Saturday, September 29, 2007


My last post took a shot at the U.S. senators from the Democratic Party for failing to stop funding our glorious war. Little did I know when I posted those comments that it would turn out to be the first of a two part series bashing my party’s senators. Unfortunately, they deserve to be bashed … and bashed again.

The source of my frustration is Senator Charles Schumer and his minions at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). That august body is charged with the job of electing more Democrats to the senate. It’s a worthy goal, in my view, but like all worthy ends, some means to that end are appropriate and some are not.

This week, Schumer sent around an e-mail to contacts across the nation that began as follows:

“I’ve been traveling the country since January on a single-minded quest: to recruit Democratic leaders who’ve got the smarts and fortitude to win Senate races in 2008. And let me tell you, we’ve got ‘em. Former Gov. Mark Warner in Virginia. State House Speaker Jeff Merkley in Oregon. Rep. Mark Udall in Colorado. Rep. Tom Allen in Maine. These are first-class candidates. And they can win. But not alone – not without your support now.”

The letter goes on to solicit donations of “$50, $75 or more” and adds that “for the next 5 days, your gift will be tripled by a group of Democratic senators.” Because, Schumer said, “we need your support now.”

What’s the rush? Schumer never said. But I’ll tell you.

Schumer sent out his solicitation on September 25th, five days before the end of the political quarter. When the quarter ends, all candidates for national office must publicly release the amount of campaign contributions raised during the quarter. If they can boast a relatively high number, this will help them substantially against any opponent they have in a contested Democratic primary.

Consider now the race in Oregon, a race that I have discussed before in this quadrant of cyberspace. As you might recall, my law school friend, Steve Novick, was the first Democrat to announce his candidacy to challenge the Republican incumbent, Gordon Smith. Novick is, by all accounts, brilliant, charismatic, honest, plainspoken, thoroughly steeped in policy knowledge, witty, and upbeat. He suffers from the disability of being born with one hand and without portions of his leg – making him 4’9” tall – and has the distinction of having matriculated at Harvard Law School at the age of 18, after having skipped high school altogether. At the law school, he was about as beloved as anyone in the class. In fact, I’ve never heard anyone speak ill of the man – which should not be surprising, given the above list of attributes.

Schumer claims to be progressive, as does his boy Merkley. Novick is a progressive. In fact, he has devoted his career to a series of progressive causes, including fighting environmental polluters (while as a lawyer for the DOJ) and working tirelessly for economic equity. Having come from no money himself, Novick is like John Edwards – without the 25,000 square foot house. He’s been too busy toiling for the public interest to feather his own nest. He is, in short, the real deal. As a U.S. Senator, he’d go on national news shows and explain to people, articulately and with passion, that it’s time for Democrats to stop playing defense and to go on the offense. In other words, it is time to stop blaming the Republicans for our inaction and to aggressively fight to implement honest to God progressive changes in Washington.

If you’re thinking that Novick is my favorite politician, you’re correct. I’m sure that many Oregonians would say the same, as would many other members of my law school class. But that view is obviously not shared by Charles Schumer. The Senior Senator from New York apparently took a look at Novick back when he announced his candidacy early this year, and decided that the Democrats needed another candidate in the race. So he approached some other folks – perhaps the Governor or U.S. Congressmen – and finally found a willing candidate in Jeff Merkley, Speaker of the Oregon House.

When Merkley agreed to run, I wasn’t at all disturbed. I figured that the Democrats’ best chance of beating the incumbent Republican is to have a contested Democratic primary in which both candidates explain why they can do the best job of campaigning and, ultimately, governing. If, after such a primary, the Oregonians should choose Merkley, so be it. He would have deserved the chance to challenge Gordon Smith.

What I didn’t count on was that Schumer and his fellow senators from the DSCC would try to rig the deck. I wasn’t so cynical as to believe that senators from other states would try to buy the primary for one so-called progressive who is running against another progressive, especially when the latter was the first to throw his hat in the ring.

Novick has a lot of support in Oregon. He is well liked by the media and experienced as an activist who gets things done on the local level. But Merkley is also well liked, including by Novick. When Merkley announced his candidacy, Novick quickly invited Merkley to make a series of joint appearances with him in which they would both take to the people their own positions as to why Gordon Smith should be defeated and why each of them is best suited to get the job done. I envisioned not so much Lincoln-Douglas, because they wouldn’t be debating each other, but a mutually supportive set of speeches in which each candidate would explain to voters all over Oregon why we need progressive policies and how precisely Gordon Smith has failed to work for those policies. What a wonderful way to take a state that is bluish-purple and turn it navy blue!

