A Week at the DNC: In the Trenches of the Battle for the Democratic Party’s Soul | News Feature | Indy Week
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A Week at the DNC: In the Trenches of the Battle for the Democratic Party’s Soul 

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Photo by Jenny Warburg

LAST Sunday, the day before the Democratic National Convention gaveled open in Philadelphia, I was standing in the courtyard of the city's Municipal Services Building, an austere bureaucratic home base that forms an odd juxtaposition with the elegant, 145-year-old City Hall across the street.

Even with the mercury reaching triple digits, there were thousands of protesters, mostly young, all angry—an inchoate fury, raw and unfiltered, directed toward the media, the Democratic National Committee, Hillary Clinton, capitalism in general. People wore T-shirts that said "Hillary for Prison 2016" and held posters that read "Bernie or Bust." A CNN reporter was mercilessly harangued: "About time you cover the revolution, CNN!" one guy screamed at her. This evolved into a chant: "The Crooked News Network! The Crooked News Network! The Crooked News Network!"

click to enlarge Protesters outside the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia - PHOTO BY CARLOS ANDRES VARELA
  • Photo by Carlos Andres Varela
  • Protesters outside the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia

"You cannot expose us to corruption of the party and then expect us to get in line with that corruption," Gary Frazier, Philadelphia coordinator for Black Men for Bernie, said from the stage. "We will deliver a powerful blow to the Democratic Party if they do not elect Bernie Sanders. ... We are disciplined. We are knowledgeable. We are peaceful. But we WILL BE HEARD!"

"We know they cheated us," Frazier told me later, referring to reports of voting irregularities in New York, Nevada, and California. "We know something's going on."


The Democratic National Committee's email hack only poured kerosene on the fire. One day earlier, Wikileaks had released a trove of DNC officials' emails, which more or less confirmed what we already assumed: party officials wanted Clinton to win. The Bernie diehards took it as proof that the election was rigged.

To the protesters, falling in line—even with the threat of President Trump—meant supporting a corrupted system. So when the party nominated Clinton, they said, they would do their best to burn the whole thing down. Millions of Democrats would deregister from the party and vote for Green Party nominee Jill Stein—enough to cost Clinton the White House.

A little after three o'clock—as the crowd began to organize into a march down Broad Street to FDR Park, which abuts the Wells Fargo Center, where protesters would encamp for the week—Frazier stood atop a tour bus, leading a call-and-response with the audience.

"If we don't get it ..."

"SHUT IT DOWN!"

Bernie supporters outside of the DNC - PHOTO BY JENNY WARBURG
  • Photo by Jenny Warburg
  • Bernie supporters outside of the DNC

THIS probably wasn't how Clinton envisioned her history-making nomination. The convention was designed to bring Bernie supporters into the fold and improve Clinton's image, while at the same time marginalizing Trump as a bigoted huckster. It was meticulously choreographed, mixing celebrity with soaring oratory, poignant symbolism with powerful denunciations of demagoguery. As stagecraft, it was nearly flawless.

Or, rather, it would have been, but for the Bernie or Bust crowd.

"In this election cycle, voters are looking for a candidate who is a disruptor," Jake Quinn, a DNC member and Bernie super delegate from Asheville, told me Monday morning. "Voters are looking for something different. This cycle is different. Trump and Sanders put the focus on that."

A retired bank regulator with the Federal Deposit Insurance Commission, Quinn went to a DNC meeting in Minneapolis last year. "I went there expecting to be a [Martin] O'Malley supporter," he says, referring to the former Maryland governor. "I saw everyone lining up behind Clinton. Why are you doing this now?" A few months later, after watching Sanders excite the activist base, he wrote an op-ed in the local newspaper announcing his endorsement. "Has the party missed this?" he wondered.

The party—and most journalists, too, it seems. While the primary was never particularly close—nowhere near as close as Clinton-Obama in 2008—and was effectively over after Super Tuesday, Clinton couldn't seem to put the socialist Vermont senator away. Sanders had unrivaled enthusiasm and unprecedented small-dollar donations on his side, if not enough votes to quite catch up.

