DNC Members Push For Climate Change-Centered Presidential Debate

But the party is holding its ground, saying the debates should be wide ranging.

Over 50 voting members of the Democratic National Committee have submitted a resolution calling on DNC Chairman Tom Perez to hold a presidential debate devoted exclusively to the topic of climate change.

The signers plan to collect more signatures and submit the resolution for official consideration at a DNC meeting in Pittsburgh at the end of the month. Perez would be free to reject it, even if it had majority support in the DNC. In the meantime, it is intended to function as an open letter and source of pressure on Perez.

The resolution is a response to the DNC’s decision on Wednesday to inform Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) that it was rejecting his request for a climate-centered debate. Inslee, who is languishing at the bottom of public polls, has made climate change the singular focus of his 2020 candidacy.

The DNC also declared that any candidate who participates in an unsanctioned stage appearance alongside other candidates would be barred from future DNC-sponsored debates.

In response to the announcement, Washington Democratic Party Chairwoman Tina Podlodowski reached out to fellow state party leaders and Democratic National Committee members to organize a letter of protest. She solicited support first from leaders in neighboring Western states, then expanded outward.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity as far as I’m concerned to show where Democrats stand on this issue, not just about saving the planet but how it’s an economic issue, how it’s an income inequality issue and really show Democratic unity here,” Podlodowski told HuffPost. “It’s the No. 1 issue for younger voters in our party and if we want them to turn out, we should show them the respect they deserve in hearing solutions to an issue that they are going to face far more than those of us in our 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s moving forward.”

The signers, who collectively make up more than 10% of the DNC’s voting membership, include the chairs of state parties in California, Alaska, Hawaii, Wyoming, Oregon, New Mexico, Vermont, Utah, Idaho, Maine, Montana and Nebraska. California Democratic National Committee member Christine Pelosi, the daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), is among the rank-and-file DNC members to sign the resolution.

Another Californian, Rep. Ro Khanna, who is not on the DNC but serves as a co-chair of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, added his voice to the chorus on Friday as well.

“Climate change is the greatest crisis facing our world and our nation so it would be appropriate for it to be the first topic-based debate among Democratic candidates,” Khanna said. “It’s something people aren’t paying sufficient attention to in the Congress.”

Podlodowski, who insisted the effort was not intended specifically to help Inslee, said that Perez’s lack of transparency and solicitation of broader input were major drivers of the backlash. DNC members have faulted Perez for, among other things, failing to consult them on the appointment of a new finance chair, and his handling of an effort to modernize the DNC’s voter data collection. (The latter dispute has since been resolved.)

“This is another example of not checking in with state party chairs on what’s happening on the ground and what’s happening with grassroots,” Podlodowski said. “It’s tiresome and it’s frustrating, and frankly we need to do better.”

Nebraska Democratic Party Chairwoman Jane Kleeb had similar concerns. “If he would just talk to those of us inside the party who want him and the party to do well, we could avoid all of this,” she said.

State party chairs plan to discuss holding their own climate change-focused forum when the Association of State Democratic Chairs meets in Santa Fe, New Mexico, next week, according to Kleeb.

The DNC resolution follows public protestations of the climate debate decision from grassroots progressive groups, including MoveOn, U.S. Climate Strike and the Sunrise Movement.

“Our generation’s survival is at stake. It’s time for the DNC to act like it and host a climate debate,” the Sunrise Movement tweeted.

Members of the Democratic National Committee are calling on DNC Chairman Tom Perez to approve a climate change-focused debate for the party's 2020 contenders. Perez has clashed with rank-and-file DNC members who complain that he does not consult them.
Members of the Democratic National Committee are calling on DNC Chairman Tom Perez to approve a climate change-focused debate for the party's 2020 contenders. Perez has clashed with rank-and-file DNC members who complain that he does not consult them.

Sunrise, Daily Kos, Climate Hawks Vote, GreenPeace and other liberal groups are soliciting petition signatures calling for the debate and plan to deliver them to Perez next week.

The DNC for now is sticking with its plan for the debates to be wide-ranging rather than limited to a single issue. If the DNC sanctioned single-issue debates, it would not end with climate change, argued DNC spokesperson Xochitl Hinojosa.

“Once we start allowing one candidate to dictate what the debate is about, we have to say ‘yes’ to all of them on their core issue. Otherwise people would say we are benefiting one candidate,” Hinojosa said. “And if we were to have issue-area debates, how do you pick 12 issue areas?”

“Climate shouldn’t just be part of one debate, it should be part of multiple debates, as should immigration, health care, the economy, criminal justice, women’s reproductive rights and other issues important to all voters,” Hinojosa added.

Instead, the DNC encourages candidates to participate in single-issue candidate forums, where candidates do not appear onstage together.

Podlodowski maintained that climate change in a uniquely complex issue that merits dedicated time of its own with multiple candidates onstage discussing it at once.