Merkley, not surprisingly, agreed to take Novick up on his offer. But that was a few months ago, and since then, we have seen no signs that Merkley was serious. Apparently, Schumer and the boys had a better idea. What if, instead of having to go face to face with Novick and prove to the people of Oregon that he is the better man, Merkley can hide behind the endorsements of professional politicians throughout the nation and let the political machine catapult him to the nomination? What if, instead of having to show that his personal charisma is at least one-tenth that of Novick’s, he can simply sit back and let Uncle Chuck do the heavy lifting?

True, if Merkley took that path, he wouldn’t have made much of a connection with the people of Oregon. And he would presumably be beholden to Schumer and the unnamed “group” of Democratic senators whom he can thank for his nomination. But hey, a win is a win, right?

I found out about Schumer’s e-mail solicitation because he sent it out to a wide range of people, including Kalyn Free, a woman who runs a political action committee created to advance the interests of Native American candidates ( Free, who lives in Oklahoma, wrote back to Schumer. Included in her response is the following:

“I am disappointed that you actively recruited a candidate to run in the Oregon primary against Steve Novick, months after Steve began his campaign to take out Gordon Smith. There is no candidate running in America who is more talented, capable, dedicated and most importantly, who would support the Democratic Party and represent ALL of America, and not merely a ‘D’ in party registration only.

“The fact that the DSCC has chosen to wade into this primary and ‘anoint’ our Party’s nominee is a perfect example of why too many of our elected officials lack the integrity and commitment to be our Party’s standard bearers, and why we, in middle America, [have] become disillusioned with the ‘system.’ Unfortunately, this type of ‘good old boy’ politics is what keeps excellent candidates from running for office and turns activists and progressives away from our party. And, [this] leaves Democrats like me unable to respond to the most cited criticism, from young and old, that ‘There is no difference between the Democrats and Republicans these days.’”

That pretty much says it all, if you ask me. One minute, the Democratic establishment is funding the war in Iraq, all the while continuing to place the blame for the war on the GOP. The next minute, the Democratic establishment is trying to keep their own party’s outspoken activists out of power – all in the name of “electability.” The fact of the matter is that Novick would be every bit as electable as Merkley, if only the party apparatchiks would wait until the primary season is over and simply support the winner. If Paul Wellstone could get elected, so too could Novick.

The real problem is that in the past 20 years, there has only been one Paul Wellstone – one unabashed progressive whose first reaction is to tell the truth, rather than to test the political winds. Wellstone is now deceased, however, and the hope was that Novick could replace him as the token non-politician politician in the Senate. Well, Schumer and his apparatchiks apparently have better ideas. They’d like to see another yawner of a politician enter the Senate and “fit in” as one of the boys. Merkley, while a good guy, is charisma-challenged; it is difficult to believe that he could shake things up in Washington even if he wanted to.

I suppose I shouldn’t be so indignant about all of this. After all, it’s just politics, right? But the problem is that we’re talking here about the Democratic Party, which was supposed to stand for things like the right of the common people to decide for themselves who they want to represent them and who they don’t. That approach is precisely what Novick was proposing and what Merkley originally pledged to honor. Schumer, by contrast, offers an approach based on centralizing political power among the elites in Washington. I have no doubt that Messrs. Jefferson and Lincoln, if they could read Chuck’s e-mail, would be rolling over in their graves.

Feel free to share this story. It needs to be told to every American whose politics have yet to be swallowed up 100% by cynicism.


Finding Fair Hope said...

Dan, I am so glad that you wrote this post.

At the same time I am shatteringly sorry that what you say is true, even though it supports my long-held position that both parties are equally corrupt. With all your wonderful posts about Steve Novick, he never really caught my heart until this one -- the reality that he hit up against the big boys, and they were his own political party.

I want you to take this further. I want you to submit it to Chris Matthews or Keith Olberman or Anderson Cooper -- someone with a big platform where the story will be heard. It is not a local Oregon story; it hits at the black heart of U.S. politics and should be blasted across the tv sets of the nation. It is the kind of thing that has gone on for years and deprived us of worthy candidates when we needed them most.

And please tell Steve Novick to keep up his own good work until we (the people) get to know him and give him his due. The country needs its best and brightest now more than ever.

Daniel Spiro said...

I'll think about your advice regarding Matthews, Olberman or Cooper, thanks.