Chair of Clayton County Democrats sounds off on recent DNC caucus vote

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By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register


In a stunning move, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Rules and Bylaws Committee voted recently to make changes to the primary schedule, which will all but remove Iowa from the group of early states, undercut the state’s “First in the Nation” status and decrease Iowa’s relevance in selecting future Democratic presidential nominees. 


While the decision won’t be official until the full DNC vote in January, it’s considered a forgone conclusion at this point that Iowa will be relegated down the primary schedule. On the recommendation of President Joe Biden, that will lead off with South Carolina on Feb. 3, which proved vital to his own campaign victory in 2020, followed by Nevada, New Hampshire, Georgia and Michigan. 


In a letter, Biden wrote about the logic behind the decision, stating “For decades, Black voters in particular have been the backbone of the Democratic Party but have been pushed to the back of the early primary process.”


“We rely on these voters in elections but have not recognized their importance in our nominating calendar. It is time to stop taking these voters for granted, and time to give them a louder and earlier voice in the process,” he continued.


Biden also stated the belief that caucuses are “restrictive and anti-worker,” putting hourly workers at a “disadvantage” in the selection process. 


The decision was met with disappointment by Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, who issued the following statement: “I am very disappointed in the Democratic National Committee’s decision to apparently abandon Iowa. For 50 years, this state has done a fantastic job at vetting the candidates who wish to lead this nation. Iowans make presidential hopefuls from both parties answer the tough questions and undergo the rigors of earning their vote through grassroots campaigning. Without Iowa propelling him, it’s doubtful Barack Obama would have ever become president and it’s unfortunate the Democratic Party has forgotten that fact.”


More locally, however, the decision was met with a complete lack of surprise, at least by chair of the Clayton County Democrats, Brian Bruening. He heard talk as far back as 2016, and more recently after the 2020 contest and the fiasco surrounding the vote count, which made it impossible for a winner to be declared. It marred the caucus, harming the Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg campaigns and making Iowa a laughingstock among political pundits. 


Bruening offered an explanation to that issue, stating the app the DNC chose to use to count the votes was “forced” on Iowa by the DNC without proper time to prepare. Given the elderly age of most of the caucus volunteers, it was obvious to Bruening at the time that the app was never going to work, which is why Clayton County didn’t use it. But by then, the writing was already on the wall for the storied Iowa Caucus. 


The history of the caucus is often romanticized, as a quaint gathering of neighbors and friends who engage in civil conversation and debate before selecting a candidate, and Bruening acknowledged this mythology does exist when it comes to the caucus. But having participated in them since 2008 and having served as chair since 2016, personally overseeing the organization and running of the caucuses in Clayton County, that’s not really how it plays out. 


“There is this idea where individual members from towns can have these like one-on-one talks with people about important issues, but that doesn’t really exist. Most of those events are…like big events at the opera house…full of people, so those one-on-one things don’t really happen in a realistic sort of way,” Bruening explained.


Aside from the misplaced mythology, Bruening noted something much larger that will be lost once this decision becomes final, and that is the influx of money which benefits both the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates in Iowa. It’s also been relied on by state Democrats to run a lot of activities and campaign efforts throughout the year. While these are important things, Bruening also acknowledged that, in the grand scheme of things, they’re not enough to stop the decision. 


One of the many issues facing the caucus is what Bruening refereed to as the “opaqueness of the process,” replete with a convoluted mathematical formula, delegate counts that appear unfair and, of course, the overcrowding of caucus locations.


In discussing the reasons behind the DNC’s and Biden’s decision, starting with the selection of South Carolina, there was little surprise, since it effectively catapulted Biden to the nomination. In addition to South Carolina being more reflective of the Democratic Party due to its racial diversity, Bruening also suggested the state was chosen because it’s a small enough state that candidates can still do the same small town things they previously did in Iowa, though he stated  Michigan would’ve been a more representative state to lead off the new primary calendar.   


One of the outside factors for the schedule change is the fact Iowa is no longer a battleground state and has skewed heavily Republican over the last several election cycles, not to mention the Democratic candidates selected through the caucus format, Obama notwithstanding, have been a selection of also-rans, from Walter Mondale to Dick Gephardt to Tom Harkin. 


“Since the last election, Iowa went completely against the entire tide of the rest of the country…it was a huge Republican wave here in Iowa…I think that’s an outside factor that didn’t really help anything and it’s hard to make an argument that Iowa needs to be a part of the big thing when Democrats had such a disastrous [election],” Bruening said. 


In all of this, there is the view that Biden is overlooking the Midwest and dismissing rural voters, potentially forgetting about them. However, Bruening was quick to note that South Carolina “is full of rural voters. They’re just not Midwestern voters.” 


“What it really comes down to is that it’s missing out on rural voters in the Midwest…I think they’re losing something…but there’s just no way Iowa was going to be first forever,” Bruening said. 


Additionally, Bruening questioned whether the caucus was ever beneficial for Iowa with respect to actual legislation and policies that have helped rural voters, despite the influx of politicians every four years. 


“The other thing is that politicians have been coming to Iowa for 50 years for the first in the nation thing. Has there really been significant polices on either side that have helped rural America? So this idea that them coming here is somehow getting our voices heard, I don’t think our voices have been heard for ages,” Bruening said. 


He is not alone in his criticisms of the caucus and the lack of surprise when Iowa lost its mythical place at the front of the line. Betty Dinan, who is the current secretary for the Clayton County Democrats, helped with the 2020 caucus and did the mathematical calculations, calling it “horrible.”  


As for the caucus itself, in her opinion, the romanticism isn’t real. Instead, the caucus puts people at odds, as everyone just huddles in their own little groups. Instead of friendly conversation, things often “get heated.” 


Concerning the caucus, Dinan unequivocally stated, “Iowa doesn’t deserve to have it.” 


“I’m sorry that it’s not going to be here. I don’t mean that I don’t want it, but I would hope that it would’ve been put together in a more sane and organized way than what its been,” Dinan added.


As far as Biden’s decision to choose South Carolina, Dinan believes it was smart.


“[Biden] became the candidate by being in Carolina…and that was smart politics. Iowa is Republican,” Dinan said. 


When it comes to the future of the Iowa Caucus, Iowa Code requires the political parties to conduct caucuses before any other nominating contest, and according to reports, the state plans to adhere to that legal requirement. 


However, in reality, at least for Democrats, while they might hold a caucus, according to Bruening, it will most likely be a small gathering and be run as nothing more than a regular meeting. They cannot select a nominee, nor will any serious candidate campaign in Iowa because of the potential and very real threat of losing delegates under the DNC’s new rules. Iowa would also lose half the state’s delegates to the Democratic National Convention if it attempted to operate as if it were business as usual. 


“We will figure out something, but who knows what that’s exactly going to be at this point,” Bruening said. 

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