This is an adaptation of an editorial written by Zoe Dunning.
Why do candidates and proponents of ballot initiatives care so much about endorsements? Why does the statement, “endorsed by the San Mateo County Democratic Party,” carry any weight?
What does a Democratic Club do?
A group of Democrats with similar priorities interview candidates to see if their values match. As priorities line up the field narrows; this process includes lengthy endorsement questionnaires and interviews. Once candidates are endorsed, club members get on with the work of grassroots organizing in an effort to transform candidates into elected representatives with the power to turn shared values and priorities into public policy.
Many clubs focus on specific causes as indicated by the names of the following clubs: Coastside Democrats, Latina/o Democrats, Stonewall Democrats, and Peninsula Young Democrats. The point is that the club attempts to represent the interests of their stated constituency, and uses those interests as a litmus test for endorsing candidates or doing grassroots activism for specific causes.
Endorsements, money for slate card printing and postage, and setting up a field organization to distribute literature are the primary ways democratic clubs influence elections. Not all clubs are created equal, though.
Some are able to raise funds and to distribute multiple mail pieces for their endorsed candidates. The San Mateo County Democratic Party, for example, raises money through its annual Forth of July Picnic and other events. Other clubs may endorse, but may have less means to get the word out to help their candidates. For these reasons, the San Mateo County Democratic Party (DCC), is the best funded and most recognizable endorsement body in the county, and arguably the most coveted endorsements in the county. That is why this year’s DCC race is competitive: 31 candidates, including 4 current elected officials, are running for 22 seats.
Clubs do not stay stagnant. Some clubs swing between support for more moderate to more progressive candidates, and vice versa, depending on who their officers or new members are in any year. Clubs can sometime get taken over when supporters for a particular candidate “pack” a club’s membership and swing it. For example, the Coastside Democrats were fairly moderate, then swung slightly more progressive at the May 2014 membership meeting when a new board president was elected. This change in leadership was brought on by a perception that the five-term president was insensitive to local issues, overly moderate, and preferred labor over environmental issues. A packed room voted in a new president who promised to prioritize progressive values and environmental issues.
A club’s susceptibility to getting packed depends on the club’s bylaws, and their criteria for becoming a member and voting on endorsements. For some, you can join the day of the election and vote on their endorsements. Others have a waiting time, or a requirement to attend a certain number of meetings or events before becoming eligible. Others have residency requirements (must be a registered democrat in a geographic area). In many ways it mirrors our country’s crazy quilt of primaries and caucuses with varying rules for Presidential candidates.
Candidates seeking Democratic endorsements must be responsive to questionnaires from multiple clubs with varying rules. In a crowded field, like this year’s DCC race, it is important to raise money and secure as many endorsements as possible.
When you see that a Democratic club has endorsed a candidate, you should know they have typically gone through a fairly rigorous process of questionnaires, interviews and club meetings to secure that endorsement. In San Mateo County, every endorsement and every vote count.
Zoe Dunning wrote this editorial about the San Francisco Democratic Party (represented by the DCCC) and Sabrina Brennan adapted it for the San Mateo County Democratic Party (represented by the DCC). Ms. Dunning is a retired Navy Commander and a lead activist in the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. She served as Co-Chair of the Board of Directors for the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club. She currently serves as the First Vice Chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party and as a San Francisco Library Commissioner.