#DemEnter Notebook: Erasing the Line

Grateful to my sisters Ann Vardeman & Sue Altman, who contributed feedback, perspective and ideas to this. Brother Barry Brendel, too. – REE

In Massachusetts: Last week Ayanna Pressley, 44, won the Democratic primary against 10-term incumbent Rep. Mike Capuano, who outraised her by wide margin. Capuano’s progressive, but Pressley ran to his left, with the support of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. *** She caught both parties’ establishments flat-footed; Dems assumed Capuano, 66, would prevail, the GOP was so sure of it, they didn’t even run anybody. Pressley, like AOC, is going to Congress. She will be the first black woman her state has ever sent to Congress.

But in New Jersey: Pressley’s come-from-behind win is the kind of unexpected, voter-driven insurgency that NJ Dems tend to PREVENT by using “the line” to control the process, concentrate power, and protect incumbents.

“The line” – Is it fair? Is it right? Is it the best we can do?

What is “the line”? New Jersey is the only state that sets up its ballots this way – allowing county parties to ‘bracket’ chosen candidates in a “line” on the ballot from the top of the ticket to the bottom, making it look official. Only 2 NJ counties don’t do this. In all others, it gives tremendous advantage to whoever county parties select. Candidates know this, and they know those who show loyalty to the party leader are more likely to be chosen. That can work against bold new ideas of little interest to people who may be primarily interested in maintaining the status quo.

Power broker > Voters: “The line” allows county chairs & party bosses to control much of how our ballots are set up, what voters see when they enter the booth. Insurgent candidates or those not running with the blessing of county orgs can be sent to ballot Siberia, knowing most voters will vote their party’s straight endorsed ticket. It solidifies the top-down control of machines and county chairs, which some abuse even as others use that power for more participatory party-building. Some chairs ’stack’ their committees not with activists who want to build a vibrant, fluid party, but with loyalists who won’t ask questions and will vote as their told. Party leaders are part of a patronage system of filling jobs in this state; some use that power more toward the public good, others to reward loyalty to themselves or the party machine that runs them. All party leaders do not abuse their power, but that is not an argument to allow processes in which abuse is easy.

To be clear: This is insiderism, establishment, and a system of reward for loyalty – not an indictment that the Party is racist, sexist, or ageist. But any of those may be a secondary impact of a system that promotes incumbency (and with it, white men) and the status quo. Is it the best we can give the voters?

Who cares about this? Who would want to challenge “the line” system?

Incumbents? – No, they have power, and want to keep it. This system promotes incumbency.

County Chairs? – No, this consolidates their power, often with top-down control, if they use their county party orgs as the seat of their own power base.

State Democratic Party? – Open Question. And maybe something to look for at the Dem State Conf Sept 20-21

Voters? Open Question – Low-information voters or those confounded by the claims and counter-claims of campaign-season attack ads, may not even realize the degree to which organized forces are pushing them to simply choose what looks like authority and name familiarity. Party leaders know this and game for it. But if we as reformers are not actively addressing this problem, are we continuing to cede control of the elections we all work so hard on?

Post-Trump local Dem activist orgs? – Open Question. Some of them arose from the Hillary Clinton campaign (Action Together is the former Pantsuit Nation of Hillary supporters, Indivisible was started by Hill staffers); that wing leans toward establishment. That said, that only describes their origin; they evolve and grow and may now see their party differently. Also, more independent progressive orgs have also bubbled up, reform-minded towards a more representational, progressive, transparent, and accountable party – a party worthy of #DemEnter, the progressive national effort to keep fellow grassroots progressives in the Democratic Party. As members of independently-organizing groups across the spectrum take their place in the Dem structure, they will call for their own changes that represent them and their view of the future. The Party will, and should, reflect them.

3rd-party people? – No. They’ve given up on the duopoly, hope Dems crash & burn to make room for them.

Party reformers? – Yes.

Women? People of color? Young candidates? The effect of keeping them out isn’t necessarily about racism or sexism or ageism directly, or about limiting the power of any demographic. But a vibrant party requires vigorous meritocracy, in which fresh ideas have a chance to gain support and candidates with bold vision and the ability to engage voters can compete on as equal a playing field as we can make it.

*** A few things to know about PressleyCapuano is no slouch. But to many voters, he represents an old-boy network of power, dominated by white guys. MA-7 is about half of Boston, plus burbs. Pressley ran to Capuano’s left;  they agree on many issues but differ on immigration (Pressley wants ICE defunded) and on impeachment, with Pressley more ready to indict Trump. But there’s more than that going on. Part of this may be generational – he’s 66, she’s 44 – but also may play on MA-7 voters’ feeling of representation. This is the only majority non-white district in Massachusetts, and that state has never sent a black woman to Congress. Her story may also resonate. Pressley was raised by her mother, her dad in and out of jail. She was sexually assaulted both as child and adult, and raped as a student at BU, became an advocate against sexual assault, and never got her degree. She’s not an outsider to politics. She was the first woman of color ever elected to Boston City Council, and her portfolio includes work with both John Kerry and Rep. Joe Kennedy. Most of the Dem establishment backed Capuano – but not all. Nobody in the MA delegation (including Elizabeth Warren) supported her, but a lot of local progressives and her council colleagues did. Both Boston Globe and Boston Herald endorsed. Nationally, she got backing from Democracy for America, Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, Indivisible, and National Women’s Political Caucus. Finally, here is Pressley discussing power, in a way maybe Capuano, with different life experiences, might not:

“I fundamentally believe that the people closest to the pain should be closest to the power, driving and informing our policymaking.

Like Ocasio-Cortez’ statement of purpose, Pressley is a confident, badass woman with a clear sense of mission. ‘Change Can’t Wait’ is Pressley’s campaign theme. It’s fierce. I want more of this for NJ – local, state, Congress.

Is the system of ‘the line’ and top-down power standing in our way? What do you think?

Comments (7)

  1. Marcia McCollum

    This is what I’ve been hoping for. After the 2016 debacle,I have shut down the DOC’s constant requests for donations. I too no longer feel represented by their chosen candidates,with a few exceptions. Now I truly pay attention to what our elected officials do AND don’t.

    1. Rosi Efthim (Post author)

      Marcia – I assume you mean DNC? (assuming DOC is a typo)

  2. Loretta Weinberg

    It will take me a little longer than this “comment section“, but there is a way to make the playing field more Fair. I Know Because I have run and backedt candidates “off the line”. As I pointed out to many young people who’ want to get into elected office, know the rules so you can make them work for you or they will be used against you.. County candidate (I.e. freeholder) can make a “line” and then county clerk draws for ballot position. Not an “open primary”, but a little more fair.

    1. Robin and Nowicki


    2. Bertin Lefkovic

      I hope you don’t mind when we take your advice and run candidates against your Assemblymates and colleagues on the Bergen County Board of Chosen Freeloaders.

  3. Elly Faden

    thank you for researching and writing this…I was wondering what’s going on in NJ.

  4. Sally G

    I have been complaining about this for some time. Glad to see this analysis—sadly, the folks least interested in changing the system have the most control. I note the discussion of groups evolving out of Hillary’s support groups—no mention of Our Revolution, doing its best to get people onto county committees to work from bottom-up. I ask every DNC/DSCC/DCCC etc. fundraiser about the Unity Commission recommendations, nobody knows anything. There are deep rifts within the progressive/liberal world, Dem and nonDem. We need more coalition-building.


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