Friday, May 01, 2015

Don't Expect To See Clay Aiken Run For Congress Again


The Esquire Network just finished running the 4-hour documentary on American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken's congressional run against Republican Renee Ellmers in a very gerrymandered North Carolina district. The documentary was cut up into episodes and shown as a series. It wasn't very good... but I kept watching anyway. There's a piece of one of the last episodes above. Clay had come to understand-- just after winning the primary 11,649 (40.8%) to 11,277 (37.5%) and just before losing to Ellmers 121,336 (58.9%) to 84,826 (41.1%)-- what many idealistic Democratic candidates eventually come to understand, namely that the DCCC is no one's friend.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz's time as head of the DCCC's Red-to-Blue program is probably best remembered for her dogged support for three Republican allies in South Florida, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and the Diaz-Balart brothers, against the three Democratic candidates. But there was another typical Wasserman-Schultz muck-up that should be remembered when she makes her big play for whatever her next move up the ladder is-- the grotesque, elitist disrespect she showed towards a retired, decorated naval officer when he asked for her help in his race against Republican climber Adam Putnam. This is from the note that candidate, Doug Tudor, a dedicated Democratic Party progressive activist, sent DWT back in 2008 right after the incident:
I, of course, was most anxious to meet and speak with Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (DINO-FL), who is chairing the DCCC’s Red-to-Blue program. I just knew that she would welcome the chance to defeat Adam Putnam, as that would allow her lay sole claim to the title of “Wonder Kid” in Florida’s politics. Adam, after all, isn’t her next door neighbor. Once she comes onboard, I assumed, the other members of the caucus would lose their timidity and also support me. I was dead wrong, and I should have known better.

It is well known that Wasserman-Schultz supports Republicans Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen over their Democratic opponents, although lately she has been pressured into giving belated and grudging support to Joe Garcia and Raul Martinez who are opposing the Diaz-Balarts. I always figured that she was just afraid of the Hispanic backlash in her own district. What I hadn’t considered is that she is just afraid of all incumbent Republicans in Florida. When I met her in Denver, she immediately told me that she couldn’t support me, saying I hadn’t raised enough money. I told her that I had raised $100K, that I was a military retiree, that my family is living on my wife’s Air Force E6 pay, and that I wasn’t able like other “viable” candidates to drop a quarter of a million dollars into my own campaign. I then told her, “Congresswoman, I am one of those working-class guys that our party claims to represent.” Her response was “Don’t pull that populist stuff with me.” I thanked her for her time.

As a person who made his career in the profession of arms, I know that when you’re in a fight, you have to fight on all fronts. Adam Putnam is easily becoming the most-hated Republican in America. He can be beat. Even Adam knows it’s a bad year for Republicans. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz needs to lead, follow, or get the Hell out of the way.
I didn't dredge this up merely as a contrast between Wasserman-Schultz and the way another candidate not backed by the DCCC-- Nate Shinagawa-- talked about the most recent Red-to-Blue chair, Donna Edwards (although it is certainly worth reading from that perspective). No, this was meant as an introduction to the Washington Post op-ed by a Democratic congressional candidate, an op-ed the Post pulled at the last moment.

2014 could have been a big year for the candidate. Despite negative "help" from DCCC chairman Steve Israel in 2012, he came closer to unseating the right-wing Republican incumbent than any previous Democrat ever had. (Israel has a firm policy of protecting senior Republican leaders and committee chairs, no matter how vulnerable their districts and no matter how heinous their agendas, in return for his own immunity from NRCC challenge.) Our candidate actually beat the Republican in the eastern third of the district. The Republican incumbent's approval/disapproval rating was underwater-- 38-43%, with 46% of respondents saying they would vote for his Democratic opponent, only 44% saying they would stick with the Republican, numbers that got worse when voters were informed the incumbent voted to shut down the government-- and he announced he was retiring from Congress (for a lucrative lobbying job). A civil war between two ambitious GOP wingnuts ensued.

In the midst of all this, the district registration advantage flipped to the Democrats, who went from a 3.6% disadvantage to the Republicans to a slight voter registration edge of 0.5% (1,975 voters). The key, of course, was turning out these Democratic voters in a midterm election when minorities and young voters tend to skip their civic duty-- which is what they did. Less than 50,000 people voted in the jungle primary and most of the ones who did were Republicans. Democrats just stayed home. The Democratic candidate asked the DCCC for help-- to avoid the same kind of catastrophe that they had gone through a couple districts south (CA-31) in 2012, when their candidate, Pete Aguilar, didn't make it into the runoff despite an overwhelmingly Democratic advantage, D+5. But the DCCC, after acknowledging that this had to be done, forgot the Hispanic outreach and GOTV efforts they were promising. Nothing was done, and on primary night one Republican had 14,573 votes and the other Republican had 14,016 votes; the Democrat mustered only 11,107. (Another Democrat, physically better placed on the ballot, took 4,868 votes, which would have been enough to put the actual Democratic candidate over the top.)

Another progressive Democrat, this one in Pennsylvania, who ran against a powerful Republican incumbent in 2012, and who got exactly zero help from the DCCC, was Aryanna Strader (now Aryanna Hunter). I asked her to comment about her experience with the DCCC as a candidate while Israel was running the show. She didn't speak about Israel directly, but anyone who follows his crazy mystery-meat strategy will recognize what she was talking about. Clay Aiken certainly would. "When congressional candidates run their campaigns trying to appease Democrats in Washington instead of running a campaign they believe in, those candidates are essentially tying their hands behind their back and disconnecting themselves from any hope of winning. Democrats running for office need to stand up for their ideals, embrace who they are as individuals and use it to their advantage. And the Democrats in Washington need to recognize their value and support them in that individual way."

I spoke to another progressive candidate-- this one from the upper Midwest, who was also stiffed by the DCCC. She hasn't given up the fight, not by a long shot, but she thinks it will take a long time to reform the DCCC. "We built an incredible grassroots network," she told me soon after the election, "and it would be a real shame to let all that work go to waste when there's still so much to be done. That being said, I'm glad to see that there will be changes in leadership at the DCCC... though I'm skeptical much will really change in how they choose candidates. The organization is focused on finding the best fundraisers, not candidates. The dysfunction is systemic, and a new figurehead isn't likely to change that."

Now...back to Clay-- in his own words and those of his staffers. Like all the candidates, the DCCC was pestering Aiken to raise more money and hire more of their corrupt consultants. His campaign manager, who now works at the DSCC: "The DCCC puts you on certain lists and if you get on their lists you get validity and credibility... It helps with fundraising." His finance director emphasized that "they've asked us to reach certain fundraising benchmarks and we've reached those benchmarks." Aiken:
That's a big deal. They said, "If you raise $400,000 in the second quarter we'll come and help." We raised much more than that, but still, no movement from the DCCC. They were very actively involved in convincing me to run. They said that they wanted to be supportive. And when we started running, they started distancing themselves... All I want them to do is put us on their Red-to-Blue List, which is the list of races that they believe are viable.
Aiken joked that the attitude and the deceit of the DCCC had him thinking about jumping off a cliff. Do I get stories like this from every grassroots progressive Democrat seeking to run for Congress? Yeah, pretty much so. This cycle, for example, I don't see any interest whatsoever from the DCCC for some of the best candidates running-- Jason Ritchie (D-WA), Alex Law (D-NJ), Jamie Raskin (D-MD), and Nanette Barragán (D-CA). Many other seasoned candidates are refusing to run until Pelosi, or whoever replaces her, gets rid of Israel-- not with a sock puppet like Ben Ray Luján.

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