Are blacks and Hispanics welcome in the UW Madison College Democrats? You might not get that impression judging from the bizarre antics at their endorsement meeting a few weeks ago.
In one of the most boneheaded maneuvers ever, the College Dems' leadership, in their zeal to support a favored candidate for Madison City Council, took unprecedented measures that prevented almost every single minority student at that meeting from participating in the endorsement vote. The College Dems weren't deliberately being racist, but perception is reality in politics, and it looks really bad when a bunch of white Democratic students change the rules at the last minute to block a bunch of black and brown students from voting at a party meeting. Not exactly the best way to encourage minority involvement in the Democratic party.
This is a complicated story that hasn't been covered well in the MSM, and I know I'm going to stir up a hornet's nest by wading into it. But I firmly believe that Democratic leaders, even students, must be held accountable when they do things that hurt the party.
There's an additional reason that I'm bringing up this issue now. This Thursday the Dane Dems will hold an endorsement vote on the same city council race. Usually we simply follow the lead of the College Dems, but this year I believe that we need to carefully consider the fact that doing so implies tacit approval of the tactics used at the College Dems meeting, and therefore will only compound the damage. Given that both candidates in the race are well qualified progressives with almost identical stands on the issues, I think the Dane Dems should just stay out of this mess and let the cards fall where they may.
Here's the story:
Eli Judge (L) and Lauren Woods (R) are competing for the Madison 8th District City Council seat currently held by retiring alder Austin King. This district covers many of the UW Madison dorms, so it's quite liberal even by Madison standards, and tends to elect very young candidates.
Both Woods and Judge are UW students with solid political experience; Woods was president of the Wisconsin Black Student Union and has worked for Senator Lena Taylor, and Judge was Chair of UW-Madison Students for a Fair Wisconsin. Both are progressive activists who's views reflect those of the district, and both are well qualified to serve on the City Council.
The retiring King recruited Woods as his heir apparent, and delayed his retirement announcement as long as possible to discourage other challengers. King is very popular, and has a formidable political machine in the district, and Woods has the strong support of many minority groups on campus. But Judge, with the backing other groups and, critically, the College Dems leadership, also threw his hat into the ring. With two ideologically similar candidates vying for the seat it promised to be a tough race, boosting the importance of endorsements.
But the College Dems leadership faced a problem. They couldn't guarantee that Judge, their favored candidate, would receive their endorsement under the rules they traditionally used for endorsement votes. The College Dems have always allowed everyone who showed up a meeting to vote. Endorsements were decided largely by how many supporters each candidate could bring to the endorsement meeting, and it was probable that Woods, with support from King's machine, would be able to turn out far more people than Judge.
Faced with this the College Dems leadership took two unprecedented actions: They scheduled a snap endorsement meeting with only two days public notice, and they simultaneously announced a change in the voting rules to require attendance at a previous College Dems event as a prerequisite to vote.
The effect was to prevent almost all of Woods supporters from voting. Given the groups that support each candidate, it came down to a bunch of white students telling a bunch of black and brown students that under the brand new rules they were no longer entitled to vote for their own candidate.
I don't have a problem with the College Dems adopting any rules they want. But I do have a problem with them changing them at the last minute to help their buddies, particularly when doing so drives a wedge between the Democratic Party and the minority community.
But there's a bigger problem here. Some of our Democratic party leaders are not only completely oblivious to the racial overtones in this case, they also appear to be supportive of what the UW Madison College Dems did and how they did it. This "win at any cost" culture, while necessary for a political party to succeed, tends to obscure the fact that some battles just aren't worth the cost. A "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" attitude is great most of the time, but you still have to think about the consequences of damning those torpedoes, and many of our party leaders are incapable of doing so. They tend to think very short term, tactically rather then strategically, and this leads to errors in judgment. Sadly, those errors can really damage our party.
I want to make it very clear that my objection isn't to Eli Judge as a candidate. Although I prefer Lauren Woods for many reasons, I believe that either candidate would do a good job representing their district on the city council. My beef is with the utter stupidity of the College Dems board members and the adults who advised and supported them.
Here are some links from both sides of the issue if you want more information. Be sure to read the comments on the stories to get a flavor of the strong feelings this race has generated:
The Badger Herald 1/19/07 - UW students go head-to-head for District 8 seat. A good intro to the race.
The Badger Herald 1/24/07 - College Dems endorse Judge. This is the original news story about the College Dems endorsement. It doesn't mention the controversy at all.
Badger Herald 01/30/2007 - UW Dems limit Woods’ support. This is the first story that talks about the voting rule change.
The Daily Cardinal 2/7/07 - UW Dems bylaw change unfair to Woods, some say. Another story that gets into the rule change.
The Critical Badger Blog 2/7/07 - The Daily Cardinal… what are you thinking?. A critique of the story above by a member of the College Dems. I believe the "Bloggers in the area [that] will be going crazy with this story" refers to me.
Lauren Wood's campaign website
Eli Judge's campaign website
A final word. I've talked to many people on both sides of this issue, and while everyone schemed behind the scenes to support their own candidate, it's my opinion that the UW Madison College Dems board and particularly their chair, Eli Lewein, have been considerably less than honest about their actions and motivations. Although much of the blame must be placed on the adults within the Democratic Party who are selecting and mentoring the College Dems leadership, that doesn't excuse either what they did or their unwillingness to accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions. This incident exposes a serious flaw in the way we recruit and train future Democratic Party leaders, a flaw that must be fixed if the party is to be truly successful in Wisconsin.
UPDATE: Although the Dane Dems board recommended an endorsement of Eli Judge, the endorsement did not pass at the general membership meeting on 2/23. Unfortunately Judge's endorsement was lumped in with several other endorsements that were voted on as a group, so there was little debate. I would have preferred to have seen a robust discussion of the issues, but I think we did the right thing by staying out of this race.