San Diego County Democratic Party Chair Will Rodriguez-Kennedy. Photo by Chris Stone

There has been a lot of misinformation and disingenuity about the Democratic Party that has been going around as we enter the highly contested endorsement season, so I wanted to take an opportunity to address as much of it as I can.

First, allow me to start from my belief:

The Democratic Party, when done right, is the Party of the People. When representative, it has the potential to be the greatest force for good for social and economic justice. There is no institution more “small d” democratic. But over the past few years there have been very public and disappointing letdowns by some leaders of our institution.

You know about these issues, because there is an active movement that has pushed transparency and therefore for better or worse people are getting a good look at our party’s processes, and are thinking: “Can we do better?”

The answer is: Yes, we can.

The truth is, in every strong representative democracy, parties are stronger than they are here in California. If you look at how to run for office in the United Kingdom or a parliamentary system, you will find that often the process is sorta complicated and there is less participation in terms of candidate selection.

Look at a guide I found on who to “stand for office” in the Labour Party. That is because in parliamentary systems, not only are parties associations of voters, but they also are part of the government system. In most systems, the leaders of the majority party are also the leaders of government. The stakes are very high.

Here in the United States and in California particularly, that is not the case. We further have a system which is candidate-focused — which is ripe for abuse. In U.S. comparative politics, you learn that the United States is a candidate-centered Democracy where candidates tend to have more sway in the system. Just think, the nominee of the party in the presidential race is often considered the “Leader of the Party” and their political machine often selects national party leadership and funds the national party operation.

We also have a HUGE problem with money in politics. That issue is almost self-explanatory.

Locally, we are debating the endorsement process and money as it relates to the county party’s role in the election.

Before we get into that, a preface:

I have been actively engaged in reforming the party to be more representative, more community focused and less subordinate to powerful and moneyed interests, and I am constantly undermined and attacked by multiple sides of very specific conflicts usually because entrenched interests (business and individuals) fear how these reforms will affect their favored candidate.

I am working to get a party platform together, so that not only are we just electing Democrats, we are also electing Democrats who have a unified vision for what it means to be a Democrat at the local level. That process has been maligned, and is at risk.

I tried to create a proportional voting system that allowed for more meaningful engagement at the community level. We were defeated for this year, but were successful in passing a series of rules that address some concerning behavior with relation to club endorsements and have added a policy for enforcement.

I have been actively working to implement policy changes that address the toxicity on the committee. We have met some success here: We have an ethics committee and will soon have rules that address some of the toxic behaviors that have been exhibited by a very small group of bad actors.

We have been successful in passing a conflict-of-interest policy that provides for transparency and accountability when dealing with people who are paid to influence the central committee or who have a financial stake in specific elections.

We have been successful in putting together a calendar that is transparent so that our stakeholders can tell when our endorsements are and so they are never a surprise. In the past, it was almost random.

I have declared to all that the county party will not engage in negative attack ads in internal conflicts UNLESS a candidate has been censured for unethical behavior. Thus, adding a due process requirement that allows for accountability and fairness.

We are working to expand our staff in order to get our staff into the communities, working on hyperlocal issues.

We have been working to set an objective measure by which to rate races strategically critical. In the past, it was almost on the whim of the chairs and vice chairs; now we are operating on a coordinated strategy: The SANDAG+ strategy, which encourages focus on local races that contribute to the SANDAG makeup, and the county Board of Supervisors but leaves room (with the plus) to look strategically at education seats, water boards, etc.

Some people have criticized the amount of strategically critical seats, a criticism that makes no sense if you understand strategic planning.

There is an active reform movement helping push the party to more representation, more activism, more policy and yet we have some issues to address:

1. We must end the toxicity in politics. For far too long people have rewarded bad / hostile / toxic behavior with victory. Some treat the “House of Cards” approach to politics as a model and not a cautionary tale as it should be. Some even do so for a living.

This will take some soul searching and political courage. It will take party leadership to place the party ahead of individual ambitions and interests and hold accountable our members. I think it’s possible to get this done.

2. We must address the lack of trust in our party. I can not tell you how much criticism I get that is based on the actions of previous administrations. People are leery at every reform because they see it in the context of what previous leaders may or may not have done.

I want to make this clear: I am different. I am known for very public, very direct, very honest engagement — almost to my detriment. I have become good at strategy. But when I do something, it’s not a secret — it has been discussed, telegraphed and almost always come from a single overarching goal: I want the party to advance the cause of social and economic justice.

