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Choosing a Vice Chairman & Gender Equality at the DNC

by Jo Freeman


Lost in the news stories on the election of former Presidential candidate Howard Dean as the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) was an actual contested election for some of the Vice-Chair positions. 

Before the votes were counted, the winter meeting of the DNC saw all the hoopla and excitement that hasn't been seen at presidential nominating conventions in decades.

Despite the fact that Vice Chairperson of the DNC is an unpaid position, four men and five women mobilized their supporters, told caucus meetings their plans for Democratic victory, passed out campaign literature and buttons, and generally acted as though being one of five Vice-Chairs of the DNC was a very important job.  A roll call vote on the last day of the meeting decided the winners.

The Democratic Party Charter, adopted in 1974, requires equal division by sex of the National Committee and its officers.   Almost equal division on the DNC, but not among the officers who exercise what power there is, has been required since the 1920 Democratic Convention.  When the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution gave women equal suffrage with men, the Democrats authorized each state party to send one woman as well as one man to sit on the National Committee.  This rule did not apply to the territories, which continued to send one person (hence it was almost equal division).  A tradition devloped of having at least one woman Vice-Chair, though the total number varied as the rules were changed.  When the Charter expanded the DNC to represent Democratic voters and not just states, equal division became the rule for officers.


This means that three of the five Vice-Chairs must be of the opposite sex of the Chairperson. Two of these five seats are reserved; one for the President of the Association of State Democratic Chairs, chosen separately by that body, and one with specific responsibility for Voter Registration and Participation, voted on separately by the DNC.

Although at least one woman — Donna Brazile — was talked about for DNC chair, by the time the DNC winter meeting was held in Washington, DC on Feb. 10-12, all candidates for the top office had dropped out except Howard Dean.  In order to get the 447 votes of the DNC members Dean had to promise that he would not be a candidate for President in 2008, and not use the chairmanship to keep himself in the public eye for that purpose.  Even though he won election by acclamation, he still spoke at the various caucus and other meetings during the DNC meeting as though he were running for something.

But the real campaigning was done by the candidates for the three open slots for Vice Chairperson.  Since Dean was male, and the unopposed candidates for the two designated V-C positions were one male and one female, DNC members were instructed to vote for no more and no less than one man and two women for the remaining positions.

Officially, four men fought to be the male VC, and five women contested the remaining two openings.  However, two of the men withdrew during the nominations, leaving the DNC members to choose between California Congressman Mike Honda and Hispanic Caucus chair Alvaro Cifuentes.  Honda, won, but not by much (231.75 to 184.25 votes).

Equally hard fought was the women's race.  Everyone expected Linda Chavez-Thompson, DNC incumbent and Executive Vice President of the AFL-CIO, to be a shoo-in.  She was, after all, receiving 326.5 votes.  She has been labor's point person on the DNC (and the AFL-CIO is the 800 pound gorilla in the DNC).  The remaining four women were really campaigning for one open Vice-Chairpersonship.

The favorite and eventual winner with 313 votes was Susie Turnbull, a DNC member from Maryland.  As Chair of the DNC women's caucus and the Women's Leadership Forum, she had been working in the vineyards of the DNC for two decades. She was appointed Deputy Chair of the DNC in the fall of 2003.

Coming in third was Marjorie Fields-Harris with 114 votes, who is Executive Director of Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network.  Its 38 chapters around the country gave her a bigger base than the remaining two women, though not as big as the two winners.  Sharpton, who ran for the Democratic nomination for President in 2004, was ever-present at the DNC meeting.

The fourth-place candidate, Massachusetts State Senator Dianne Wilkerson, received 68.25 votes.  Nancy Jane Woodside, vice-chair of the Utah Democratic party, styled herself as the grassroots candidate.  She got only 10.25 votes, mostly from Utah. Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats permit fractional voting.  Guam, for example, split one vote among four persons.

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