Did you know you can’t actually just join the Democratic Party?

b-city-hallThis is the old Berkeley City Hall. The new main offices are about a block away. About 20 years ago, Joe and I got married on the grass among the redwood trees to the left of the picture. It was not raining at the time.

Did you know you can’t just join the Democratic Party? I didn’t either. And so don’t a whole lot of other people.

(NOTE: about a month after I wrote this post, I got an envelope in the mail from the Democratic National Committee, a mass mailer, inviting me to “become a member.” I sent in a check for $15 or $25, I forget how much, and am now waiting to see what happens.) (Note from a couple of weeks later: I got another letter in the mail saying my membership was pending — and also something about my membership being “removed from file” on 4.26.2017 (a date about a month after I sent in my $25 on 3.16.17). A mystery, but no unclarity about being asked to donate more money.  See below.)

Dem C pending

I was at a house meeting hosted by a neighbor the other night.  These are going on all over the US, hundreds and thousands of these meetings in what is reportedly the greatest upsurge of civil society activity in recent memory.  At this meeting people went round-robin listing the different organizations they were supporting, participating in, or organizing, and also events like demonstrations or sit-ins that they had gone to. The list was long. It ranged from church groups to lawyers’ groups to street demos to this group called the InDivisibles or the OurRevolution groups left over from Bernie’s campaign.

No one, however, mentioned being involved with the Democratic Party. This was kind of stunning. We speculated why and realized that as a group, we didn’t know how. But it was the Democratic Party that pushed Hilary Clinton forward despite Bernie’s grassroots support, the Democratic Party that hired the staffers who refused to give Bernie access to the Party contact list, the Democratic Party machine that ran picked who would be on the platform committee (and denied Roseann Demoro from CNA, the Nurse’s Union), the Democratic Party that choreographed the Convention, locking out Bernie delegates (people who were there are still talking about this). So this is an organization that has the power to do good or evil, let’s say.

But how do you get involved in the Democratic Party? The people at this meeting were mostly 40-ish young professionals, some retired professors — educated people. You would think they would know. But no one did. No one could even explain how the structure worked, where the entry points might be found.

(It turned out later that one woman actually did know and had gone to a meeting to elect delegates to the state committee. More about that later.)

Some of us knew about Democratic clubs, such as the Wellstone Club, but someone else explained that those are not the same as the Democratic Party. These clubs actually have to get a charter from the Party to use the word “Democratic.” You can be a member of a Democratic Club but still not “belong” — in the sense of being a member who has a vote — to the Democratic Party.  Seriously?

I had just read Robert Reich’s Seven Hard Truths blog article, in which he said that the Democratic Party is just a shell, on life support,and has to change from being a giant fundraising machine to being a movement, or throw in the towel.


It this group of people who were trying to become politically active had no idea how to engage with the Democratic Party, life support is putting it mildly.

So how do you join the Democratic Party?

I get probably three emails a day from something that seems to come from the DNC, presumably the Democratic National Committee, but while they urge me to support something, they have a button that says “DONATE” and no button that says “JOIN.”

But the day after that meeting someone from that group forwarded an email inviting people to a fundraiser for a woman named Kimberly Ellis who is running for Chair of the California Democratic Party Central Committee. The fundraiser was going to be held in the home of Sophie Hahn, the newly elected District Five Berkeley City Council Member, who lives just two blocks away. I figured it was time for me to go to that meeting and find out something.

The crowd at this event was mostly people 40 and up, well-dressed, white, drinking wine and nibbling on carrot sticks; lots of women. The person who is running for leadership of the CDP Central Committee is a handsome Black woman with short hair, dressed in black tights, boots and a nice jacket. Her speech would have been appropriate for the Women’s March — about how the Democratic Party has to change, catch up with the people, get new leadership especially with women, etc. It was a very “soft” speech in the sense that it would offend no one. Then she took questions.  Much to my satisfaction, all the first questions were about what the Party does and how it does it. The woman next to me and I had already checked each other out on this issue — she didn’t know either! How do you join the Party? How does it work?  If there is an election for Chair coming up, when is that election happening? Who gets to vote? Why don’t we hear anything about it? And who is she running against? So this group of people, who know enough about local Berkeley politics to get invited to a fundraiser, don’t know how the Party works, either.