Look at how I have struggled. I have been homeless, I have been poor. I have been discriminated against. I struggle to make ends meet. I want a party that stands for justice and a world where we don’t have homelessness, where we don’t have systemic discrimination, where housing, health care, the necessities of life are rights to all and not privileges of the few — where the ZIP Code you were born doesn’t determine your destiny and where the color of your skin, the God your worship or the gender of the person you love does not prevent you from reaching your potential.

Everything I do is for that sole purpose.

3. We need an independent Democratic Party that exists to elect Democratic candidates who advocate for our issues, our values and our policy and doesn’t bow to moneyed interests or individual ambition.

That means we have to address concerns about financing. So far, the county Democratic Party has come under attack because of corporate and third party contributions. We must divorce ourselves from this concern by acting with integrity and making the following claim that I will live by and that matches our legal obligation:

A contribution to the Democratic Party is to advance the candidates, issues and programs we support within our sole discretion and shall not be earmarked for any particular candidate. If you give to the Democratic Party, you are giving to allow us to use that money to advance OUR issues, OUR candidates and OUR policies. You will not buy me, you will not buy our party, we are / I am not for sale.

In fact, within my term, there was an attempt by some moneyed interests and a party to withhold financial support because of a resolution we passed (AB 392). You know what I told them? Pound sand — we are going to support our values. I grew up poor. If you calculate my AGI, you will find I am still working class and I will always have working-class values and a working-class mindset.

4. We must recognize this fact: The San Diego County Democratic Party represents 653,493 Democratic voters and even a significant number of no party preference voters who vote for our candidates and in our primary. In order to represent and communicate to those voters, we need to come together. We need more activists, more precinct (GO Team leaders), more individual contributors, more diverse voices. WE NEED YOU!

What we don’t need? People who put their personal ambition ahead of the cause. We need to do some soul searching and have a discussion about what we want to accomplish as a party. We need to act like the movement we are and embrace solidarity.

5. We need to stop the attack on our clubs and our activists while addressing the need to reform our process to be more equitable, fair and less punishing and toxic.

That means check the phony attacks on our clubs. They represent over 5,000 unique members who truly care about the issues.

  • Our club members are the bulk of our donors.
  • Our club members are the bulk of our volunteers.
  • Our club members are the bulk of our leadership.

If you can’t make a club meeting, check around — there may be other clubs. But don’t advocate to silence those clubs.

In disadvantaged communities, clubs represent a voice against oppression. Yet there are individual candidates and surrogates who actively suggest those clubs should disappear. That is discrimination, and it’s not helpful.

6. We must be kinder to each other. There is a tendency by many to call out, to attack, to impugn the motives of others. It’s toxic and I have been pulled into it myself. We have to do better.

7. We also need to stop making individual races toxic quadmires. We need to start acting as a movement and in solidarity, with a mind for strategy, a passion for justice and hope for the future. Individual races and decisions SHOULD NOT be the reason you go scorched earth, and individual candidates and ambitions should come second to the mission and the cause — electing Democrats to deliver a more just and equitable society.

Finally, I wrote this long post, but what am I going to do about it? Fair, I commit to the following:

1. I will fight to increase transparency and accountability at our Central Committee by embracing and proposing policies that bring more light to our decisions while addressing behaviors that cast a dark pall over our proceedings. You should know what your Central Committee is doing and you should also expect a level of conduct from the leaders of our party.

2. I will fight to reform our process to address the concerns that have been raised. Right now, we are in the middle of an endorsement process, so changes will often be defeated by individual factions working to elect their candidate. But we can look at rules that take place after this round of endorsements.

3. Democrats will not be attacked by their party. With the very rare exception if they have been censured or found to have done something provably and objectively wrong.

4. I will fight to expand our outreach and get our team (staff and volunteers) into the communities so that we can engage on hyperlocal issues and better represent our voters.

5. I will fight for a unified Democratic Party by cracking down on conflicts of interest and toxic political behavior.

These are just a start, and this post is already long enough. But I wanted for ya’ll to hear from me because there has been a lot of misinformation and disingenuous posts. In short, I am fighting, and some times I get defeated but I am truly fighting to get a more representative Party that adequately reps the people.

If you have questions or concerns, reach out. DM me, or email me at chair@sddemocrats.org. Until then, I leave you with the mission of the San Diego County Democratic Party, one I am sworn to execute:

The San Diego County Democratic Party engages voters and elects Democrats to advance equality, opportunity, sustainability and prosperity for all.

Pa’lante!

Will Rodriguez-Kennedy is chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party. A version of this essay was first posted Aug. 19, 2019, on Facebook.

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