Update: On May 22, six days after this story was published, Rep. Cheri Bustos announced that she would cancel her involvement in a fundraiser planned for Dan Lipinski.
NORMAL, ILL.— On May 5, newly elected Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) chair Cheri Bustos faced a surprisingly chilly reception at this year’s College Democrats of Illinois Convention, which is typically a chance for participants to hone organizing skills and hobnob with elected officials. Bustos’ appearance quickly turned into an interrogation.
The College Democrats questioned her about the DCCC’s new policy of refusing to hire consultants and vendors who work with any challenger to a Democratic incumbent. The policy is widely perceived as a broadside against the party’s insurgent progressive wing and its enthusiastic younger voters.
“How does the DCCC intend to win congressional seats while weakening youth support?” College Democrat Victoria Koffsky asked Bustos.
“Wow, um, I would not say we’re weakening youth support,” Bustos replied, saying that the policy exists to protect current House members, who pay dues to the DCCC.
“We won on our message of healthcare in 2018, and I’m wondering why the DCCC is trying to protect a candidate who isn’t on board with that,” asked Hadiya Afzal, referencing incumbent Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.), a conservative Democrat who opposed the Affordable Care Act and now faces a primary challenge.
While waving away concerns about Lipinski (“you could look at any member of our caucus and there would be something that we don’t all agree about”), Bustos emphasized again and again that the DCCC’s “first priority” was to hang onto the “fragile majority” in the House that Democrats achieved in 2018. “We are an incumbent-friendly organization,” she stressed.
Bustos’ explanations, however, did not convince her critics.
“That’s not an okay answer, especially when that’s clearly not the case,” says Koffsky, 22, about Bustos’ denial that the DCCC is weakening youth support. Koffsky is the vice president of the College Democrats of America, the Democratic National Committee’s official youth outreach body.
Afzal, 19, the current president of the College Democrats of Illinois, was even more blunt, calling Bustos’ defense that the DCCC is incumbent-friendly “kind of a garbage answer.”
The DCCC blacklist inspires particularly strong emotions in Illinois for a reason. It’s here that pro-choice challenger Marie Newman has seen consultants, pollsters, mail firms and a communications group abandon her bid to unseat Lipinski, an eight-term Congress member who vocally opposes abortion.
It’s a situation that threatens to become the norm for any insurgent challenger under the policy, as wary vendors steer clear of challengers’ campaigns lest they lose out on the DCCC’s business. “I interned at a small political consulting firm, and while they don’t agree with the policy, they have no choice but to go with it,” says Koffsky. “They need the income and to keep their employees employed.”
Lipinski, who inherited the seat from his now-lobbyist father Bill Lipinski, regularly votes against the party — almost twice as often as the average Democrat. Lipinski declined to endorse President Obama for re-election in 2012 and has received dismal scores from groups advocating the rights of immigrants and the LGBTQ community, as well as issues such as public education and the environment. This is all in a district on the edge of Chicago that Bernie Sanders won by nearly eight points in 2016, putting Lipinski far to the right of his own district.
Outrage among College Democrats about the blacklist is not limited to Illinois. On April 24, the Harvard College Democrats announced that a coalition of 26 chapters of College Democrats, Young Democrats and other Democratic youth groups are calling for a boycott of donations to the DCCC until the “regressive” blacklist policy is reversed. The boycott spans chapters from Massachusetts to Michigan to Alabama to Arizona. Within three weeks, the coalition tripled in size to 74 members, according to Harvard College Democrats President Hank Sparks.
“The two languages the DCCC speaks are money and media,” says Sparks, 20. To that end, the coalition has not just shut off its donations to the DCCC and encouraged others to redirect their DCCC gifts directly to candidates, but embarked on a media campaign drumming up the kind of negative press the DCCC — already fighting off a reputation for hostility to progressives — has been trying to shake.
Sparks says that, after informing the Sanders-aligned group Our Revolution of the boycott, the organization cited the embargo in an April 25 meeting about the blacklist with Bustos in Chicago, in which Our Revolution presented Bustos with a letter criticizing the blacklist. The letter was signed by more than a dozen local Democratic officials and other progressive figures, including Phil Hare, a former Congress member who previously represented Bustos’ district.
“We laid out our position, and she laid out her position,” says Clem Balanoff, chair of Our Revolution Chicago. “She said it wasn’t a blacklist, we believed that it was. And we agreed to another meeting.”
That meeting was meant to take place in late May in Washington, D.C. Balanoff says that a little more than a week prior, a member of Bustos’ staff informed him the meeting was off, owing to an Our Revolution press release about the event that led to bad press for Bustos. Balanoff believes the complaint about press is a “red herring,” and Our Revolution and the College Democrats are now deciding on next steps.
The young Democrats rebelling against the DCCC’s policy aren’t radicals looking to take a sledgehammer to the party. Sparks began his involvement in the party as a Fall Fellow for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, before phone-banking and door-knocking for Democrats during the 2018 midterms. Koffsky worked her way up the College Democrats hierarchy before becoming vice president and considers herself a “lifelong Democrat.”
“I’m a Democrat because of Democratic values,” she says. “There’s no reason why Democratic organizing efforts should be going towards incumbents like Dan Lipinski that don’t hold my values.”
The young Democrats interviewed by In These Times want primaries to serve as a “contest of ideas.” They point to recent insurgents, most commonly Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), as bearers of the kind of bold new ideas that will be squeezed out by this policy.
“If we stifle these progressive, mostly people of color, people who aren’t establishment, then we are not bringing these voices into the general election, which really hurts us,” says Kyle Varellie, communications director for the Rutgers-Newark College Democrats, a boycott signatory.
“We shouldn’t be punishing people for bringing new ideas to the forefront,” says Tim Ennis, communications director for College Democrats of Massachusetts and incoming president of UMass Amherst College Democrats, both signatories to the boycott.
These young party activists view the DCCC blacklist as a slap in the face, as it is they who do the unglamorous but crucial drudgery that helps win elections.
“We are the backbone of the Democratic Party when it comes to canvassing hours and door-knocking,” says Afzal, who in 2016 ran unsuccessfully for the DuPage County Board in Illinois in 2016, and was endorsed by Hillary Clinton.
Afzal sees it as hypocritical for the party to lean on young Democrats’ electoral work but ignore their policy preferences. And yet, she says, “They’re always, ‘Woe is me, why don’t we have more young people voting’.”
“Dissent is patriotic,” says Ennis. “As people on the ground, we think it’s important for party leaders to listen to young people and value our desires for a better party that doesn’t just inherently and blindly protect incumbency.”
It remains to be seen whether this youth revolt will lead the DCCC to drop the contentious policy. In Illinois, the blacklist appears to have galvanized progressives: Endorsements and donations have come pouring in for Marie Newman, including from Planned Parenthood, MoveOn and EMILY’s List — groups not always quick to buck the Democratic establishment. Despite the DCCC’s best efforts, the primary in Illinois’ 3rd district may end up being a contest of ideas after all.
Bustos, for her part, recently announced that she will be hosting a fundraiser for Lipinski.
Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019-2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.