But 46 percent of the delegates in the Wells Fargo Center were pledged to Sanders; while Clinton's delegates were usually loyal, longtime Democrats, a sizeable number of the Sanders delegates weren't. They were often young and new to the political process, N.C. Democratic Party communications director Dave Miranda—who, though he says it was a tough call, voted for Bernie—told me. "They don't understand how this thing works."

At daytime meetings inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center Monday, Bernie delegates booed off stage Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the DNC chairwoman who had stepped down after the email hack broke. Then they booed Bernie himself when he encouraged them to support Clinton.

On Monday night, inside the Wells Fargo Center, they were restive and sometimes boorish, heckling pro-Clinton speakers, booing any mention of Hillary's name, and breaking out into "Bernie! Bernie!" chants loud enough to be picked up on TV broadcasts. Things got so bad that Sanders sent a text message to his supporters asking them to stop.

Protesters outside the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia - PHOTO BY CARLOS ANDRES VARELA
  • Photo by Carlos Andres Varela
  • Protesters outside the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia

Outside the arena—on the other side of an eight-foot chain-link fence that marked a perimeter around the convention—things were even rowdier. Hundreds pressed against the fence, waving signs and yelling at the delegates walking by. "Hell no, DNC, we won't vote for Hillary!" they chanted. Later that evening, a reporter told me that, after I'd gone inside, protesters started climbing the fence—not the kind of thing the cops take kindly to. "Look," the police reportedly told them, "we're just gonna arrest you anyway. So we're gonna open the door. If you want to get arrested, walk through." Apparently, a handful did just that.

"I've been covering these events professionally for thirty years," alternate delegate and Johnston County Board of Commissioners candidate Wendy May told me. "This is how it starts. By day three, people have calmed down."

The next night, after the roll call vote that officially made Clinton the nominee, a group of perhaps two hundred Bernie delegates, many from the California delegation, staged a walkout. (Most of us didn't notice, as the walkout coincided with a dinnertime lull in the proceedings, and many delegates left their seats to grab a bite.) They amassed outside of the media tent. By the time I got there, the scene was chaotic: 100, maybe 150 Sanders delegates, surrounded by an almost-equal number of media and a handful of onlookers, with a row of uniformed Philadelphia police blocking the tent's doors, not letting anyone in or out. (One journalist pressed his face to the window and held up a handwritten sign: "Trapped by Bernie Bros.")

There was a rumor that Jill Stein was inside the tent. "She's welcoming us with open arms," one protester told reporters. "She's willing to listen to us."

The Democrats, in their view, had refused to listen—and thus, even though Bernie had asked them to support Hillary, their votes were up for grabs.

Slideshow
Democratic National Convention 2016
Democratic National Convention 2016 Democratic National Convention 2016 Democratic National Convention 2016 Democratic National Convention 2016

Democratic National Convention 2016


By Jenny Warburg

Click to View 5 slides

IN a sense, this is the inverse of what we've seen from the Republicans, whose elites rebelled against their nominee. Democratic elites are almost uniformly behind Clinton; it's the progressive grassroots that are burning. Hence, the Democrats' convention was considerably unrulier than the Republicans' in Cleveland, even with the nomination of Donald Trump and the pointed refusal of runner-up Ted Cruz to endorse him.

Throughout the week, Hillary supporters were quick to point to a Pew survey showing that 90 percent of consistent Sanders supporters said they would vote for Clinton. The hecklers represented a very vocal minority, they argued. But other polls, including one from CBS earlier this week that had Clinton leading 46–39, put that number in the low seventies.

If you dig into the data, this is an important point: if Clinton gets most Sanders supporters on board, she wins by a landslide—perhaps a margin large enough to swing the Senate, and maybe the House, to the Democrats, thus giving her the same sort of progressive backup Obama had in his first two years. But if they defect or sit the election out—especially in swing states like North Carolina—it will be much closer to a coin flip.

