Home Virginia Politics An Ant’s Grassroots View of the DPVA Convention in Fairfax

An Ant’s Grassroots View of the DPVA Convention in Fairfax


Being a lowly worker ant, crawling around the roots and looking up long (often untrimmed) blades of grass while struggling through the weeds, I hereby offer my observations and parse out a lesson or two of the 2012 DPVA Convention. Keep in mind, please, I was not privy to the thoughts or intentions of the leadership or any candidate, nor did I personally see everything that happened, only overt actions and results, which I used to produce the following political analysis. Before you crucify me, read the whole thing, eh?

VENUE, ADMINISTRATION, CONDUCT OF MEETING:  I’ve been told the convention was held in Northern Virginia at the urging of at least one prominent Congressional staff person with extensive roots in NoVa, and was originally planned for the Patriot Center at George Mason University. When it became evident that DPVA could not fill the Center, the event was moved to the University’s Center for the Arts, because no one wanted DPVA’s convention to look like the Romney rally in an empty stadium. This cost the DPVA a massive cancellation fee, which still resides in the hands of GMU and can supposedly be used as a “credit” by DPVA for some future event; rather than, say, cash on hand for candidate recruitment and campaigns.

The Center for the Arts was about the right size, and has good sound, but suffers from not having a center aisle for ease of getting to one’s seat, distributing such things as ballots, or even evacuating at intermissions or during emergencies. The Center was made available to the DPVA only until 2 PM, which meant that the Convention had to marshal and conduct its business in 5 hours, 9 AM to 2 PM. This included organizing itself from scratch and voting – not only on resolutions but also on presidential electors and delegates to the national convention. In addition, those 5 hours included eating lunch and listening to speeches by a long list of prominent officials and other persons of repute, not to mention necessary repeated roll calls and personal potty breaks.  Obviously, the Chair of the meeting, who is the Chair of DPVA, had to run a taut ship and everything had to go expeditiously for this to work. Unfortunately, the Chair called us to order 15 minutes late, so we were behind the power curve from minute one.

The long list of speakers included (but “not limited to”) Terry McAuliffe, Gerry Connolly, Jim Moran, Tim Kaine… and I ask you, how could anyone expect such a stable of Irish politicians to be, er, short-winded?  Most of the morning was consumed with getting organized. That included the pro-forma election of standing committees (something of a joke IMO, since it was all pre-ordained and presented without discussion to the otherwise clueless average delegate to be rubber-stamped). We also listened to welcomes from local jurisdictions like the Democratic Chair of the Board of Supervisors of Fairfax County and the Democratic but non-partisan mayor-elect of Fairfax City, and remarks from the Legislative Black Caucus, the House Democratic Caucus, and the Senate Democratic Caucus, followed by Terry McAuliffe, who was greeted with shouts of “Run, Terry Run!” from the audience, many of whom sported stickers with the same message.

Meanwhile, because of some unexplained glitch, the election of Presidential Electors and DNC members was delayed, as were any short campaign speeches by the DNC candidates, so the elected officials, who were piling up in the wings, ready to make their remarks, were moved up to the speaker’s rostrum in a long line. Now, I am not saying these venerable war horses did not make good, even inspiring speeches that were well received, but time was a-wastin’ and it was well past noon. At that point, we had yet to get to the meaty purpose of the whole convocation.

By now it was clear to me, having run plenty of meetings myself, that the Chair had little or no control over his meeting, and was simply winging it. Delegates wandered in and out of the hall, crawling politely over those still in their seats in order to visit rest rooms or line up to collect their previously paid-for box lunches from the Black Caucus (it was good chow, by the way).

Finally, before voting on the DNC members, another roll call was conducted, the manner of which was for the Chair of each Congressional District to walk up the outside aisle and count down each row (“the last member of the 11th CD please raise your hand!”) and then report the totals. These totals determined how many ballots were laboriously counted out to each Chair, who then distributed them one by one to be passed down the rows to the delegates.  Remember, there was no middle aisle; delegates from one CD melted into those from another CD in some areas. Frankly, it was a colossal, time-consuming mess, and several delegates from the 1st CD, sitting up in the balcony, never received ballots at all, their complaints ignored by the Chair. Question: does this actually invalidate the entire vote? Sounds rather like voter suppression out in Republican-land, doesn’t it?

