A Sanders Delegate’s Account of the Nevada Democratic Convention

We received the following letter from a participant in the May 14, 2016 Nevada Democratic Party state convention. As the writer explains, supporters of Bernie Sanders received a harsh lesson in the “School of the Democrats,” as their attempts to bring about real change through that party slammed into a wall of undemocratic bureaucratic maneuvers, cynicism, and Nevada State Troopers. As we have explained many times, we do not think it is possible for the working class to “take over” the existing Democratic Party. Thousands of activists in the Sanders campaign who have tried this are now having second thoughts, and are drawing increasingly radical conclusions. A video graphically showing these events is available here.

The city of Las Vegas went from being a pit stop on the road to California to a booming metropolis of tourism and vice through the spread in influence of organized crime. Gangsters, in a sense, built Las Vegas. And while their involvement in the running of the city has largely been curtailed, there is still a palpable influence of Las Vegas’s mobster heritage. On May 14, 2016, more than 3,000 Nevada Democrats experienced organized crime in action.

Does the author perhaps write hyperbolically, out of a very personal sense of betrayal? Perhaps. Perhaps no real crime was committed on May 14, the Day that Democracy Died. But to observers, there was a sense that our rights were being trampled before our very eyes, to the raucous cheers of the Clintonites, and there was nary a thing we could do to stop it.

The author has been very involved with the Sanders campaign. In addition to dedicating countless hours to canvassing, phonebanking, and organizing for this campaign, I also served as a precinct captain for the February caucus and a delegate for the State and County Conventions. In the more than sixteen (16) hours I spent having my voice silenced at the State Convention, I went from being a lifelong progressive Democrat to someone who will likely never vote Democrat again. Do not misunderstand me, I would frequently vote Green Party or Independent, but only if I was reasonably confident the Democrat would win (such as in 2008 and 2012). But after what I witnessed on May 14, I no longer feel any love or loyalty towards the Democratic Party.

To even explain Nevada’s process for sending delegates to the DNC is no easy task even for a participant. The Nevada Caucus system is one of the most notoriously convoluted in the nation. As the reader likely knows, the Nevada Caucus is celebrated as “First in the West,” held this year on February 20, about three weeks after Iowa and a little more than a week before Super Tuesday. In a caucus system, voters from each precinct meet in a classroom and send delegates to their county convention based on the proportion of supporters and the number of voting Democrats in each precinct. Those delegates meet again at the county convention (for Las Vegas’s Clark County, April 2), and again send a proportion of their delegates to the Nevada State Convention (May 14). The bureaucratic nature of the whole process, plus the distinct lack of interest by the public in the process after the caucus ends, means that the State Democratic Party was able to ruthlessly and effectively manipulate the results without engendering anything even closely resembling a national uproar.

The February 20 caucus is the most significant part of the process, and one which Clinton won handily. This contest decided the 23 district delegates that would be sent to the DNC (13 for Clinton, 10 for Bernie), and how many delegates would be sent to the county conventions. However, the seven at-large delegates were elected based on the proportion of delegates at the State convention, which was in turn based on the proportion from the county conventions. That there were only seven at-large delegates meant that a simple majority would mean the difference between 4-3 and 3-4. This will become important later on.

The skullduggery began days before the convention even happened. The rules regarding DNC central committee members (who must stand for reelection every two years) was changed so that only members who did not want to run were required to stand for reelection (yes, you read that correctly), and the deadline to apply for the DNC executive board was moved up by several days. Robert Kern, an attorney for the Sanders Campaign in Nevada, filed an emergency lawsuit against the state party against these changes, but it was thrown out by a Nevada judge.

The convention was scheduled to begin at 9 AM, but procedural matters were not to begin until after ten—according to instructions given to delegates, “If you are in line by 10:00 AM on Saturday, you will be eligible to participate.” The preliminary report was given around 9:40, and showed that Clinton had roughly 50 more delegates in the room than Bernie. It was at this time that the chair, Roberta Lange, decided to vote on adopting the temporary rules as permanent. At the time, there were nine separate petitions to amend the rules circulating among the Sanders delegates, which required signatures from 20% of the total delegates in order to be heard. Unsurprisingly, there was much outrage from the Sanders delegates, who loudly voted down the measure to adopt the rules (as can be observed in any extant video of the vote). However, Roberta Lange must have heard otherwise, and stated that “the ruling by the chair is not debateable, it cannot be challenged, and I move . . . I, uh, announce that the rules have passed by the body [emphasis in original].” Cannot be debated or challenged? It’s almost as if Lange anticipated that this might be a controversial move.

It was at this point that the convention reached its most fevered pitch (until around 11 PM). In fact, between those two times, there is little of interest to report. Democratic Senator and Hillary supporter, Barbara Boxer, in her speech supporting Clinton, taunted the Bernie delegates, and, when booed, actually goaded them and egged them on. The inimitable Nina Turner spoke to mostly raucous applause. We broke for lunch. We voted on members of the central committee and the executive board (and as Bernie delegates, we were strapped for options). By around 7 PM, we had broken into our congressional districts to elect our CD delegates. This process took about an hour for my district, but went on for considerably longer for some of the other districts. By the time we were being led back into the main convention room it was getting on about 10 PM.

Throughout the evening members of the Bernie team had been circulating and begging the beleaguered Bernie delegates to stay until the end of the convention, as we still had to elect the at-large delegates. This was a group of seven delegates, the proportion of which was decided based on the proportion of delegates in the room. The convention used the proportion counted at the beginning of the day, but, theoretically, a recount could be called at any time. And at this point in the evening, it looked like a recount would be very favorable for us: while the Clinton delegation had dwindled to about ¼ of its original size, the Bernie delegation had not seemed to shrink at all. Unfortunately we were subjected to several campaign speeches for CD-3, a bunch of candidates running for the same district offering up the same platitudes. But the dull speeches very abruptly became interesting: one of the candidates yielded his time to Erin Bilbray, Sanders’s sole superdelegate in Nevada. However, she was physically restrained from speaking by Lange, and the candidate had to speak for her, making a motion to recount. You could see Lange’s expression curdle like sour milk. The stage was empty for another 20 minutes. Lange retook the stage and made a motion to accept the delegate counts from the beginning of the day, then without even pretending to wait for a second, pointed randomly into the Clinton delegation and declared the motion seconded. The voice vote was taken. The nays were resoundingly louder, even more so than in the morning as we now outnumbered the yeas 4–1. Despite this, Lange ruled that the motion had passed, that the convention had been adjourned (without making a motion to do so). After banging the gavel, she swiftly exited the stage, at which point perhaps a dozen armed members of the sheriff’s department flanked the stage. We were told to leave or we would be arrested.

We left the Paris ballroom in a dazed fury. Every illusion I had ever had of the Democratic Party as a progressive institution had crumbled before my very eyes. Fellow delegates were lamenting the state of the Democratic Party, vowing to never vote for another Democrat again. I heard several people discussing writing in Bernie in November, or voting for Jill Stein or Mimi Soltysik. Though I was exhausted I couldn’t sleep for hours. I was kicking myself for hoping to believe that a meaningful progressive movement could be built within the Democratic Party. Throughout this race we’ve seen Bernie Sanders achieve victories in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, and every victory is hindered or hampered by the party machine. I only hope that we progressives who support Bernie Sanders can learn from our mistakes: the Democratic Party is not and will never be a friend to progressive values, and it is only by taking this movement and organizing outside of that party that we can hope to achieve victory.

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