Open Letter To County Chairs: Stay Neutral In The Caucus

A guest post from Jeremy Dumkrieger, chair of the Woodbury County Democrats

Dear Democratic Party Chairs of Iowa,

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate to attend a round table meeting with Beto O’Rourke. Afterward, my inner caucus nerd came out and asked if he would sign my “Beto for Senate” button; he did so graciously. I put it on my lapel to keep it safe and headed upstairs to join the rally. On the way, I bumped into a good Democrat who saw the button and expressed shock saying, “You’re sure as hell not endorsing…?”  I explained my button collection and he ended it with, “Good, we’ve had enough trouble with that shit.”

As a Democrat in Iowa, I can’t lie and say I don’t have my favorites among the candidates running for President. I do. Yet, because of my role as Chair of the Woodbury County Democrats, I have the responsibility to lead an even-handed mechanism for those folks running for president.

More importantly, I must keep the faith of those choosing our nominee, the people who elected me, the Democrats of Woodbury County. They expect the caucus to work for everyone and each expects their leader to refrain from allowing personal beliefs to conflict with the system.

I do not believe county chairs should endorse presidential candidates. To build that trust, I will not be endorsing anyone for President.

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What Is There To Gain From Making An Endorsement?   

Iowa Democratic Party Chairs have one of the most important political jobs in the country this cycle. As elected officials, we must set the tone for choosing our nominee. If we endorse a candidate, local Dems may head into caucus night believing our thumbs are on the scale. No matter the winner, the party will lose.

If we get this caucus wrong, the consequences are dire and losing our status as first in the nation will be the least of our problems. (We could return Donald Trump to the White House for another four years.) If we are unified, transparent, and fair, few will be able to question our caucus process. We cannot risk confirming the fears that we are anything but fair and we cannot justify false beliefs that outcomes are predetermined because chairs have an opinion to share.

Additionally, we must protect the integrity of the caucus because we need it to renew and rebuild our county parties at every level. Our neighborhood organizing and our local elections all depend on a smooth trustworthy caucus to build confidence. Endorsing a candidate for President could damage our ability to draw good faith from lifelong members and could alienate new Democrats interested in becoming long-term activists.

Do I believe a chair can endorse someone and be even-handed? Yes, but this is politics, and perception is everything.

Mistakes Become Sinister Deeds

I’m not perfect; I make mistakes. I’m notorious for listing the wrong month; if it’s April, I’ll write May; if it’s May, I’ll write June. I can’t text or post without making typos. (I have stumps for thumbs.) I probably cause a lot of eye rolls but no one thinks these minor mistakes have sinister undertones.

Imagine I have endorsed a candidate. As chair, I am constantly being asked by campaigns to inform the public and get folks to their events. What if I bungled one of these requests? What if I sent the Woodbury Dems the wrong information and confused everyone about when and where this event was happening? Would it look like a mistake or could it lead people to think I may have misled people on purpose?

Opinions will vary, but odds are my dumb mistake just became a sinister deed in the eyes of that campaign. I would rather people think I have stumpy thumbs than think I was a petty and small man.

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You’ll Lose Trust

Local Democrats are going to be divided on who they will want as their nominee and that’s great. It takes a village of voices to make a choir but they will need one person in their local party to turn to for help and advice in organizing and support.

Here in Sioux City, folks will likely have dozens of campaign staffers to turn to but this isn’t the case across Iowa. For many, the county chair will be the main contact for caucus questions. They must trust you will help them without prejudice.

Would a first-time caucus volunteer be likely to ask questions about how to best host a house party for Julian Castro if their party chair endorsed another candidate? I wouldn’t have made that ask; it’s not welcoming. In fact, it’s intimidating. Our job is to build the party and that means sacrificing your public opinion on who should be our nominee for President.

It’s Awkward… I Know…

This is where I admit hypocrisy. During the 2018 primary, I endorsed J.D. Scholten for Congress. I dragged my feet about it because I constantly preached my belief in neutrality by county and district chairs, especially after all the perceptions of the 2016 race. Eventually, I endorsed Scholten; after all, he and I have a shared history. He was the hometown kid, he was on the WCDP Central Committee, we both went to Morningside College, I was an RA in his dorm, and I had even worked with his baseball team as one my work-study jobs.

