The Democratic National Committee’s Fall Meeting had some consequential matters on its agenda. At the meeting, members would elect 75 “at-large” DNC members that had been put forward as a slate by new DNC Chair Jaime Harrison. DNC members’ responsibilities include helping to set the rules for the 2024 presidential nominating convention and potentially serving long beyond.
Almost no one knew about the Oct. 9 virtual meeting, though. The agenda and the YouTube livestream link were not shared by the DNC’s widely-followed social media accounts; rather, they were only mentioned publicly in a news release a couple of days beforehand on the website of DNC member Frank Leone.
Hundreds of national DNC members who had been elected by their state parties had little agency in the proceedings. The rules for the election and the names of the slate of at-large candidates were only emailed to members the weekend before, leaving no time for DNC members to recruit any alternate candidates. DNC members were not allowed to vote on the at-large members individually, which had been a reform requested in a letter to party leadership that was sent by a group of 40 DNC members after the November election, meaning that all 75 of Harrison’s nominees were sure to be approved.
Harrison’s slate of “at-large” members included a number of lobbyists for companies that lobby against the Democrats’ agenda. Harrison, a former Hill lobbyist for a long list of corporate clients, had—like his predecessor as chair Tom Perez—booted several prominent reformers, this time including Dr. James Zogby, the leading advocate for financial transparency and accountability measures in the DNC, and Michelle Deatrick, chair of the Environmental Council, by not renominating them as at-large members.
Several of the at-large members put forward by Harrison went on to join top party committees, whose decision-making is little-scrutinized. Eleven of them were appointed to the DNC Executive Committee, as set out in the party bylaws, and others were appointed to standing committees such as Rules and Bylaws and Budget and Finance. Through such appointments, the power to assign and review multimillion dollar contracts was at stake, including to party vendors like law firm Perkins Coie and communications shop Bully Pulpit Interactive that keep much larger corporate practices. In the 2020 election cycle, the DNC raised nearly $493 million and spent over $462 million, according to OpenSecrets.
Some of the lobbyists and executives tapped by Harrison last year include:
- Marcus Mason, a lobbyist for clients including Fox Corporation, private equity firms Cerberus and Carlyle Group, and student loan company Navient, who joined the Budget and Finance Committee.
- Nicole Isaac, director of international strategic response at Facebook, who joined the Budget and Finance Committee, which is charged with approving party expenditures over $100,000, reviewing the budget on an on-going basis, and making periodic reports.
- Kenny Thompson, vice president of external affairs, North America at PepsiCo, a member company of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who joined the Rules and Bylaws Committee.
- Tonya Williams, head of external engagement & corporate responsibility at SoftBank Group, who joined the Rules and Bylaws Committee, which deals with amendments to the charter of the Democratic Party.
Before the vote on the at-large slate, some members raised objections to the meeting procedures, but the DNC parliamentarian ruled them out of order. A motion to suspend the rules and vote on Harrison’s nominees succeeded, and shortly after 2 hours and 55 minutes into the meeting, the vote result came back 304 in favor to 59 against. Subsequent votes overwhelmingly approved the DNC committee nominees.
In the weeks afterward, the official DNC social media channels did not share roll call results for the vote, meaning that the public initially had no way of knowing which corporate lobbyists had voted to augment their ranks. As Sludge has covered, many influential DNC members and party insiders work as corporate consultants, lobbyists, or investors, with little accountability for members in how party leadership enforces the ethics guidance of the DNC bylaws—a private corporation, and not a membership group or nonprofit organization.
On Nov. 23, DNC member Michael Kapp of California, who has raised reforms that would increase accountability to the party’s grassroots and pursued greater transparency practices within the California and national party, sent an email to his newsletter list linking to a document provided by the DNC with roll calls from the Fall Meeting. (The at-large vote begins on page 71 with its total on page 84.) At-large members who were renominated were allowed to vote on the slate of at-large members including themselves, as specifically allowed in the DNC Bylaws.
