Candidates for Democratic state chair voice solidarity with protesters in Wisconsin

The Colorado Statesman

Colorado Democrats can expect a state party chair determined to tell the Democratic National Committee a thing or two, the three candidates vying for the top spot said at a forum Feb. 20 in Greenwood Village. Polly Baca, Adam Bowen and Rick Palacio agreed that local Democrats need to stand up to the national party when Washington bigwigs try to tell the grassroots how things ought to happen.

The candidates — who spoke before a crowd of about 50 Democrats at a C.B. & Potts restaurant along with candidates for other statewide party offices — also said they stood in solidarity with Democrats in Wisconsin protesting attempts by that state’s governor to dismantle public employee unions. They also agreed state Democrats need to do more to involve various interest groups recognized by the party and must energize young voters who might be disillusioned that hope and change don’t materialize overnight. In fact, the candidates agreed on just about everything except which one has the right background to lead the party through the crucial 2012 election year.

The Democrats’ state central committee elects a new batch of party leaders on March 5 at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. With one possible exception, the officers elected next month will be entirely made up of fresh faces, as only incumbent party secretary Carolyn Boller is seeking another term. Chairwoman Pat Waak announced late last year that she wouldn’t seek a fourth two-year term, paving the way for a vigorous contest between Baca, Bowen and Palacio.

While the conversation at the forum was lively, the candidates drew sharper distinctions between Democrats and Republicans than they did among themselves.

“The relationship with our (Democratic National Committee) members is a bit backwards,” said Palacio. “The relationship we should have is one where our DNC members take our concerns, from all 64 counties up the ladder, back to the DNC. What has happened over the last few years is we have had a top-down approach to it.”

Noting that she worked early in her career as a special assistant to the DNC, in addition to serving on the committee for more than a decade, Baca sounded a similar note. One thing she learned is that “the folks up there respect you if you stand up to them, and I have stood up to the national committee and the chair.”

Referring to a heated dispute with national Democrats during last year’s U.S. Senate primary, Baca said, “I was concerned about them coming into Colorado in our primary, so I wrote a letter respectfully asking them not to interfere in our primary.”

“The chair’s job is to advocate for Democrats in Colorado at the national level,” Bowen said, adding that the state party should refuse to compromise its priorities in exchange for more money from the national group. “The chair is there to advocate for all the Dems in the state, and make sure the national party understands what’s going on here on the ground.”

Baca is a former state senator and served 16 years on the DNC, including eight years as a national vice chair. Bowen was chair of the Larimer County Democratic Party for two terms and made an unsuccessful bid for county commissioner in last fall’s election. Palacio ran for county office five years ago — coming up two votes short in a primary race for Pueblo County clerk and recorder — and has worked as a legislative aide at the state and national level, most recently for House Whip Steny Hoyer.

The forum — only the second one featuring all three state party chair candidates — was sponsored by a number of the Democratic-sponsored interest groups, including the Progressive Democrats, the Labor Initiative, the African American Initiative and the Colorado Young Democrats.

Candidates for other state offices also passed the microphone to answer questions from the sponsoring organizations and the audience. Those in attendance were Alan Lee, a candidate for 1st vice chair; Vivian Stovall and Dick Barkey, running for 2nd vice chair; secretary candidates Boller and Christine Alonzo; and treasurer wannabes Diane Cristner and Justin Herrera. Beverly Ryken is also bidding for 1st vice chair and Sherry Jackson is another candidate for treasurer. (Unlike their GOP counterparts, Democrats have a gender-equity rule for the top two offices, so if a woman is elected chair, the 1st vice chair must be a man, and visa versa, so Lee and Ryken are running for the same office but won’t be running against each other.)

The three chair candidates agreed with Stovall, who heads the African American Initiative, when she asked whether the state party should be doing more to support her group and others like it.

“We used to get a lot of resources and assistance from the DNC and the state party, but every year it’s going down, and lately we have had no resources,” Stovall said. “We’re not at the table as we feel we should be along with all the newer initiatives.”

Baca pointed out that when she was a DNC vice chair, it was her staff that brought the Hispanic and African American caucuses onto the national committee. “It’s critical to have voices from all the different parts of our party at the table,” she said, “because it’s when you bring all the diversity of the party to the table that you find real wisdom.”

“A team is stronger when everybody is really engaged,” Bowen said, adding that he thought it was important to “reach out to people that are under-represented in the party.”

Calling “initiatives are a key way to grow the party,” he stated, “We’ve got to look at every slice of the electorate and maximize their participation in the process.”

Palacio termed the relationship between the party and its interest groups a “two-way street,” and said he would make sure the responsibility went both ways.

“First is ensuring the party provides initiatives with the resources that they need in order to go out and spread the gospel, if you will, of the Democratic Party,” he said. “The feedback, on the other side, is that you are representatives of your own initiatives, that is your role — you then should absolutely have a place at the table, and bring the concerns from your community. You are the face, you are the voice of those initiatives.”

Asked how they would involve young voters, all three candidates agreed it was a critical task.

“We’ve got to deputize a lot of people, and that includes young people,” Bowen said. But it won’t be easy.

“Our message is already tuned to younger people,” he said. “Our failure of national messaging in 2010 — frankly, we were just weak — we had a superior product to sell and we just didn’t sell it, so young people who were raised on hope and change and were really fired up, they saw the complexity of the process — for health care reform — a lot of them just got discouraged, they thought, heck, this is just an awful lot of work.” He added that the party has to get across the message to young voters that “this process takes time, it’s going to be a multi-cycle process to get things done.”

Palacio — just a year older than the retirement age of 35 for Young Democrats — proposed mounting a “young Dem road show” to Colorado’s dozens of colleges and universities.

“We have a lot of young people out there who would like to be involved but don’t know how to be involved,” he said.

Baca said she has spent her entire political career “committed to mentoring and providing leadership development for young people,” and made a case that those activities might bridge the gap between enthusiasm and actual results.

“It’s a matter not only of asking young people to be involved but showing them how to be involved,” she said.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com