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The Colorado State Democratic Party Convention in Colorado Springs (1 – Some Background and Texture)

May 18, 2008

I’m going to write a few pieces on the state convention of Democrats that took place in Colorado Springs yesterday. Although in some ways I was `there in spirit’, physically I wasn’t present. Did attend a lively caucus meeting though in the neighborhood a few months back and several neighbors and my wife were delegates to the Denver city convention in March.

I’m rather cynical about the Democratic Party here in Colorado – more its leadership than its base which is vibrant, progressive and delightfully rebellious towards an old guard leadership wedded to Democratic Leadership Council policies. In these past years though, the challenge from below has made the goings a bit tougher for those in control. Four years ago, a true party hack – Chris Gates – former state party chair and master manipulator was swept from office and replaced by a geniunely more progressive Pat Waak.

Waak gained her place as a part of a reform movement that stunned the party and the state at the time. The shining light of that reform movement was a Colorado Springs educator – part Black, part Japanese – and former military man, Mike Miles. Although Miles lost the Democratic nomination for the US Senate races seat to party operative Ken Salazar (he’s genuinely bright, but is basically a part of the party’s old guard and has remained very faithful to it) , still, Miles stunned the party hierachy – and his supporters even more – by winning the support of the majority of Democratic delegates at the state convention

Miles also did something I personally considered truly unique – forgotten by many – by publicly endorsing the Geneva Accord – informal peace document developed by both Israeli and Palestinians negotiators. I believe he was the only politican in the state to do so and he did it repeatedly. There is little doubt that in so doing and by `violating party etiquette’ by not sufficiently groveling before the powers that be in the first place, that Miles was challenging the party’s old guard, in particular, elements of the Democratic Party’s power structure that gravitate around two Denver local power brokers – Norm Brownstein and Steve Farber.

Miles’ run was a kind of a trial balloon that was watched very closely by some wealthy Democratic newcomers wanting to break into politics, among them Jared Polis, Russ Bridges, Tim Gill and Pat Stryker. They were wondering what were the chances to challenge the old party hierarchy, skirt its system of obligations and favors, and get elected anyhow. Miles’ campaign indicated considerable grass roots malaise with the old ways. For Polis and Bridges in particular Miles’ campaign was an indication of new winds blowing among Colorado Dems and they watched as the party’s old boy network reeled in confusion at Miles’ rise from complete obscurity to becoming nothing less than the darlilng of the progressive and newly energized elements in the state’s party. He (Miles) even got me to come in from the cold and register Democrat! Miles campaign suggested that new forces – especially if they had a generally left program (in contrast to the dlc types) – had a real possibility of winning political support. Pity these main `post Miles’ players also happen to be multi-millionaires who think that their money buys their political influence. Of course it does up to a point but the going still is apparently not so easy.

A grass roots progressive-left movement blossomed around Miles’ campaign that called itself `Be The Change’. Mostly made up of white middle class types with virtually no support from the state’s labor, Blacks, Hispanics, still it was surprisingly resilient and had some influence. Pat Waak comes out of this movement as do a number of organizers – quite talented actually – working directly for the national Democratic Party throughout the state. Be The Change still exists and is active, although it seems to have lost some of its former radicalism which attracted so many people to it in the first place.

My own take as to what happened – I could be wrong about this and would be interested in other views on the subject – is that Waak and the Be The Change people were simply out organized by the old guard with whom they felt they had to make peace (and did). Putting Waak in as head of the Colorado party essentially neutralized her and the movement. She was put in the position of having to balance off the new more radical elements – (represented by the views of the state’s party platform, a genuinely impressive and generally left document, with a few notable exceptions that will be discussed in the next few days) with the old guard, the elected officials (the Salazar brothers, De Gette, Ritter, etc), the Brownstein and Farber circle, a fair number of wealthly liberal (but hardly) lawyers etc.

So over a two year period the party was first energized with new blood and political energy infused through the Miles campaign (he by the way disappeared from the scene, at least temporarily). Then these more radical elements were – as has often happened before – either more or less coopted, absorbed into the party’s mainstream or at least had their wings clipped some. This was cleverly but easily done as Be the Change’s political and financial base was no match for the party’s seasoned players. Besides, the old party power players are eminently flexible and willing to make compromises left and right when necessary. This they did.

Watching how that all played out one could not helped to be impressed by the political acumen of the old guard and amateurism of the new forces. This is not to be too harsh on the latter. They were newcomers to a powerful and flexible machine. And the wave did produce a new crop of democratic politicans on the local and state level, a few of whom are very interesting as well as a new generation of more democratic party activists (especially but not uniquely on the Western Slope). And besides, there will be a next round with more seasoned players.

Governor Ritter, himself quite moderate, has had to take some of the issues of this new base to heart, especially where it concerns labor rights and the what I can only describe as the vast rape of the Colorado mountains by the state’s oil and gas industry. But for the most part, Be The Change and Waak were mostly outmaneuvred and the radical (the more interesting) element of their politics somewhat neutralized. Still, `A’ for effort as they say.

Besides a new radical wave – this one stronger that the last – emerged in the last year. If the former one in 2004 was triggered by the Mike Miles campaign, the new one – without a doubt – is stimulated by several elements: the dominant one is the presidential campaign of Barak Obama, another is the widespread opposition among Colorado Democratis to US Middle East policy in all its aspects: the continued occupation of Iraq, the danger of an attack against Iran before November, and growing dissatisfaction within the ranks of Colorado Democrats to the party’s slavish one-sided support for Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, all of which will be discussed in entries to come. And last but not least, there is the energy orgy unfolding in this state – a state with a long history of mining and neo-liberal economic excesses, none represented better than those committed under the administration of the last governor, Bill Owens, a former oil and gas lobbyist.

More in the next few days.

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