On Saturday Polk County Democrats held their county convention to select delegates to go on to the district and state convention. It was an utter catastrophe.
The county convention started at 9:00 AM, with many attendees arriving much earlier. The proceedings did not finish until close to 8:30 PM. During that time delegates and alternates from caucus night sat through repeated recounts, credential checks and platform plank discussions. Rules were poorly explained, both Sanders and Clinton supporters yelled at one another and the county party, accusations of cheating swept through both sides, a Sanders supporter at one point jumped onto the stage to shout at the crowd, and a call for the county party chair’s resignation was met with cheers.
Starting Line was not at the convention, but spoke with nearly two dozen people who attended it to get a sense of what happened.
Hillary Clinton won Polk County by 53% to 46% over Bernie Sanders on caucus night. Polk sent by far the largest amount of individuals to a county convention, with over 1,200 total delegates in all. Not all of both Sanders and Clinton’s delegates and alternates from caucus night showed up for the convention (as is to be expected for a group that large), so each candidate’s percent of delegates from Polk County sent on to the state and district convention were likely to change. A larger percentage of Sanders’ group showed up than Clinton’s.
The convention started at 9:00 AM, but it took until around 11:00 AM for the counting of everyone who signed in to be completed. At the beginning of the convention the audience was asked how many of them was at their first convention. An attendee said nearly 80% raised their hand. That unfamiliarity with the process of many of the attendees helped add to later confusion and frustration. While they waited for the initial count of delegates, the room discussed various platform planks, including CAFOs and selective service for women.
The initial count that was released showed Sanders had more delegates and alternates in the room, with 532 for Sanders, 519 for Clinton and 8 for Martin O’Malley. This was solely from the sign-in/credentials tables, and not from a physical count of the people in the room.
However, it is unclear how accurate this initial count was. There were a host of discrepancies that may have listed people as delegates for the wrong candidate, and some people who were counted that weren’t supposed to be counted at all.
“There were some discrepancies where people were submitted to us as delegates for Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, but they were not for that candidate – they were for the opposite candidate,” explains Christian Ucles, a Credentials Committee member who is also a delegate for Clinton.
It seems a number of simple human errors from caucus night where people weren’t listed correctly on delegate forms, or who weren’t listed for either candidate, caused some confusion as to who was for who at the county convention. That could have affected the change from the initial count, but it’s unclear.
A major point of contention and confusion revolved around a yellow list of “unlisted delegates.” These were supposedly people not elected as delegates or alternates on caucus night, but still allowed by the county party to participate.
“This was the first time we were seeing a bunch of yellow forms, which was unlisted delegate forms,” says Sean Bagniewski, the Clinton group leader. “We couldn’t really figure out what those were. By the time we could figure out that it might influence things, they had done the original count that morning.”
“We had the lead as of 11:00 when everyone was seated,” recalls Mitch Henry, one of the leaders in the Sanders group. “Then around lunchtime, we found out there was a challenge … Rules was challenging our alternates who became delegates with the yellow sheets. The question was were they unassigned alternates?”
The Clinton group decided to challenge the credentials of those on the yellow sheet. Henry asserts the process of seating these people had been used in the past. Bagniewski claims it was never brought up at the meeting the Polk County Democrats held the night before – rather, they were told the only people allowed were those on the master list. Overall, Ucles says there were discrepancies with about 40 delegates, including the “unlisted delegates” and those who may have been incorrectly classified for a certain candidate.
“Because the vote was so close at the beginning, 40 delegates was enough to throw this whole thing into a damn circus,” Ucles says. “It was enough for the campaigns to contest the delegates who were seated in the morning.”
However, the only way to do that was apparently to challenge the credentials of the entire convention. So that set off a process in which all of the attendees had to exit the auditorium. They were then let back in in long lines, where equal groups of Clinton and Sanders supporters checked their names twice against the master list in order to let them back into the room and count.
That process didn’t set well with the Sanders supporters, who believed it was an effort to draw out the process and frustrate the Sanders people.
“What’s more important, a couple delegates or party unity?” asked Henry in criticizing the Clinton group’s move. “That’s what I was upset about at the end of the day. We had a lot of new people there, they were very upset. We felt like we were purposely worn down.”
The Clinton group claimed they were simply trying to ascertain who was actually supposed to be there. But the result from that round of counting only served to aggravate the Sanders group further, as it now put Clinton up over Sanders. What the count was at this point varies based on who you ask. A Clinton person thought it was 527 to 507, a Sanders person believed it was 533 to 516, Clinton leading in both instances. Bleeding Heartland reports that the number reported most on social media at that point was 531 for Clinton, 509 for Sanders.