Sanders used this leverage skillfully, pulling the party platform to the left and cajoling Clinton into opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Sanders also secured commitments to reforming the primary process itself. And so, for all the showmanship and speechifying, the convention's central question boiled down to, Would Sanders's supporters take yes for an answer?

Before the convention began, I asked Quinn what he thought Sanders's supporters needed to hear. "One word," he replied. "Respect. That's it."

They got plenty of it.

"They gave the guy a prime-time speaking spot," says Thomas Mills, a former Democratic consultant from Carrboro who is running for Congress. "Virtually every single Democratic leader mentioned him and praised his movement in their speeches, from Michelle Obama to Bill Clinton to President Obama to Hillary. I don't know what else they could ask for."

On Thursday night, Hillary was explicit: "Bernie, your campaign inspired millions of Americans, particularly the young people who threw their hearts and souls into our primary. ... And to all of your supporters here and around the country: I want you to know, I've heard you. Your cause is our cause."

"The goal was to unify the party and redefine the party as a party of ideas and a party of hope," Mills says. (He was at the convention but was not a delegate.) "That they did."

The most hard-core Sanders diehards—the ones who staged the walkout and heckled Clinton during her speech—comprise a "very small contingent of Bernie supporters, people who would not be involved in the political process" were it not for Sanders's movement, he says. "If they don't show up, so be it."

Slideshow
Volunteers celebrate Hillary Clinton's historic nomination
Volunteers celebrate Hillary Clinton's historic nomination Volunteers celebrate Hillary Clinton's historic nomination Volunteers celebrate Hillary Clinton's historic nomination

Volunteers celebrate Hillary Clinton's historic nomination

By Jenny Warburg

Click to View 4 slides

EIGHT years ago, a small but loud band of Hillary supporters, calling themselves PUMAs (which stands for either "People United Means Action" or "Party Unity My Ass"), declared that they wouldn't support Barack Obama. They, like the Sanders diehards, castigated the party's nominating process and thought that Clinton had been robbed. Ahead of the 2008 convention, fewer than half of Clinton backers said they were certain to vote for Obama. In the end, almost all of them did.

"I expect the same thing to happen here," Quinn says. "A guy named Trump is running for the White House."

But anxiety still lingers in Democratic circles. In a close election (e.g., 2000), even a relative handful of Bernie holdouts could swing a key state (e.g., Ralph Nader in Florida).

Hillary Clinton becomes the first woman to accept a major party's nomination for president - PHOTO BY JENNY WARBURG
  • Photo by Jenny Warburg
  • Hillary Clinton becomes the first woman to accept a major party's nomination for president

There's also concern that party disunion could affect down-ticket races. In North Carolina, for example, U.S. Senate candidate Deborah Ross's chances are almost inextricably tied to Clinton's success. If Hillary wins North Carolina—meaning Democrats' turnout efforts were successful and some disillusioned Republicans stayed home—Ross has a chance. Long-shot congressional campaigns—like Mills's race against incumbent Republican Richard Hudson—need Clinton to run up the score. (That's probably less true for Roy Cooper, who can campaign against the unpopular Governor McCrory and the GOP legislature, Mills says.)

There are some Sanders supporters—"third-degree Berners," Quinn calls them—who will never fall in line. But the others are persuadable. And, if the party reaches out to them, they'll all vote for Ross, if only because a Ross victory will help Sanders become chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

"Don't walk away from this party," Quinn urges them. "This party needs you."

And if they stay in the party, he argues, they'll be able to reshape it from the ground up. "The key is to get participation in every county, every district. What a lot of Bernie Sanders supporters learned is how incredibly accessible it is to participate. If you show up, if you participate, you can do whatever you want."

Balloons drop from the rafters at the end of the Democratic National Convention - PHOTO BY JENNY WARBURG
  • Photo by Jenny Warburg
  • Balloons drop from the rafters at the end of the Democratic National Convention

  • Hillary Clinton won the nomination, but did Bernie Sanders win the future?

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