The Alabama Democratic Party was once a powerful force in Alabama politics. As recently as the 80s it had an unbreakable hold on the state’s politics, and as recently as 2010, Democrats held the majority in both the State House and the State Senate.
However, in 2018, Democrats lost every statewide race by about 20 points. They lost ground in both the State House and the State Senate – and they were already a super minority. Across the state, more than 70 seats flipped from Democrat to Republican.
How did what was once such a mighty force in the state’s politics become so irrelevant? A lot of it can be explained by national trends. The state has been trending red since the 60s – voters in Alabama stopped voting for Democrats for the presidency immediately after the Democrats immediately after they signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, save for one election. The national party was seen as to the left on social issues like segregation, but politics weren’t nearly as nationalized as they are today. So folks would vote for the good ole boy, blue dog Democrats for their State Representative, State Senator, and even for governor. Gradually though, everything became more and more national, and finally, it became extremely difficult to win an election under the same banner as the first black president.
We would be remiss if we let this explain the entirety of the problem, however. In addition to the changing party platforms and national trends, Alabama Democrats faced issues that exacerbated these woes. The party has been mismanaged for years, failing on even the most basic functions of a state party. They haven’t been soliciting donations, they have no social media presence, they provide no infrastructural support to candidates, and even let the license on their website lapse.
In 2017, Doug Jones won after essentially creating an infrastructure all on his own, with next to no help from the state party. This win, coupled with the shock of the Trump presidency, rallied many Democrats in the state to act, and many ran for party leadership for the first time.
The current leadership of the state party was re-elected in 2018, though the discrepancies have been a source of contention in the party ever since. The infighting was so intense, and the fraud so clear (50 votes out of the 192 cast in the election for leadership were unaccounted for – only 142 party members signed in, among other issues) that the national party stepped in to order the creation of new bylaws and a new election. The current leadership stalled for so long, missing multiple deadlines in the process, even forcing the national party to strip the state of its $10,000 monthly funding, that the membership called their own meeting a couple of weeks ago, there ratifying a new set of bylaws. The current leadership and their supporters were not present.
I met with Matthew Brown, the youngest, but also one of the most active, members of the state party to discuss the past two meetings of the party, the leadership’s attempt to make the first illegitimate, how everything came together, his hopes and what this could mean for the party moving forward.
The meeting of the SDEC on the 5th, notably called by the membership and not the leaders, has been a long time coming. Can you quickly run us through what got us to this point?
In August of 2018, we held a meeting where Nancy Worley and Randy Kelley were both re-elected as well as the rest of the executive board. African American at-large members were added to the committee – no other groups received at large members.
There was a challenge filed against that meeting stating that there was not a valid credentialing process. When at large members were added they did not go out and sign in and get their credentials. There was no way to know – the challenge said and the DNC agreed – for sure who was voting, that they were actually those at large members. Some didn’t sign anything certifying that they were who they were supposed to be, some did. Most did not, around 30 or 40. They were not instructed to, so only those who knew ahead of time that they were supposed to sign in actually signed in. That is quite something to think about if you are not instructed to, so I don’t think there was any ill will, it’s just something that wasn’t, information wasn’t given.
Anyway, fast forward, nothing happens. The DNC says we need to hold new elections, the DNC says we need to include more people in the committee, nothing happens. Finally, Tabitha Isner, who is running for chair, who I am supporting, said, you know what, enough is enough, I’m going to organize a committee to call a meeting on the 12th. As soon as she did that and it looked like she had the votes, Nancy Worley said, alright, I’ll call the meeting on the 12th, and in doing that she could ensure that she was in control of the meeting. After she did that, right after she did that, Senator Jones got a group together and he got the signatures for a meeting on the 5th. So that’s how we got to the 5th meeting and the 12th meeting.
So then, there have been two meetings of the party in the past three weeks. Could you tell us what happened at each?
At the first meeting, we voted on new bylaws that were pre-approved by the DNC rules and bylaws committee. We also voted to hold another meeting of the SDEC on the 2nd of November.