We had just heard from the candidates, all except George Wallace, who chose not to speak but was on “the slate” with Frank Leone. The system requires that DPVA choose two women and two men. Since there were only two women running, the contest was really among six men, but one withdrew before voting began, leaving Shawn O’DConnell, Frank Leone (slate), Lionell Spruill, George Wallace (slate), and Ben Tribbett. You could vote for “the slate” or for two individuals, and any ballot which showed a vote for more than two (such as “the slate” plus another name) would be thrown out. Tribbett was the wild card, i.e., a young insurgent who was running, he said, in order to introduce 21st century media and methods (think internet and cyber technology) to the DPVA, bringing into the Party the young Obama voters. Tribbett has enormous expertise and a brilliant command of political statistics as well as being a blogger, aka “Not Larry Sabato.”

As it happens, Ben has a long and contentious history with old-line Fairfax Democrats, including a couple of fallings-out with well-entrenched Powers That Be (PTB), so a notably vicious campaign against him was conducted by the PTB prior to the Convention and right up to the moment voting began. It reminded me of, but was even more personal and nasty than, the Establishment’s hatred of Jim Webb during Jim Webb’s 2006 primary with Harris Miller, and the same group was involved this time around as well. The rationale of the PTB, as I heard it, was that Ben was unstable and would be an embarrassment to Virginia if turned loose on the DNC; just look at how he savaged people who disagreed with him (never mind this went both ways, of course). My observation was that the PTB would do anything necessary to defeat him and elect the slate of safe (but no doubt competent) two men, one white (Leone) and one black (Wallace).

The ballots were collected and vanished behind the scenes to be counted, and we waited. And waited. And waited some more. It was decided at some point in all this (I no longer am sure just when) that we would vote for the 23 Virginia delegates to the National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, so another count of delegates ensued before they passed out “the booklet” with the names of those running; only, it turned out, one name had been inadvertently left out, and this utterly confused many delegates who kept hearing convoluted directions on how to vote for delegates, alternates, and PLEOS (this was never explained but seemed to be elected officials and other political officers?). I heard one delegate after another complain that they had no idea who these people were, and they kept counting and recounting how many they had voted for, and “who was it that was left off the printed list?” and even “Hey, members of (x) CD, don’t vote for me for PLEO.”

Truthfully, I was shocked: when I receive notice of a shareholders’ meeting from a company in which I own stock, and there is to be an election to the company’s board of directors, there is always a brief biography of each candidate included. Why could not DPVA do likewise? And who proof-read “the booklet” and failed to notice one name was left off?  I trust it was only sloppy staff work, but responsibility for that always lands on the chief’s shoulders, IMO.

Word was tweeted to a neighboring delegate that, first, a challenge had been made against one Chair of a local CD because he was refusing to certify any delegate who did not promise to vote for “the slate;” and next, that Frank Leone had won DNC delegate with something like 55% of the vote.  This meant we would have a second ballot (and possibly even a third) to select the second male from among Wallace, Spruill, and Tribbett.  I have since been told that the result of the first ballot was received about 12:45 PM, but that the Chair did not announce this fact until 1:15 PM. By that time stage crews were beginning to dismantle the set in order to prepare for the next event due at 3 PM in the Hall, and buses were arriving to collect delegates and return them to distant parts of Virginia. Another roll call was taken before they would pass out ballots for the second election.

Here are the delegate counts I noted for each CD, first and second roll call: 1st CD: 113/125; 2d CD: 51/48; 3rd CD 100/98; 4th CD 110/111; 5th CD 152/152; 6th CD: 61/55; 7th CD: 141/154; 8th CD: 249/217; 9th CD 79/99; 10th CD: 184/182; and 11th CD: 244/232; resulting in totals of voting delegates of 1,484/1,453 (at least as announced). There was some confusion on the second roll call about whether or not certified delegates who were absent from their seats but present and acting as observers of the tallying, could be included and receive a ballot. The Chair, uncertain how to handle this, decided to wait until the missing delegates returned to their seats from the tallying, which irritated other CDs who had delegates who were in the rest rooms and had not yet returned. And so it went.

Suddenly, a clearly distraught Lionell Spruill surged to the microphone, and in a strained voice announced that he did “not like” what was going on, but that he was a “good Democrat” and was withdrawing from the race, adding something about there wasn’t any time for a second and probably even a third ballot. Many delegates booed and cried “No!”, but the Chair quickly accepted his withdrawal. It seemed to me that the Chair was conflicted, he kept looking to the side as if for direction from one or two members of the PTB. He was anxious to do the job he had been sent to do, IMO, which seemed to be to ensure the election of “the slate,” but he was afraid he could not control things and still be, or appear to be, even-handed. Moreover, there were the stage hands running around behind him and along the outside aisles dismantling his convention before his eyes.

