State News
June 7, 2016

Sanders given significant influence over party platform

By Jasper Craven, VTDigger.org

Armed with a resonant message, more than 2.4 million small-dollar donors and 21 primary and caucus victories, Bernie Sanders has accrued a deep well of political power that is already paying off ahead of July’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

In a change from the usual process, the presidential campaigns were allowed to name most of the members of the party’s platform-writing committee this year. Normally the Democratic National Committee chair has sole appointment power, but Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz ceded 75 percent of the 15 seats to the campaigns.

Her move comes amid amplifying frustration from Sanders and his supporters over the way the chairwoman, and the party more broadly, have treated his campaign. Team Sanders has accused the DNC of tipping the scales for rival Hillary Clinton.

Sanders is now guaranteed a big role in shaping the official party platform, a document drafted at each convention that states the policy goals of Democrats.

The platform panel includes a number of Sanders stalwarts. They are Vermont environmentalist Bill McKibben; Cornel West, a social activist and intellectual; James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute; Deborah Parker, a Native American activist; and Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn.

Clinton was allotted one more committee member than Sanders. Her team members are Reps. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and Alicia Reece, D-Ohio; Wendy Sherman, a former State Department official under Clinton; Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress; former EPA Administrator Carol Browner; and Paul Booth, leader of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Clinton’s senior policy adviser, Maya Harris, and Sanders’ policy director, Warren Gunnels, will serve as nonvoting members of the committee.

“These individuals represent some of the best progressive thinking from across the nation,” said Wasserman Schultz in a statement.

Wasserman Schultz appointed four delegates, including former Reps. Howard Berman and Barbara Lee, both from California, and executive Bonnie Schaefer.

She also appointed Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., as the committee chair.

“I am pleased that we have some of our best and brightest gathered here to assemble our collective vision of our nation’s future,” said Cummings, who has endorsed Clinton. “We will be going to unprecedented lengths to ensure that the drafting of our party’s platform is the most inclusive, open and representative process in the long history of our two major parties.”

McKibben will push for comprehensive environmental policy, while Zogby is known as a champion of Palestinian rights. Parker, the Native American activist, will give voice to a people largely overlooked in politics.

Sanders said the committee’s makeup should further his policy goals. “We believe that we will have the representation on the platform drafting committee to create a Democratic platform that reflects the views of millions of our supporters who want the party to address the needs of working families in this country and not just Wall Street, the drug companies, the fossil fuel industry and other powerful special interests,” he said after the committee announcement.

Candidates for many top offices generally run on the ideas set forth in the party platform. But it is entirely nonbinding, and some of the most lofty goals have been ignored in the past.

The current Democratic platform, drafted in 2012, prioritizes campaign finance reform, an immigration overhaul and greater access to voting. None of those has been accomplished, either out of a lack of political will or congressional obstruction.

One of Sanders’ core tenets, universal health care coverage, has been promised in platforms for decades.

In 1980, when U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., ran an insurgent progressive campaign for president, he was given great power over the platform when he lost the nomination to Jimmy Carter.

“The answer is not to cut back on benefits for the elderly and eligibility for the poor,” the1980 platform reads. “The answer is to enact a comprehensive, universal national health insurance plan.”

A number of other goals in the 1980 platform have not been met, including comprehensive economic revitalization of black and Native American communities, a closing of the gender pay gap, and public financing options in federal campaigns.

Perhaps aware that a progressive platform requires legislators willing to push it, Sanders has begun fundraising for a number of state and federal candidates.

In April, the Vermont senator made fundraising pitches for three congressional candidates: New York’s Zephyr Teachout, Nevada’s Lucy Flores and Washington State’s Pramila Jayapal.

On Tuesday, Sanders sent out another email pitch to his supporters for eight state legislative candidates, including Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, who is running for the state Senate.

Pearson said he received a call Tuesday morning from Phil Fiermonte, Sanders’ field director, who said Sanders was going to raise money for a number of candidates, including the Chittenden County Progressive.

“Talk about a pleasant surprise,” Pearson said. “I’m still kind of stunned. His endorsement for Chittenden County voters is extremely valuable. It’s something I’m proud to have.”

The platform power given to Sanders comes as Wasserman Schultz and other top party officials work to unify behind Clinton quickly, so as to begin all-out war on the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump.

Yet the olive branch to the Sanders campaign may not be enough to keep the convention civil.

Sanders recently predicted the convention would be “messy,” and he has hinted that, besides platform changes, he will push to abolish or reform superdelegate rules.

On Sunday, the Vermont convention delegates passed a resolution unanimously calling for national party rule changes that would force superdelegates to follow the will of the primary voters in future elections. And while the Sanders campaign sees real opportunities with their unusual influence on the platform, Sanders’ resentment toward Wasserman Schultz, who is also a U.S. House member from Florida, appears to remain.

The campaign has bemoaned the work of the DNC and Wasserman Schultz, calling the debate schedule flawed and objecting to a temporary revocation of his access to voter data, among other complaints.

Over the weekend, Sanders endorsed and raised money for her more progressive primary opponent, Tim Canova. He also told CNN on Sunday that, if president, he would not want her leading the DNC.

“Well, clearly, I favor her opponent,” Sanders told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “His views are much closer to mine than to Wasserman Schultz’s.”

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