At the second meeting, they filled vacancies, both at large and geographical. We filled vacancies, well I wasn’t part of the at large vacancy vote but I was part of the geographical vacancy vote. We voted on a different set of bylaws that were said at the time by the chair to have passed, although there is some question over whether they actually had the number of votes that was said. A number of us who counted came up with a really different number than was read off. There is also some question as to whether they really needed two thirds, because it looks like what they were doing was rescinding what was done at the last meeting, and a recension requires two thirds instead of a majority and they certainly did not have two thirds. Regardless they were said to have passed, and the last thing that was done, that was definitely done, is the committee voted to cancel the meeting on the 2nd. That vote definitely passed and the vacancies were definitely filled. Although the DNC suggested that we don’t, there was nothing in our bylaws that precluded us from filling those vacancies.
I was originally going to ask if the current leadership is planning on participating in the meeting on November 2 scheduled by the membership to hold elections. But that meeting has been canceled. What do you think the ramifications are of that and when are the new elections scheduled to be held?
So Senator Jones’ team that was pushing for the meeting on the second and the Senator has been silent about what is going to happen. It has clearly been canceled, I don’t think there is an argument that it hasn’t been canceled.
Nancy said that she planned to call a meeting on the 16th, but there was no vote on that. So she could call a meeting on the 16th, or she could decide she is not going to do that anymore. There is no action that the committee took or that she took at that meeting to guarantee there will be a meeting on the 16th. Really we don’t know right now, other than that we probably aren’t having a meeting on the second unless we organize another call and get signatures again.
What do you think the ramifications are of not holding new leadership elections by the second or even at the later date proposed by Worley, the 16th? What happens if no election meeting is called?
Well, the first thing that happens is we don’t get delegates at the 2020 Democratic Presidential Nomination Convention. The DNC has made that pretty clear.
Also, I think there would be grounds for a challenge to the legitimacy of the state party. This could have implications for qualifying candidates and having candidates appear on the ballot in the general election.
If nothing is done on the 16th or announced by the 16th, I think it is likely that we might be waiting until 2022 when we elect a new committee to hold these leadership elections.
So you think it is possible, not only that we lose our delegates to the 2020 Democratic Presidential Nomination Convention, but also that it’s possible we could have issues qualifying our own candidates at the state level?
Yes, and the latter is the part that really concerns me. If we don’t have access to the ballot then that means that Ella Bell and Terry Sewell and Doug Jones lose by default. There is no competition and those seats are gone. That’s just absolutely unacceptable. I don’t know what the Secretary of State is going to do, but I think there is room for that challenge if we don’t act.
You support Tabitha Isner for the party chair. Why should other party members vote for her, and specifically her over Worley?
Well, I think her over anybody. The reason is, Tabitha has broad support as I’ve never seen before. She has support from ADC members, she has support from ADRC members, black, white, young, old. I’ve never seen anything like it in the SDEC. Her broad coalition is what we’re going to need to pull this party together.
Let’s face it, we couldn’t be more divided, and the longer this draws out, that’s not going to help us. Her broad support and her background in ministry are perfect for bringing people together, and that’s the number one challenge.
The number two thing is, she has proven that she knows how to raise money. Like it or not, campaigns are all about money. We had incredible candidates like Amy Wasyluka, Caroline Self, Johnny Mack Morrow, Felicia Stewart, Terry Jones, Jim Timmy, Kyle Pierce, all of whom I think could’ve won if they would’ve had some serious funds invested in their races right before the election. That’s the thing a party can do, and that’s the thing a coordinated ground game can do. Our turnout numbers in Montgomery, in the black belt, were pitiful. Many of those counties in the black belt trended towards Republicans in 2018 when just about every other county in the state trended towards Democrats. The problem is the local infrastructure in many cases isn’t there, and that’s why you have to have a state infrastructure going in and investing. Once we have money, we can do all these things, and I think Tabitha can bring in the money, she can hire the staff, but most importantly she can bring people together.
My understanding is that the party had almost a million dollars in the bank in 2018 and didn’t spend any of it. Is that true?