A handful of the differences in the totals was due to the unlisted alternates being eliminated from contention (Ucles took out five from the Clinton group), which eliminated people from both Sanders and Clinton. Others were caused by the incorrect candidate choice being listed from caucus night. Most of all, Sanders went down in the totals because people simply had to leave as this count wasn’t completed until the early afternoon.
“The whole process took about an hour and a half,” Henry says. “We lost a bunch of people in that process. People were getting angry, frustrated, upset. We probably lost 20 to 25 people.”
Meanwhile, it was realized that the O’Malley group was still in a separate room, awaiting realignment. Six of them pledged their support to Clinton, while three went to Sanders. It’s unclear how the group grew to nine after being listed as eight at the beginning of the day, but both sides agreed to it in order to move on.
Obviously, the Sanders supporters were very unhappy that the delegate total switched to Clinton in the lead after they held the advantage that morning.
There is some contention at this point about how both sides counted their delegates, with the Clinton group using blue cards which the Sanders people say were only supposed to be used for realignment. Who knows what was actually correct here, but both sides eventually got their count.
Finally, the two groups went to Jeff Goetz, the Rules Committee chair, saying they had agreed on the numbers. Goetz, however, refused to accept it, including an attempt to suspend the rules. This video posted on YouTube (misleadingly titled “Dirty Tricks” – everything said in this video matches what both Clinton and Sanders people told Starting Line in interviews) appears to capture this moment early on:
The reasoning behind Goetz’s insistence on doing another full recount appears to be that the recount they conducted when they filed back into the room was to determine what the initial count at the beginning of the day was supposed to be. So they technically never had a realignment period, even though the O’Malley folks indicated where they wanted to go.
“I was asking about suspension of rules so we could just settle it,” says Henry.
The convention was already late into the afternoon at this point and both sides were infuriated with Goetz. Some Sanders supporters accused Goetz, who was a delegate for Clinton, as using this as another method to delay the process and discourage the Sanders group. But Bagniewski was equally aggravated at Goetz’s move. And it ended up hurting Clinton anyway.
“I think the Sanders people went down by 10 votes, we went down by 20 votes,” Bagniewski says. “The idea that this realignment was a Clinton conspiracy, it actually hurt us.”
Around this time the dispute exploded onto social media, with many Sanders backers furious over their loss of votes and the further delays by the county party. The official Bernie Sanders Twitter account even weighed in, claiming the Polk County Democrats and Clinton campaign were attempting to steal delegates from Sanders.
Effort under way right now by @hillaryclinton and party allies to steal Polk County Iowa conv. election Bernie won earlier today.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) March 12, 2016
At this point tempers in both groups were hitting a boiling point in the rooms, with Clinton folks in the school’s cafeteria and the Sanders people in the auditorium.
“The Clinton people had older folks, a lot of handicap folks, a lot of people with special needs,” Ucles says, who had several diabetic attendees ask him where a snack machine was. “They were put in the cafeteria. The cafeteria had very hard seats. The auditorium had very comfortable seats … That created another issue. You had enough elderly Clinton folks, that they became increasingly agitated over a lot of things.”
Shouting broke out between many Clinton delegates and the rules committee, including many of the rules committee members who were delegates for Clinton. Several people report Polk County Democrats chair Tom Henderson being completely missing for part of the proceedings.
Throughout it all, the Sanders side seemed confused as to what was going on as there appeared to be little communication between the Clinton and Sanders groups, and many of the decisions of the Rules Committee was done away from convention attendees.
“It was complete, utter chaos because different people came out at different times and say different counts and no one was really clear on what was happening,” says Jess Mazour, a delegate from the Sanders group. “You didn’t get to know what was happening in the other room with the Clinton supporters because there was no communication.”
During all of this, there were several informal head counts done by both sides for various reasons, which is why social media accounts have people claiming there were five total counts – there appear to have been only three official ones.
Eventually the third official count was done, though there was concern from both sides whether it was accurate. This time the Rules Committee counted the attendees, but did it in a different manner for the Clinton and Sanders groups. The final count turned out to be 511 for Clinton and 503 for Sanders, a much larger loss for Clinton than Sanders. That got both sides incensed at the Rules Committee.
Then things got worse.
The selection of delegates to move onto the state and district conventions for both sides caused a whole new set of issues. The Clinton group finished up their selection of delegates quickly while the Sanders group had way more people than needed say they want to be a delegate. They eventually whittled down who was to become a delegate, but it took a long time. When the Clinton group, many of whom were elderly, tried to reenter the auditorium, they were denied by the Sanders group.