The DNC members who voted to approve Harrison’s at-large slate and add members with corporate ties include:
- Tonio Burgos, a registered lobbyist last year for New York Presbyterian Hospital and others, whose firm’s lobbying clients included Greater New York Hospital Association and insurance company AmeriFlex. Burgos, a former fossil fuel industry lobbyist, is a prominent DNC member from New Jersey, also active in the New York party.
- Joanne Dowdell, a lobbyist and senior vice president of global government affairs for News Corporation. Dowdell is an at-large member.
- Former lobbyist and at-large member Harold Ickes, co-founder of the Ickes and Enright Group, whose lobbying clients last year included New York’s largest healthcare provider Northwell Health and the Greater New York Hospital Association.
- Former lobbyist and House member Tony Coelho, whose clients have included electric company Edison International.
- Former lobbyist and at-large member Lotttie Shackelford, whose clients included a Big Banks industry coalition and who lobbied regarding oil and gas company taxes.
- James Roosevelt, the longtime co-chair of the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee and the chair of the Policy and Regulatory Committee for powerful industry group America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP).
- Corporate consultant, former DNC chair, and at-large member, Donna Brazile, who was recently a Fox News contributor from 2019-2021.
- Maria Cardona, an at-large member and principal at political consulting firm Dewey Square Group, whose corporate clients have included Lyft and McDonald’s. Cardona was appointed to the Rules and Bylaws Committee, and co-chaired a contentious meeting of the 2020 Convention Rules Committee. Her past lobbying clients include AT&T and Countrywide.
- Corporate consultant and at-large member Rev. Leah Daughtry.
- Gus Bickford, chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, who apologized last year for his role in helping a smear campaign against progressive candidate Alex Morse in his primary challenge to House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal.
- Carol Fowler, vice chair of the Columbia Metropolitan Airport commission.
- Minyon Moore, an at-large member and principal at Dewey Square Group and a member of the DNC Executive Committee. Dewey Square was retained by the health insurance industry during the Obamacare debate to undermine reforms and by the big banks to roll back Dodd-Frank’s financial reforms.
- Belkis (Bel) W. Leong-Hong, whose corporate consulting clients have included GE Capital Financial and Lockheed Martin.
- Scott Brennan, a Des Moines attorney whose firm DavisBrown announced a combination with Dentons, the world’s largest law firm, in December 2020. Dentons’ corporate practice includes financial services, private equity, and insurance.
- Bill Owen, a DNC member from Tennessee and a health care industry lobbyist who pushed for a brokered presidential convention early in 2020 in what many saw as an attempt to hinder the momentum of the campaign of progressive Bernie Sanders. Owen donated nearly $32,000 to federal Republican candidates and committees from 2018 to May 2020, including to the campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz.
Other DNC members who voted “yes” on Harrison’s slate included the following: Chris Korge, the DNC’s national finance chairman; Jay Jacobs, chair of the New York State Democratic Committee and an ally of former governor Andrew Cuomo; and Christopher Lowe, deputy national finance chair, who has worked for a decade as chief investment officer at SteelRiver Infrastructure Partners. Lowe’s LinkedIn profile shows that he recently became managing member of a New York City company named MH33 Consulting.
“While the overall result was disappointing, it was not surprising,” Michael Kapp, who chairs the DNC Youth Council, said of the at-large vote. “It won’t deter the efforts of pro-reform DNC members who are organizing to make the Democratic Party stronger and more responsive and transparent. This year, there were ten times as many ‘no’ votes against these appointments than there were on the same vote four years ago. That’s a testament to the better organization, and the increasing ranks, of pro-reform activists on the DNC.”
In addition to Zogby, who is founder and president of the Arab American Institute, and Deatrick, a policy analyst who served as a Washtenaw County county commissioner, Harrison did not renominate the first Black trans woman to serve on the DNC, Dr. Marisa Richmond of Tennessee, or the first DREAMer member, Ellie Pérez of Arizona.
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