated with community empowerment, but to the average Chicago resident, the lack of familiarity in the very community in which she served has been the challenge.

None of the other “outsiders” is better known to policy elites than to community members themselves. It’s one reason why Zopp would seem to make more sense as an establishment candidate. Still, a more open process would expose both candidates to questioning from the Democratic base, which would tend to influence them in ways sharply at odds with the forces now having the most say.

And that’s precisely what the party leaders seem most afraid of—the prospect of letting the party base influence the election. It’s a far cry from giving the people what they want, and trusting them to want what’s best. That’s the direction that former Ohio Governor Celeste pointed toward when he said, “All of us want our best selves represented by who we cast a vote for.”

Now that was a man who trusted the voters! He was also the last Democrat to be re-elected governor of Ohio, three decades ago. There's a lesson there, just waiting to be learned.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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