I realized that I recognized one of the organizers of the event, a woman who has become the Comptroller of the Party. Her name is Hilary Crosby and she married an old friend of mine from college.They were both politically active at the time.  I remember that she had become an accountant, which seemed to me at the time to be a phenomenally practical thing to do with your life. Hilary answered some of the first questions, and what I write below is a mix of what she said and what I have found on line.

One of the later questions asked about the field — who else was running?  It was only then that I began to get a sense of the candidate. She answered with apparent reluctance. First, she said clearly that she was not “running against” anyone — she is running for California and the Democratic Party. She declined to name her opponent, in fact. But she then described what happened after she announced her campaign. She went to Los Angeles (“Got up at 6, took a plane, went to have lunch with them”) to pay her respects (“due diligence”) to two women who are very powerful in California Democratic Party politics; older women, Black, but again, no names.  She said that the first thing she was told when she sat down to lunch was that if she persisted in her campaign her political career would be destroyed and she would never be able to run for anything else ever again. “At that very moment,” she said, “I knew for sure I was going to run, because this is what I am running against.”

Her opponent is a (presumably white) man whose position as Chair of the Party has been glued in place for many years — whether he is the current Chair or just the Heir Apparent I couldn’t tell, but clearly, the idea of a contested election was not something anyone was planning on.

OK. I walked home in the rain.

So here is what I can figure out about the structure of the Democratic Party.  

There are over 7.5 million people registered as Democrats in California. The body that determines what the Party does is the Democratic State Central Committee (DSCC) that consists of 2900 members. These 2900 people come from three sources:

1. Counties: California has 52 counties. Each county has a County Committee. These committees function as voter registration, education and campaign organizations. Each County Committee gets 4 positions on the DSCC, plus one more for every 10,000 voters in that county who are registered Democrats. So a county with a 400,000 people in it would have 44 positions on the DSCC.  Names of Chairs of these county committees are listed on the website with phone numbers. You can volunteer to work on campaigns by calling those  numbers. This is how you probably get known, to begin with. As far as I can see, people who want to work in the Party get started by volunteering for these organizations. Then if you’re good, or do the right thing, or produce some money, you get noticed and picked up by someone.

2. Assembly Districts: California has 80 Assembly Districts. Every two years (odd-numbered years) there are January caucuses in the Assembly Districts where you can vote for delegates to the DSCC.  These caucuses elect 7 men and 7 women (that’s good!). This produces 1, 12o delegates. Our neighbor, whom I mentioned about, forwarded me the message that alerted her that this caucus was to take place on January 7. The message came from Bernie Sanders:

Vote for California’s Future Slate at the CA Democratic Party Delegate Elections!

Come out and vote for California’s Future to represent Assembly District 15 at the California Democratic Party State Central Committee!

What: Vote for California’s Future Slate for delegates to the Democratic Party from Assembly District 15. 

Where: Albany Community Center, 1249 Marin Ave 

When: Saturday, January 7th, 12 – 2pm (speeches start at 11:30am)

What do I need to bring: my ID and $5 to register to vote (hardship waiver is available) 

Our slate needs hundreds of people to show up between 12-  2pm on Saturday, January 7th at the Albany Community Center to vote for our slate to represent AD 15 to the California Democratic Party. In order to vote, you must be a registered Democrat as of October 24th, 2016 and live in Assembly District 15, which covers the East Bay from North Oakland to Hercules. California’s Future Slate is endorsed by Assemblymember Tony Thurmond, State Senator Nancy Skinner, and the Wellstone Democratic Club Coordinating Committee. 

I wonder how you get onto one of those slates?

3. And finally, elected officials — like Governor Brown, Lieutenant Governor Newsome, and the various legislators in both houses (both houses are dominated by Democrats and all state agencies are led by appointed Democrats) – who are just people who ran for office with the support of the Democratic Party. They are  not the same as the  Party Leaders. The Party Chair (who must be the guy that Kimblerly Ellis was talking about) is named John Burton, and he is indeed an old white guy.