“That’s where everything just went bonkers,” Ucles says.
The Clinton group felt the Sanders folks were intentionally keeping them out of the room in order to stall and get Clinton delegates to go home (though they had been counted at that point). Henry denies that, though he admits they took longer because they were electing people in a more democratic process than the Clinton group carried out. And he noted that the Clinton group had delayed earlier in the day by forcing the credentials check. Many Sanders backers claim they weren’t even aware of the situation.
“I didn’t even think anyone knew that was an issue or anyone wanted to come in,” says Mazour.
“We thought we could just go in, that the Bernie Sanders people were done, that we were the slow ones,” says Ucles. “We went over to the auditorium and the Bernie Sanders people are not done. They’re still calling on each and every person. That process took about two hours.”
After the Sanders groups finished their delegate selection, the two groups reconvened in the auditorium. This was after 7:00 in the evening.
Complicating matters further, Sanders backers say Rules Committee members told them the state delegate split would be 114-114 for Clinton/Sanders.
“The rules committee came over and said, ‘you elect 114,'” says Henry.
But that wasn’t the correct math. 511 people to 503 meant that the delegates split 115 to 113. Sanders supporters says Goetz announced that change to the crowd with no explanation, leading to a massive round of boos and shouts.
Final counts, 5 hours later: pic.twitter.com/Z1h8wg2YON
— ㅤ (@Gretyl) March 13, 2016
For about a half hour the Sanders delegation yelled at the Rules Committee and Polk County Chair Henderson. Mazour called for his resignation in front of the entire auditorium, drawing cheers and applause.
“A lot of people were saying that someone has to be held accountable to fix this process,” she says. “The fact that this is failing at the caucuses and failing at the county… they even told us to expect the same thing at the district convention. The people who are in charge of this process need to either actually fix it or they need to step down and let somebody else do it.”
At one point a younger Sanders supporter stormed the stage to yell at the crowd. Both sides were tired and deeply suspicious of the other. Rumors flew around of lies and cheating.
Finally the day came to an end some time after 8:00 PM, though some in the Sanders group considered not ratifying the delegate count for a while before relenting.
No one left happy.
Opinions varied widely on what the cause of the problems were.
“There were some people that I think were working to make this convention look bad to try to have reason to complain to remove Tom as chair and Tamyra [Harrison] as executive director of the party,” suggest Ucles.
“We were arguing initially about just a handful of delegates. Is it worth that fight?” questions Henry of the initial Clinton challenge that set off the long chain of events. “I put the majority of this on the leadership of the rules committee and the clinton campaign.”
“The biggest problem was the county party was letting people in who weren’t on the master list they provided to both sides,” Bagniewski says, who still believes the second count was the accurate one. “If we had avoided that there would have been no problems at all.”
“I think it was a failure on the Polk County Democratic Party,” says Mazour, who noted that most of the committee members were Clinton delegates. “There were a lot of flaws in the process, and the people who have done this over and over and over again every single presidential election were able to take advantage of the flaws – whether it was intentional or not.”
Scorn was universal for one person: Jeff Goetz, the Rules Committee chair. From everyone that Starting Line spoke with (including 15 not quoted in this article), there was clearly a serious mismanagement on communications issues from the county party and, in particular, Goetz. Neither side was completely sure what was happening and many claimed they made unilateral – and possibly incorrect – decisions behind closed doors. Much of the chaos and hard feelings likely could have been avoided had the party leaders had a little better political sensibilities and kept the attendees informed of the process and explained why things were happening the way they were. There also appeared to be a serious lack of leadership that no one was able to take control of the situation and keep tensions from boiling over.
Others harshly criticized Henderson’s leadership in the affair, and many predicted there would be further calls for his resignation in the days ahead. The campaigns are also looking into barring those leading the committees that caused the problems in Polk County from running anything during the 3rd District convention.
Still, Mazour points out that the Sanders folks have something to celebrate even if they did lose people over the day.
“We did come out better than we started with [from caucus night],” she says. “So no matter what happened it was a victory.”
But everyone worries about what harm it will do to Democrats in the largest county in the state moving forward. This was the first introduction for many new Democrats to their county party. What they saw was a complete shit show. Several Sanders backers commented on social media that they wouldn’t participate again and only felt more animosity toward Clinton after the day was over.
“The saddest thing is I don’t know how much work it’s going to take to bring both sides together again,” Bagniewski laments. “The Clinton folks think they were barricaded out of the convention. Bernie folks think that tactical plays were being made to sway the convention … It was a lot of drama and that’s not good when we’re trying to go up against Donald Trump in the fall.”
by Pat Rynard