Obama's "Big Tent" Campaign Cuts Out The Little People In California

UPDATE: In a reversal, the Obama campaign has reinstated the previously cut California delegate candidates. Read all about it here.

I've spent the past few weeks excitedly sending emails, making phone calls, and explaining the technicalities of Democratic party registration to my family and friends in the Los Angeles area. You see, I am running to be an Obama delegate representing California's 30th District at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Or at least, I was running until the Obama campaign cut me from the list.

After completing the application process and finding my name on the official list of registered candidates, I received an email from the California Democratic Party today (Wednesday) at 4:48 p.m. informing me that the final approved lists of delegate candidates had been posted and that I should check the website. (I assume the same email went out to all the delegate candidates.) I clicked over to the website and found that, lo and behold, what had been a list of 90 candidates had been eviscerated down to only 17, and that my name was gone. I immediately checked the Obama candidate list for the 33rd District, where a friend and fellow Obama die-hard was also running for a delegate spot. His name was gone, too, and a list that formerly contained 83 names was down to a mere 20.

The ostensible rationale for the cutting of delegate candidates is to prevent "Trojan horse" delegates from making their way to the Convention floor and then switching allegiances. The vetting and removal of delegate candidates is expressly allowed by party rules. But could the 30th District really have had 73 such turncoats, and was I really one of them? I was a Precinct Captain for the Obama campaign for the California primary; I've donated several hundred dollars to Senator Obama's campaign (the first politician I've ever supported financially); and I've boosted the campaign in numerous posts on this website.

Disbelieving but bemused, I called the phone number provided by the Obama campaign above the "List of 17" (perhaps they were anticipating an outcry). I spoke with a staffer who cordially read what was apparently a hot-off-the-printer official statement, the gist of which was that, while the campaign appreciates all the grassroots support, the "outpouring of interest was so overwhelming" that they had to ensure an "orderly delegate election process" by paring down the lists. The patient staffer then expanded on the statement, saying that the campaign was apparently concerned that the 40:1 ratio of delegate candidates to delegate slots was simply too large, given that all candidates were to give a 10-minute speech (in fact, the official time allotted for speeches is a mere 1-minute per candidate, and voters don't even need to hear the speeches to cast a ballot).

I was told that the "problem" was statewide, and that he'd even heard from a volunteer who had traveled to ten states to volunteer for the campaign but was cut from contention. Apparently, cuts had to be made, and "some people were going to be cut no matter what." All told, approximately 900 Obama delegate candidates were cut, compared to only 50 for the Clinton campaign. I told the staffer that I was inclined to tell this story on the Huffington Post and suggested he pass my information on to the press staff in case they had any comment, but I'd not heard back when I submitted this piece.

It's hard not to be cynical. Remaining on the list of approved candidates is the slate of candidates (longtime campaign volunteers) that the Obama campaign has officially endorsed, as well as several names recognizable from local politics. These delegate candidates aren't to be faulted for being longtime political activists, but the cynic in me wonders why those names remained while the "nobodies" on the list disappeared. The Obama campaign owes those of us who were cut a fuller explanation of the decision process. The sweeping explanation that they were simply too overwhelmed just isn't credible. There were clearly other factors at work. Even a brief apology email to those of us destined for the cutting room floor expressing regret in advance would have been logical-- a seemingly establishment move from a campaign that has portrayed itself as anything but.

As for me, I'm not really mad at the campaign, but simply confused. This was supposed to be the big tent campaign. But is the "people's campaign" turning out to be not so people-friendly when it comes down to sending supporters to Denver? Isn't the main message of the campaign about the way participation itself is a political act, that even small increases in engagement can snowball and lead to tremendous change? I knew my odds were long to be selected as a delegate, but it was more about being part of the selection process and getting the chance to interact with this campaign, and by proxy, this amazing candidate. Not to mention that my friends have rearranged plans and even recruited their friends to come spend an hour of their Sunday voting at the caucus. I assume I'm now supposed to send out a mass e-mail: "Sorry, everyone! False alarm. Please return to your regularly scheduled Sunday."

It's a shame that the Obama campaign has handled this so poorly. It has succeeded in pushing away some of its most fervent backers (the ones who would take the time to coordinate such a voting effort), when we would have been perfectly happy to come out to the caucus with our small entourage of supporters and get trounced by those with massive turnout. That's at least easy to accept.

Finally, one of the unfortunate consequences of removing so many candidates is that the party has lost an opportunity to swell its voter rolls even further. Democratic rules provide that independent voters (known as "decline to state" in California) can register as Democrats directly on site at the delegate caucus and then cast their ballot. I have several friends who were planning on doing just that. Now they have much less incentive to do so.

Luckily, the Obama campaign still has time to right this wrong. A campaign so masterful at organization can surely find a way to accommodate the original number of candidates and allow each to make the 1-minute speech to which she/he is entitled. I will continue to support and cheer Senator Obama (probably on this website) as he continues his campaign for the presidency, but his campaign has disappointed me today, and its shiny, peopled-powered machinery has lost some luster.

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