Alabama Democrats clash over party direction in contentious DNC hearing
Randy Kelley, chair of the Alabama Democratic Party, presides over the party meeting in Montgomery on July 29, 2023. (Alander Rocha/Alabama Reflector)
Two factions of the Alabama Democratic Party faced off in an intense, nine-hour hearing held Friday by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in Washington, D.C.
One faction, led by Minority Caucus Chair Joe Reed, doubled down on the notion that new bylaws approved at a May meeting of the state party – which led to the abolition of some diversity caucuses and the demotion of others – did not diminish minority representation in the party.
The other faction – which included members from abolished minority caucuses and Democrats dissatisfied by the direction of the state party – disagreed, detailing the removal of members of the diversity caucuses from the State Democratic Executive Committee (SDEC).
The marathon hearing was the latest battle in a years-long war between factions over the direction of the party, once the dominant political force in Alabama but now largely powerless outside the cities and the Black Belt.
“I think all folks in the meeting, and everyone on the Zoom call, wants to see a stronger Alabama Democratic Party. That is hopefully the goal of everyone here,” said Richard Rouco, a Democrat and lawyer that provided the council for those challenging the Reed factions.
At a May 6 meeting, the SDEC voted to abolish the youth, LGBTQ+ and disabled caucuses, while reducing the power of other minority caucuses. The Reed faction said bylaws approved in 2019 unfairly reduced the power of Black voters, who make up the majority of the state Democratic electorate. The meeting was tumultuous, and members of the affected caucuses, some of whom are Black, sharply criticized the moves, saying they stripped key groups of representation.
Complaints followed, including one from Vice Chair Tabitha Isner. The DNC – which demanded the adoption of the 2019 bylaws after a disputed leadership election in the party – launched an investigation.
Testimony from members who lost a seat on the SDEC due to the 2023 bylaws eliminating the caucuses painted a picture of inconsistency leading up to the May 6 meeting.
Some caucus members paid a fee and were given credentials at the May 6 meeting. Some caucus members who didn’t know they had to pay a fee were still credentialed and voted then. But the majority of caucus members were told they were no longer part of the SDEC because they did not pay a $50 qualifying fee.
Delandrion Woods, chair of the now-abolished Youth Caucus, said that 15 people were denied entry to the SDEC from the Youth Caucus, while 5 people were initially denied but then credentialled.
Testimony from Reed indicated that party leaders did not have a list of SDEC members or a list of who paid the $50 fee. Reed said the SDEC would be 19% percent youth under the new bylaws, but the Reed-side could not produce how many people that would be.
“If I were to take all the things I heard here today,” said the presiding officer for the DNC hearing, Kim Keenan, “the list – does it not exist? Or is that something that needs to be built?”
Reed deflected the question. When asked again by Keenan if he could say how many people from different minority groups would be represented in the SDEC, he said that they are already represented, and he would even put more minorities in the committee, but “they want you to give them more than they are entitled to.”
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Haley Czarnek, a member of the Youth Caucus, said she had a $50 bill that she tried to pay the desk attendant, until she was told that she needed to pick up the $50 bill and stand to the side, where she realized other people were also denied entry. Czarnek said she left the $50 on his podium.
“I took the exact same $50 bill that the person at the registration table had asked me to not leave with her to the chair’s podium, and I left it on the podium,” she said.
Virginia Applebaum, the chair of the Native American Caucus, abolished under the May 6 bylaws, was told she was not credentialed. But thanks to the help of a desk attendant knew her, she got a hold of a blank pass and wrote her name on it.
She said that the new bylaws were another case of Native American erasure. The party chair can establish committees and appoint chairs, which she said does not allow for self-determination in the party.
“For the executive board to say that they know better than we know, tells us what to do, how we can outreach and what political voice that we have — it’s disheartening,” Applebaum said.
Reed’s side held that all members of the SDEC needed to pay that fee. They argued a notice was sent, or posted on the party’s website, by the previous chair.
The other side said that according to how the bylaws have been interpreted, only members running on a ballot for the SDEC need to pay a qualifying fee. (Members from the minority caucuses were considered “at-large” members and are appointed by their caucuses and have not been asked to pay a fee before May)
Woods said that although he did not pay the $50 fee, because he didn’t know about it until the May 6 meeting, he was given credentials and allowed to vote at the meeting.
“They were checking our names. We didn’t realize that a lot of our names were missing,” Woods said.
Randy Kelley, chair of the ADP, barely spoke, but when he did, he said that the other side came up with “these shenanigans” when 2019 bylaws were installed because the other side couldn’t get control of the party.
“This was a control issue, and it was based primarily on race, and they didn’t like (former Alabama Democratic Party Chair) Nancy Worley because she was a liberal white woman they felt was too close to Black folk,” Kelley said.
Following complaints about the conduct of party leadership elections in 2018, the DNC in early 2019 ordered the state party to adopt new bylaws that, among other measures, created caucuses for groups like Hispanics, LGBTQ+ individuals, people with disabilities, Native Americans, Asian and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), and youth.
A months-long standoff ensued between the DNC and then-chairwoman Nancy Worley, loyal to Reed. Later that year, the DNC recognized a new leadership group aligned with then-U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, which implemented the new bylaws.
The Reed faction won control of the party last August and installed Kelley as chair. Isner, who is not a member of the Reed faction, was elected vice chair.
The fight over the qualifying fee further divided the SDEC. Caucus members denied credentials and said that there was no logic provided – if it were required that they pay a fee, that fee would have been required before the May meeting, and that members weren’t told about the $50 fee when they voted in January. At the August 2022 SDEC meeting, members were elected and credentialed, and these members would be asked to pay a fee now.
Reed said that the changes did not cost anyone representation and better reflect the Democratic electorate. Minorities would have as much representation as the Democratic electorate, he said, if not more.
“Whatever the Native Americans are entitled to, then they ought to have it. Our goal was not to get rid of anybody, we didn’t take those votes away. We changed the way those caucuses were structured. We didn’t change representation,” he said.
Josh Raby, chair of the abolished Disability Caucus, said the party needs to stop rehashing old issues and “move the party forward.”
“I’m hurt at the point of, everything we do in this party is pointing of fingers,” he said. “Maybe we should all just put ourselves in the middle of the room and just realize we’re all to blame for whatever it may be. Because we refuse to keep building and moving.”
Raby said that to move forward, leaders need to embrace Democrats from every background.
“But it’s also important that we have an opportunity where we can get with people that look like us, to build us,” he said.
Kelley said at the end of the meeting that he’s “willing to heal and build this party,” but that he’s “dealing with the mess that [he] inherited.”
“I’m committed to diversity, and I appreciate everything that has been said. And I really appreciate you sharing your hearts, and the main thing is building this party, because we’re all in this thing together,” Kelley said. “We need more women. We need more blacks, more disabled, more Hispanic, more Native American, we need everybody in this party, in particular more whites.”
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