I don’t regret supporting J.D., but I can tell you it was uncomfortable at times. I worry that Leann Jacobson, John Paschen and/or their supporters believe I was anything but equitable. I was upright, but as I wrote above, perception is everything.

What Can You Do Instead Of Endorsing?

Campaign staffers across the early voting states are joining hands and declaring each other friends. They call it #friendship2020. They are posting photos together using the hashtag to point out they are in this together. Even the candidates are taking photos with one another on the trail; it’s great. These staffers know what is at stake and we, as county chairs, must follow their example and be a part of ending that cycle of divisiveness.

In that spirit, I will be sending out invitations to all our local campaign staffers to join me for a BBQ in the coming weeks. We are going to come together to get to know one another and work to make sure we can avoid any traps that will harm our momentum going forward. I hope to create goodwill and trust while encouraging good-natured competition. We owe that to one another, to the candidates we serve, and to the caucus goers we represent.

Eventually, the campaigns will coalesce around one nominee and we will need that friendship and the faith in our collective leadership to create the greatest grassroots campaign in our history. We, as party chairs, must do everything in our power to prevent bad blood.  I will start by not endorsing a candidate for President … and having a BBQ.


by Jeremy Dumkrieger
Woodbury County Democrats chair
Posted 4/30/19

4 Comments on "Open Letter To County Chairs: Stay Neutral In The Caucus"

  • Jeremy – I agree completely. When I was Woodbury Dems chair, I went to every candidate event, sometimes introducing the candidate. But I kept it to myself who I was backing until I declared on Caucus night. I thought it was the only way to be fair to EVERY candidate and campaign, and the only way to keep the local Democratic Party together. It worked well for me — and I got to go to a LOT of really fun and interesting events.

  • As a county chair I endorsed presidential candidates in the Iowa Caucus. If a county chair wants to remain neutral – so be it but that’s only one school of thought. Those county chairs who step up and put their good name on the line by endorsing someone are merely exercising their executive leadership. I don’t want to see county chairs disenfranchised by having to remain neutral. Am a lot more concerned about shenanigans at the DNC after what happened to Sen. Sanders in 2016. Need more transparency at the DNC level and am glad to see changes at the superdelegate level. A county chair who has endorsed another candidate can and should attend events in their county for all presidential candidates.

  • In addition to endorsing, it seems completely bias and a conflict of interest when a County Chair or Vice Chair or any board member gets hired on to work as a paid staffer for one of the campaigns. There is a direct financial link from the campaign to the county member staffer to sway influence in their favor, including being privy to organizing events, speaking to other campaigns in a non-neutral capacity, and always having that staffer available as a representative surrogate to advocate on the campaigns behalf.

    If someone who works at the State IDP cannot concurrently endorse nor take a job with any of the campaigns, then the County Dem groups should also be under the same regulations. To allow each of the 99 counties to make up their own rules regarding how its leadership will be connected to a campaign either by endorsement and/or paid employment, seems like a slap in the face to the constituents of that county.

    As a volunteer for one of the presidential candidates, my heart felt personally crushed when I finally met some of the dem county board members in person at an event our candidates were all invited to speak at and the County Dem chairs were wearing the hat or shirt of another presidential candidate. This does not look like neutrality after we were just on the phone or emailing the past several weeks to finalize attendance of the event. It was never disclosed openly that so and so work for this other candidate. Just doesn’t seem fair.

    • If you don’t like the idea of a county chair endorsing a presidential candidate for the Iowa Caucus I would encourage you to join your county’s central committee and work to get things changed. I’m on the other side of this issue as I don’t want to see county chairs disenfranchised for the Iowa Caucus. Back in my county chair days I proudly endorsed Gary Hart for president while the unions anointed former VP Walter Mondale as their candidate. Fritz ended up losing 49 states while I urged Iowans to support Gary claiming Mondale was unelectable. Flash forward to 2019 and I see another candidate whose resume is similar to Mondale’s and the union bosses are already repeating their same mistakes.

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