Young Democrats Are Furious Over the DCCC’s Blacklist Punishing Insurgents

At a time of rising energy on the Democrats’ left flank, the DCCC is giving a crash course in how to alienate young progressives.

Branko Marcetic May 16, 2019

DCCC chair Cheri Bustos is on the defensive over the group's controversial new blacklist policy. (Photo by Ronen Tivony/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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.

“We shouldn't be punishing people for bringing new ideas to the forefront,” says Tim Ennis, communications director for College Democrats of Massachusetts.

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 work­ing on a forth­com­ing book about Joe Biden.
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