So this is how you get to be among the 2,900 people who run the Democratic Party in California. Regular people who are just registered Democrats apparently can participate in choosing these people by voting for one slate or another at the January Assembly caucuses, in this case, a slate endorsed by well-known local politicos and the Wellstone Club – and Bernie!

So if you are one of the 2,900, does that make you a member of the Party?

No. Instead, I think you are a member of the Democratic State Central Committee. Maybe there aren’t actually any members.

What does the DSCC do? It meets once a year. It endorses candidates and drafts the platform.  It has a 320-person Executive Committee which meets twice a year.The Executive Committee members are chosen on the basis of what positions they hold (they are not elected).  In turn the Executive Committee elects 19 people to send to the Democratic National Committee in Washington.

So the only point at which you can walk in off the street and vote is the January Assembly caucuses, where all you have to do is be a registered Democrat, show an ID, and pay $5. Every other point at which authority and responsibility gets channeled (where 320 people make decisions for 2,900 people, for example) is a point at which you get chosen, not elected- except for the top 19 people who go to Washington.

(Note: Nonetheless, Tom Perez who was a good Secretary of Labor under Obama, and Keith Ellison, a Black man who is also a Muslim from Minnesota, are now Chair and Deputy Chair of the DNC. Ellison was Bernie’s choice. When Tom won, he apparently immediately turned to Ellison and made him his deputy. I watched an online live stream event in which they shared a pair of high stools and said good things to a small audience. So that turned out ok, somehow.) 

There is a lot more democracy at the ballot box than in the Party, apparently. The Party will want to run people who can win. They have to balance that against which candidate will keep the machine running. Hilary was the machine candidate. So this is the process that gave us Hilary instead of Bernie, and then gave us Trump. This and the Russians, it’s turning out!

Direct Democracy?

The chances that an average person is going to be active in the Democratic Party were probably accurately reflected in the experience of the people in that meeting that I mentioned earlier, where no one even know how to become active in it.

The experience of democratic process that I have had all comes from being in unions. In the National Writers Union, part of the United Auto Workers,  chapter members voted for local Executive Board members and Union President, and for delegates to the Delegates Assembly.  This was also my experience in the California Federation of Teachers, where again there was voting for local Executive Board and local Union President, and then also voting on who would go to the annual Convention. Once at the convention there would be direct voting on the floor. I remember the excitement of a tense question, where first there would be a voice vote, and you couldn’t tell who won, and then someone would call for a “separation of the house” in order to eyeball the difference and that wouldn’t work, so then you’d have to do a roll call and officers would walk up and down the aisles while we’d stand there, hands in the air or down at our sides, as the case may be. And then the different officers would call in their counts and they’d get put up on the board, or at least jotted down by the chair, and then the winner would be announced.

Winning, in a situation like this, is really thrilling. It is especially thrilling if the issue is a tough one and the vote is prefaced by days (or maybe weeks, before the Convention) of debate and discussion. I will never forget a Delegates Assembly in the NWU where we arrived for the 3-day meeting and found that most of the other delegates didn’t understand the issue and were taking the President’s claims as fact. The issue was a  constitutional matter: whether the Oversight Committee, to which appeals about elections were referred, had the authority to overturn an election. Debates went on day and night; as the days passed, you could see that the discussions were having an effect, and finally, when the last vote was taken, we won. That was a thrilling combination of persistent discussion and debate, during which several hundred people shifted from one side of the issue to another.

Whether the outcome was correct or even good is another story. There were a lot of other things going on that were affecting the NWU at that time that I wasn’t aware; primarily, the changes in technology that was soon to completely transform the publishing industry.

The path up from the bus stop, and down toward the bus stop, in the rain. It has been raining and raining and raining this winter. Example of infrastructure in need of attention: Oroville Dam, which has overflowed into the emergency spillway, causing 200,000 people to flee the villages in the river valley below.



Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

3 thoughts on “Did you know you can’t actually just join the Democratic Party?

  1. just re-blogged so it will be out on Precarious Faculty FB page and related Twitter streams. fyi alternate news such as Jimmy Dore and TYT have been pushing this too — I’ve seen a couple of posts on how to get into the DP/DNC system (start at the bottom) but this is the best. TYT is also working on a “take back the Dem party” project and fund-raising to support local candidates, https://justicedemocrats.com/

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