Feeling Berned

By Melissa Davlin

Two years after the Republican State Convention imploded in Moscow, Gem State Democrats are seeing a similar split in their party.

And while the infighting isn’t yet on the same level, it has the same origins: New party members who aren’t afraid to ruffle feathers for their convictions.

The disconnect between grassroots Bernie Sanders supporters and rank-and-file Idaho Democrats grew wider at the party’s state convention on Friday. During public hearings at Boise’s Riverside Hotel, Bernie-ites passionately testified about standing up for their ideology. Those working on tight legislative races warily welcomed the newcomers while worrying that proposed issue statements on controversial topics — such as drug decriminalization — would jeopardize their candidates and hand even more seats to Republicans in November’s general election.

Democrats united on Saturday to nearly unanimously pass a new platform — one-upping Republicans, whose civil war has prevented them from changing the platform they adopted in 2012. But for a while on Friday, Democrats risked suffering the same fate. 

One proposed resolution, a hodgepodge collection of demands directed at Congress, included ending Citizens United, ending voter suppression, implementing single-payer health care for all citizens, and decriminalizing all drugs.

Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, argued against adopting the resolution as it might hurt some Democratic legislative candidates.

“They are running in razor-thin districts,” Rubel said, pointing out District 18 seat A was once won by seven votes. “If we hang around their neck this statement that the Democratic Party wants to sell your kids meth… it is a losing message in every one of our tight districts,” she said as a handful in the audience started booing.

Party leaders postponed nonessential convention activities, like candidate trainings and panel discussions, partly to ensure there were enough votes in the room to shut down controversial proposals.

Those efforts weren’t enough. The contested resolution passed after attendees removed mention of drug decriminalization and added new language instructing lawmakers to work toward implementing Sanders’ campaign platform in Idaho.

During the confusion over procedural technicalities, attendees circled the room, murmuring “Democracy is messy,” and “Isn’t this fun?” with strained smiles.

The frustration between the two groups simmered under the surface over the course of the convention. Some Sanders supporters used the phrase “Republican-light” to describe those opposed to pursuing more Sanders issues, and old school Democrats defended the work they’d done over the course of decades.

“I am as far from Republican-light as you can get,” Rubel said. “I’ve been marching in pride parades since I was a young teenager.”

REMINDERS OF GOP IN 2014

The tension echoed the meltdown at the 2014 Idaho Republican State Convention, though the frustration and emotion from the Democrats didn’t reach the same level. (“Republican-light” was the worst pejorative this reporter heard at the Dem convention. Fed-up Republicans used much stronger language in 2014.)

Part of the discord within Idaho’s GOP ranks stems from grassroots Tea Party activists and Ron Paul supporters becoming more involved with the party between 2008 and 2010. Much like today’s Bernie supporters, those Ron Paul fans turned their passion for their candidate into passion for change.

Previously, Republican party leaders struggled to get enough people to run for precinct committeeman races, or all but ignored them. This year, competitive precinct races across the state attracted attention from shadow political action organizations. Even Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s political action committee got involved in a handful of races.

And while Republicans nationwide fret over how Donald Trump might affect down-ticket races, Idaho Democrats have the same concern with Bernie supporters.

Jake Ellis, who is challenging GOP Rep. Patrick McDonald in Ada County’s legislative district 15, was diplomatic in his response to the Sanders’ supporters passion. Still, he was concerned about the consequences of the resolution that passed, especially because he wasn’t a delegate and couldn’t vote.

“I have to respond to the platform, whether or not it reflects what I think,” Ellis said.

‘BERNIE’S CHANGED A LOT’

Convention participants of all ages wearing Bernie shirts and sporting “Feel the Bern” pins filled the Riverside Hotel. Most who spoke to Idaho Reports said they hadn’t been involved with the Idaho Democratic Party until recently, but had voted and participated in protests.

“I’m seeing a lot of people from Occupy,” said Ada County delegate and Sanders supporter Matt Barbee.

Would the Bernie supporters stick around in coming years to run for office and help with campaigns? Perhaps, Barbee said, though he acknowledged some didn’t realize how much work it might be, or were annoyed at the parliamentary procedures getting in the way of their debates.

But far from being discouraged by the messiness and confusion, Barbee said he was eager to get more involved in the party. “It makes me excited,” he said. “Bernie’s changed a lot.”

That doesn’t mean all Idaho Democrats welcome that change.

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