Supposedly. That’s what the filings say, that’s not what the chair says – she claims we have some debt somewhere, but that’s certainly not reflected in what I’ve seen, what she has filed with the Secretary of State.
I think the reason a lot of that money was saved is there was no expectation of any fundraising, and that expectation is true! She hasn’t raised any money, no one has raised any money for the party, so I think the expectation is that we are going to need to hold on to this money to spend to keep our building operating. That is no way to operate a party. We’ve got to be raising money and investing in candidates. It’s dishonest to the candidates – when a candidate pays qualifying fees, the expectation is that they are paying for the party to be there to support them on the other side should they get the nomination. When that is not the case that is unfair and it’s cheating our candidates.
Do you see a path to the election of Tabitha Isner at this point? The membership called for a meeting on the second and that’s been canceled. There’s been no official action on a meeting for a leadership election. What do you see as the path forward to an election and to a Tabitha Isner victory?
So as far as the votes are concerned, if Tabitha didn’t have the votes, we would’ve already had the election. The fact that we haven’t had the election, that Nancy has moved so slowly, is frankly as strong an indication as any that she simply doesn’t have the votes to hold onto her position. So if we have an election, whatever date it is, I am very confident that Tabitha will be elected chair.
I’d like to see what Senator Jones has to say about this because he has been so involved with the DNC as far as these deadlines have been concerned, I’d also like to see what the DNC has to say about this, but if Nancy doesn’t call for a meeting on the 16th and we haven’t had a meeting by the 16th I think the next step is another member called meeting. We got the signatures for that once I’m sure we can get the signatures again.
Dr, Reed said, when there was a lot of debate going on last year when we met in August, it was going on and on, he finally got up and said you know what let’s just vote. What’s the point of all this? I kind of channel that sentiment now – let’s just vote. Let’s vote. There is no point dragging this on, what’s gonna happen is gonna happen, but what’s going on now only puts us at a disadvantage.
Let’s say everything goes well. The Alabama Democrats, come the end of November, have new leadership, new bylaws, and a hopeful base. What happens from here? What are your hopes from a Tabitha Isner led Alabama Democratic Party?
Step 1 is bringing the party together. Tabitha has suggested, and I think it’s a wonderful idea, to do a report and an investigation into the history of the Alabama Democratic Party. There are a lot of stories that explain a lot of the concern from members on the SDEC that are very valid, that frankly a lot of the white members haven’t heard and aren’t aware of. And I think that project is so important for us coming together and being on the same page and understanding where we’ve come from.
After that, I think it’s super important that we have a coordinated ground game. I don’t know if we have time to get it together by 2020 because it’s a lot of hiring, but at least by 2022, for those statewide elections, and the state house and senate elections, and the US house and senate elections, that’s going to be critical. It’s going to be critical to have a coordinated ground game and that’s something the party can absolutely do once we raise the money. That’s the other thing – she has already been out there talking to people. She is going to have a lot of money coming in and working very hard for that.
Do you have any closing thoughts on the state of the party, what you hope for the party?
I think the party, as I’ve said, is so deeply divided. I think anything that gets us to a better place, that has to be the first consideration. As much as we want our side to win, we have to make that a priority, an intentional priority.
This interview was conducted in mid-October. Since then, there have been some changes to the facts. I sent the following addendum question and received the following response.
When last we spoke, it seemed that the meeting on November 2nd was canceled. The party seems to be moving forward on that meeting, despite the cancellation, at the urging of the DNC. Can you tell us what makes this meeting legitimate, given that a meeting of the SDEC canceled it?
The DNC has invalidated all actions taken by the SDEC on October 12th, including the cancellation of the meeting on the second and the bylaws. The bylaws passed on the 5th are, as a result, still in effect. The DNC has made it as if the 12th never happened.
Therefore, due to the actions taken by the DNC, the meeting on the 2nd is on and every member of the committee should be there and be prepared to operate under the bylaws ratified at the October 5th meeting.
This interview has been lightly edited for readability and length.