This left George Wallace (who had never spoken to the convention at all) and Ben Tribbett, the outlier. That is to say, when Spruill (an African-American) withdrew, that left one black (Wallace) and one white (Tribbett) male for the remaining DNC slot. Did the PTB, fearing that two African-Americans might split the black vote, leaving Ben Tribbett a winner and no black Democrat in the Virginia DNC delegation, decide to force Spruill to withdraw? Which prospect worried them more, no blacks or Ben on the DNC? Or am I being inappropriate even to wonder about such things?

At that point the Chair announced that we must clear the Hall, adjourn and reconvene an hour later at the Mason inn in order to comnplete the balloting. Chaos erupted on the floor. The Chair of the 8th CD demanded a “suspension of the rules” and a voice vote. More chaos ensued and the Chair finally recognized the past Chair of the Fairfax County Committee, who requested a “division of the house” instead of a voice vote. The Chair agreed and told delegates to stand if they wanted to vote “aye.” He then announced a clear majority had voted “aye,” despite many complaints, and construed that vote to mean a suspension of the rules.

Then, with delegates streaming out of the hall and boarding their busses to depart, Ben Tribbett, the supposedly wild and unstable young guy, showed real class, stepped forward, and withdrew his name from the ballot, leaving George Wallace, the other member of “the slate” – who never spoke on his own behalf to the convention delegates – the winner by default. The Chair declared the convention over, and later was heard commenting that “it all ended up very well” in the end.

This all happened on Saturday in the Center for the Arts. The action really began Friday at the Mason Inn, with early registration, several receptions, such as one for Asian-American Democrats.I also attended a luncheon meeting with DPVA staff and a few delegates about future plans for the Party organization, a thank you party for Jim Webb, and so on. After the closing of the Convention there were additional meetings and parties at the Mason Inn. What they did not have were such things as I have seen at other conventions (like Realtors’ meetings), including training sessions, documentaries, seminars or brain-storming meetings. This was a missed opportunity in my mind; since the festivities ran over two days anyway, the time could have been better used, and the networking made even more productive.

CONCLUSIONS: The Convention was poorly designed and poorly run, almost embarrassingly so. As I left the Hall, I kept overhearing the comment “What a fiasco!” Anyone with experience in such matters, especially when you include Democrats in the mix, should never have considered the Patriot Center as a venue. If they hoped to get President Obama to speak, and thereby fill the Center, shouldn’t they have at least ensured his availability and willingness before signing the contract? Falling back to the Mason Inn and the Center for the Arts might have worked if they had full control of the venue for the entire day. I am still stunned by the ineptitude. Heads should roll, but within the DPVA there seems to be NO accountability.

As I have commented elsewhere on Blue Virginia, what I observed in the final analysis looked very much like a classic example of an entrenched clique that confused its own personal position of power with the good of the overall organization. Strip away the personality conflicts and all the frou-frou, and the clique/PTB responded defensively and ruthlessly, refusing to admit to its coveted ranks an insurgent who represented the rising generation. This is the manner in which a privileged clique historically responds, despite clear evidence that dismissal of outsiders knocking at the gates only ends up in the long run destroying the organization itself.

The maneuvers at the end of the convention can thus be seen as a successful tactical move (“the slate won!”) but a strategic mistake. I say this regretfully, even while acknowledging that the PTB no doubt have some reason for believing that the insurgent might be a loose cannon (like, say, Doug Wilder, or even former Republican Jim Webb). But one must ask, is it not more prudent to have such a possible problem where one can use him for what he has to offer, and where one can keep an eye on him (aka, “inside the tent”)?  Entrenched cliques, if they want to survive and prosper, must sometimes deal with prickly personalities they regard as uncouth, people who carry baggage of their own, and are not, unfortunately, knights in shining armor.

The DPVA is dangerously ingrown. Whether its Powers That Be (many of whom are completely outside the formal table of organization) have no real idea of how to reach out to new blood or insurgents, or whether they simply have contempt for any “outsiders” including their own grassroots, the result is the same: an atrophied, sclerotic party, where the PTB defend their turf, little understanding that turf is shrinking around them every day. Consider how their Maginot Line mentality keeps doing the same thing over and over, defending fewer and fewer incumbents, leaving 80 percent of Assembly seats uncontested, and losing election after election, but by golly they still control the party apparatus!  

The solution, IMO, is for that (increasingly large) part of the reform-minded grassroots to buckle down and begin a reform from the bottom up, and that means getting their rear in gear, doing the grunt labor of attending meetings and volunteering for the dull but essential groundwork, knowing the ins and outs of procedure and bylaws…and taking over the party for the 21st century.


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