Government

Deans of Iowa Democrats decry grip of 'party elite'

Caucuses' role in thinning field being usurped, they say

State Treasurer of Iowa Michael Fitzgerald speaks June 18, 2016, at the Iowa Democratic Party’s state convention at the Iowa Events Center-Hy-Vee Hall in Des Moines. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
State Treasurer of Iowa Michael Fitzgerald speaks June 18, 2016, at the Iowa Democratic Party’s state convention at the Iowa Events Center-Hy-Vee Hall in Des Moines. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Some Iowa Democratic Party elders are voicing displeasure over what they see as the Democratic National Committee’s heavy-handed attempts to shrink the field of 2020 presidential hopefuls.

Specifically, they say the DNC’s rules limiting access to the national debate stage to only candidates who meet fundraising and polling eligibility rules is usurping Iowa’s role in shaping the Democratic field.

“I think the citizens should get to do the winnowing, not the party elite,” said Ken Sagar, a longtime Democratic activist and labor leader.

Rather than trying to eliminate candidates, Sagar said, the party should be encouraged by the large field.

“That speaks volumes about the number of people who take seriously our small ‘d’ democratic system,” the president of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, said. “They have ideas that ought to be heard by Iowans and Americans.”

Just 10 candidates were on the nationally televised debate stage Thursday night in Houston — half as many as in earlier debates.

“I think the national chairman won’t be satisfied unless in the last debate he has only one candidate standing up there,” said Dave Nagle, a Waterloo lawyer and former Eastern Iowa congressman and Iowa Democratic Party chair.

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To be on the Houston stage, the DNC required each candidate to have 130,000 unique donors, with a minimum of 400 unique donors per state in at least 20 states, and to meet a 2 percent threshold in approved public opinion polls.

That not only limits voters’ exposure to the candidates, but also changes the nature of the nominating process, Nagle said.

“It’s almost a national primary” that eliminates candidates even before the actual selection process begins, he said.

“These people deserve a vote,” Nagle said. “They deserve to have someone actually cast a ballot. That’s traditionally the role of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — to give everyone a shot” at the nomination.

It’s a “devastating blow” not to be on the debate stage five months before the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses, said State Treasurer of Iowa Michael Fitzgerald, the nation’s longest-serving state treasurer.

New York U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and others who have dropped out of the race recognized that “if you can’t get on the debate stage, it’s almost impossible to get to the finals,” he said.

Like Nagle, Fitzgerald thinks the national party has lost sight of the role Iowa and the other early nominating states play.

“We’ve had these caucuses since the 1960s. They’ve worked well,” said Fitzgerald, who has been state treasurer since 1983. “It’s how Iowans sort out who they want to support. It’s good, healthy, honest, open process.”

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In addition, Fitzgerald said, the caucuses spur political activity and generate participation in the political process. He’s from Colo, a small Central Iowa town that doesn’t see a lot of presidential candidates.

“But when we have so many, they are coming to towns like Colo and talking to the folks,” Fitzgerald said. “I think that’s good. It’s certainly good for the Democratic Party, but good for the whole political process.”

One of the advantages of the Iowa caucus process is that it provides an opportunity for an unknown and often underfunded candidates to make the case he or she should be the Democratic nominee, Nagle said.

“You don’t have to rely on high-dollar donors” to be viable, he said. “If you get hot in Iowa and do well in Iowa, you can suddenly find yourself the recipient of a lot of support because of the internet and the small donor base.

“A candidate who puts time in Iowa but is not yet at the top, at the forefront, that doesn’t mean they can’t be,” he added.

John Kerry struggled in 2004, trailing in the polls until the very end of the caucus campaign. He went on to win the Democratic nomination.

It’s too soon to be winnowing the field, “because we don’t know the major issues that will hit us between now and February,” Fitzgerald added.

Sagar, Nagle and Fitzgerald are making their protests informally.

Fitzgerald said he is talking to “anyone who will listen.”

“I just want to see candidates to be able to stay in, but I realize it’s monumental if you don’t get on the debate stage,” Fitzgerald said.

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Nagle is calling the candidates who weren’t in the Houston debate and “pointing out that they still have an opportunity in Iowa.”

“It’s patently unfair and it’s not what Iowa is supposed to be about,” he said.

Iowa’s members of the DNC did not respond to requests for comment.

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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