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Democratic National Committee members launch new party reform push at winter meeting

President Biden speaks at the Democratic National Committee winter meeting in D.C. on March 10. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg News)
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Dozens of voting members of the Democratic National Committee met Friday to organize a new voting bloc to push for changes to the internal governance of the national party and send more money to state party groups, according to multiple attendees.

The gathering at the Churchill Hotel in D.C., across the street from the party’s winter meeting, came after months of growing complaints among some rank-and-file voting members. They argue that the top-down structure of the DNC, which is directed by advisers to President Biden, risks undermining changes aimed at empowering the grass roots that went into effect after the 2016 presidential election.

Calling itself “DNC Members for Party Modernization,” the group is pushing for a greater share of the national party budget to be channeled directly to the states, more distributed regional representation in the party leadership teams, greater internal oversight of the party budget and other changes to the party’s governing rules, such as new restrictions on proxy voting.

“This is us saying, ‘We are the DNC and we want the DNC to be more responsive to the states,’” said Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb, one of the organizers. “We have now been through several cycles kicking ourselves and saying we should have organized. So we are organizing ourselves.”

The effort tracks fissures among Democrats that have been endemic for decades, dating most notably to former Vermont governor Howard Dean’s leadership of the party, when he focused after the 2004 election on investing in all state parties. The current DNC leadership has aimed much of its funding at a select number of swing states that are likely to decide Senate control in 2022 and the presidential election in 2024. Several state parties in other parts of the country believe more-local efforts have been left behind.

The organizers say their efforts are not meant to show a lack of support for President Biden or DNC Chair Jaime Harrison, a former chairman of the South Carolina state party.

Democrats try to regain footing for midterm elections

The DNC, in a statement, responded to the meeting by saying the current party leadership has significantly increased funding to state parties in recent years.

“The DNC, led by Chair Harrison, has been more generous to state parties than any previous DNC in modern history,” the statement said. “The DNC announced $23 million in direct investments last year to support all 57 state parties and territories, including a first-of-its-kind Red State Fund to build targeted programs in traditionally Republican states. Our state parties remain one of several critical priorities to the DNC, and so is ensuring the voices of rank and file DNC members in our party and party leadership committees.”

Washington state party chair Tina Podlodowski, another organizer of the new group, said nearly 40 voting members showed up at the early morning meeting, which was not publicly announced beforehand. She said about 100 members have expressed interest in joining the effort, pitched in a two-page organizing document circulated earlier this week.

“It’s making certain that we are funding and doing the organizing work in every race in every place around the country and that the DNC Is focused on those things to build a vibrant Democratic Party,” Podlodowski said.

The partys most recent effort to smooth internal criticism came after the 2016 election. Dubbed the “Unity Reform Commission,” it was designed to heal divisions that remained after the contentious presidential primary fight between former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

That effort led to a number of changes to how the party functions that were meant to increase the power of rank-and-file Democratic voters, including an effort to minimize the use of caucuses in presidential nominations and a decision to remove party leaders from having a decisive say on the first ballot at nominating conventions. That effort also recommended the creation of an “Ombudsman Council” that would address any internal complaints with the national party.

The document that circulated this week called for continuing that work and warned of moving backward. The document noted that the party lacks a functioning ombudsman process and raises alarms about the possibility of an effort to roll back the ban on party leaders casting a decisive vote on the first round of presidential nomination balloting.

A DNC spokesman said that the national party had no disagreement over the important role of an ombudsman committee and that it was still being formed with the party’s new elected membership.

One of the Friday meeting’s organizers, former Communications Workers of America president Larry Cohen, served as the vice chair of the Unity Reform Commission, representing the efforts of many supporters of Sanders’s 2016 campaign. The chair of the commission, Jen O’Malley Dillon, became Biden’s campaign manager in 2020 and now serves as Biden’s deputy chief of staff, helping to oversee White House coordination with the DNC.

“The core of this is not about more money. It is about transparency, democracy and party-building,” Cohen said about the new effort. “Voting rights inside the party and in primaries matter just as much as voting rights in a general election.”

DNC Members for Party Modernization does not have enough members to establish a governing majority inside the party, though organizers plan to continue recruitment over the coming days. There are 453 voting members of the national party, including 75 at-large members appointed by the party chair and 200 members elected by the state parties, according to a party spokesman. The remainder are elected officials and other stakeholders.

The group’s organizers still hope to be able to influence party conversations by operating as a distinct bloc, including during votes later this year that will set the 2024 presidential primary calendar and set DNC party rules at the nominating convention in 2024, Kleeb said.

A discussion over potentially removing Iowa from its traditional place as the first presidential nominating state was held Friday afternoon at a meeting of the Rules and Bylaws Committee.

Democratic strategists involved in the internal conversations have made clear that Iowa’s position as the first nominating state is at risk, a result of the state’s Republican drift in recent years, the logistical failures in 2020 with counting caucus ballots and the demographic makeup of the overwhelmingly White state. Rules and Bylaws Committee leaders are expected to propose a 2024 calendar later this summer or fall, according to people familiar with the plans.

The organizers of the new group hope to continue to expand their ranks over the coming months.

“Honestly, we don’t think that 100 is where we stop,” Podlodowski said. “It is a place where we think we are going to keep organizing.”