“This issue is one that’s different and is more complex in many ways because of so, so many years of people denying the science behind this and how that impacts our planet every single day,” Podlodowski said.

Climate change advocates are not wrong to be concerned that the issue could be given short shrift in presidential debates. As of March 2016, just 1.5% of the questions in 20 presidential debates for candidates from both parties were about climate change, according to an analysis by the liberal watchdog Media Matters for America.

Perez has sought to assuage those concerns by admonishing the media networks hosting the debates to feature the issue prominently.

The DNC has sought to administer the debates in a way that appears impartial to all the candidates. During the 2016 presidential primary, supporters of Sen. Sanders accused the party body of structuring the debate schedule to favor Hillary Clinton, who had greater name recognition. They argued that the schedule, which initially only included six debates, was designed to prevent Sanders and other lesser-known candidates from getting national airtime.

In a bid to earn the trust of all primary voters, the DNC announced in December that it would hold 12 primary debates. To qualify for the first two debates, candidates must either receive campaign contributions from 65,000 individuals or earn support of 1% or more in three sanctioned public polls.

The first debate is scheduled for June 26 and June 27 in Miami, with as many as 10 candidates allowed to appear onstage either night. The network will decide which combination of candidates appears on each night. If more than 20 candidates meet the official debate criteria, priority will be given to those who have met both criteria, and then whose poll numbers are highest.

The bar is higher for the third debate in September, when candidates will have to meet two criteria: having 130,000 individual donors and reaching 2% or more in at least four sanctioned polls.

This cycle, the lion’s share of criticism directed at the DNC has come not from Sanders and his supporters, but lower-tier candidates anxious that they will not qualify.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) accused the DNC of deliberately excluding him by refusing to count the ABC News/Washington Post poll that would have been the third showing him with 1% support.

The DNC claims that it told Bullock as far back as March that it would not count the poll because it surveyed people with an open-ended question about their preference rather than prompting respondents with a list of candidates.

Below are the names of the DNC climate change debate resolution signatories:

  1. Steven Alari, California DNC member
  2. Terje Anderson, Chair, Vermont Democratic Party
  3. Joe Barbuto, Chair, Wyoming Democratic Party
  4. Van Beechler, Chair, Idaho Democratic Party
  5. Artie Blanco, Nevada DNC member
  6. Kate Brown, Oregon DNC member
  7. Ed Cote, Washington DNC member
  8. Jean Lamire Dahlman, Montana DNC member
  9. Bart Dame, Hawaii DNC member
  10. Becca Doten, California DNC member
  11. Jess Durfee, California DNC member
  12. Marg Elliston, California DNC member
  13. Alex Goff, Nevada DNC member
  14. David Green, Washington DNC member
  15. Mike Hamrick, California DNC member
  16. Carla Hanson, Chair, Oregon Democratic Party
  17. Rusty Hicks, Chair, California Democratic Party
  18. Gary Hooser, Hawaii DNC member
  19. Aleita Huguenin, California DNC member
  20. Jane Kleeb, Chair, Nebraska Democratic Party
  21. Tina Kotek, Oregon DNC member
  22. Michael Kapp, California DNC member
  23. Matt Keating, Oregon DNC member
  24. Pete Lee, Oregon DNC member
  25. Kealii Lopez, Chair, Hawaii Democratic Party
  26. Sandra Lowe, California DNC member
  27. Kathleen Marra, Chair, Maine Democratic Party
  28. Sharon Mast, Washington DNC member
  29. David McDonald, Washington DNC member
  30. Nancy Monacelli, Washington DNC member
  31. Travis Nelson, Oregon DNC member
  32. Christine Pelosi, California DNC member
  33. John Perez, California DNC member
  34. Tina Podlodowski, Chair, Washington Democratic Party
  35. Melahat Rafiei, California DNC member
  36. Rion Ramirez, Massachusetts DNC member
  37. Chris Reeves, Kansas DNC member
  38. Ellen Rosenblum, Oregon DNC member
  39. Raymond Sanchez, New Mexico DNC member
  40. Mary Sexton, Chair, Montana Democratic Party
  41. Susie Shannon, California DNC member
  42. Garry Shay, California DNC member
  43. Jeri Shepherd, Colorado DNC member
  44. Tanya Shively, Oregon DNC member
  45. Casey Steinau, Chair, Alaska Democratic Party
  46. Allison Stephens, Nevada DNC member
  47. Mary Sullivan, Vermont DNC member
  48. Daisy Thomas, Chair, Utah Democratic Party
  49. Terry Tucker, Colorado DNC member
  50. Keith Umemoto, California DNC member
  51. Andrew Werthmann, Wisconsin DNC Member
  52. Nikema Williams, Chair, Georgia Democratic Party
  53. Lawrence Zakson, California DNC member

This story has been updated with a statement from Ro Khanna.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed Carla Hanson and Tanya Shively as members of the California Democratic Party.

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