When Democratic Party Precinct Committee Persons from Oregon's House District 38 gathered on Aug. 14 to nominate a list of candidates to succeed former state Rep. Ann Lininger, there was a curious moment early in the meeting when PCPs from the district's two counties appeared to be at odds with each other.
Several PCPs from Multnomah County advocated for the Democratic Party to maximize its influence by only nominating the minimum of three candidates, thereby increasing the probability of the party's No. 1 choice being picked. But they were outvoted by a larger contingent that included nearly every PCP from Clackamas County, and the body ultimately decided to choose four nominees.
The fact that the two sides of the vote aligned so closely with the two participating counties was not a coincidence, according to some of the PCPs involved. They say they felt an undercurrent of intraparty disagreement throughout the nomination process — one that seemed to echo the bitter primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders that divided the Democratic Party last year.
Filling out the ranks
According to PCPs who spoke to The Review, the division along county lines stems in part from the fact that several of the Multnomah County PCPs were appointed to their positions less than a week before the convention, whereas the Clackamas PCPs had all been in place for a while.
"We found out that there were all these new PCPs that were certified to be able to vote in this nominating (convention)," said Clackamas PCP Rosie Stephens. "We don't do that in Clackamas County."
PCPs are elected every two years, but they can also be appointed by a vote from a county party's Central Committee. The Multnomah County Democrats had a regular Central Committee meeting scheduled for Aug. 10, four days prior to the convention, but the Clackamas Democrats did not.
"Ordinarily, we don't have a Central Committee meeting in August, so there was no way for us to elect PCPs once the vacancy was announced," explained Peter Nordbye, chair of the Clackamas County Democrats. "We would've had to break our bylaws to add any more."
Nordbye and Multnomah County Democrats chair Lurelle Robbins both said the situation was coincidental and an unavoidable result of the timing of Lininger's departure from the HD38 seat. But multiple candidates expressed frustration with the way it impacted the race.
"One of the first calls I made to a county commissioner in this race showed me how discouraging the process could be for someone who's not a party insider," said candidate Neil Simon, a public relations executive who lives in Multnomah County. "To be told to pack the room with PCPs up to the last minute, and that they could affect the outcome, was a red flag."
At the Aug. 14 convention, there were 41 Clackamas PCPs and 36 Multnomah PCPs in attendance. But at least 17 of those Multnomah PCPs had only been appointed four days before, leaving candidates without a lot of time to reach out to them.
"All of this stuff happening at the very last minute made it difficult for all of us," said candidate Daniel Nguyen, a Lake Oswego restaurateur. "At the beginning of the process, the idea of adding new PCPs was something I didn't think was possible. That was kind of a curveball that I didn't anticipate."
Stephens said the late appointments impacted the ideological makeup of the Multnomah PCPs at the convention, and that the unity among the Clackamas PCPs was prompted by concerns that local progressive groups had been the most successful at using the appointment opportunity to add PCPs to the Multnomah side.
"They have taken this process and politicized it way more than it has been," she said. "The whole Bernie thing — supporters pushing to take over not just the county party but the state party, and they're doing it."
The result, she said, was that there was stronger support among the Multnomah PCPs for the candidates who were seen as the most progressive — such as Lake Oswego City Councilor Theresa Kohlhoff — while the Clackamas PCPs tended to favor the candidates they felt had the best shot at retaining the HD38 seat in the next regular election, such as Lake Oswego political consultant Andrea Salinas.
That ideological split was at the root of the disagreement about whether to nominate three or four candidates, Stephens said, because some of the Clackamas PCPs suspected that the newer Multnomah PCPs were seeking to limit the nominees to three and then vote as a block to nominate three of the more progressive candidates — ensuring that one of them would become the appointee.
"I think there was concern that if there were just three candidates, that the three would have been the Multnomah County (PCPs' preferred) candidates," she said.
Questions and timing
But some of the Multnomah PCPs and other groups had concerns of their own about the HD38 nominating process, which they viewed as lacking in transparency and unfairly stacked in favor of the existing Democratic Party's preferred candidates.
"People don't want to play nice when they've been taken advantage of," said Lisa Ortiz, president of the local group Independents for Progressive Action (IPA), which was initially founded to support Bernie Sanders during the primary. "That's the frustrating part, and that's what the party can't seem to get through their heads. They think they know better."
IPA hosted a candidate forum on Aug. 10 in Lake Oswego, and Ortiz said the group felt the need to create the event because at the time, no other opportunity had been scheduled for members of the public to meet the candidates. The group endorsed Kohlhoff after the event.
A second candidate forum event was eventually added at the beginning of the party convention on Aug. 14, with Nordbye moderating. But some of the Multnomah County PCPs at the convention said they were upset that neither event gave the PCPs a chance to ask direct questions of individual candidates in a public setting.
"I felt that there were forces at work to manipulate me into who to vote for," said Multnomah PCP Sharon Reyes. "Withholding knowledge via open and transparent questioning impacts my ability to make my own informed decision."
Shortly after the assembled PCPs voted to nominate four candidates, Reyes suggested giving each candidate four minutes to answer questions from the audience, prior to the start of voting on the nominees. That motion set off another lengthy debate among the PCPs and was ultimately voted down in favor of the default procedure, which gave each candidate
two minutes to use as they wished.
Reyes' husband, Jim Crawford, was also a Multnomah PCP, and they both said their goal was to get an opportunity to question Andrea Salinas about her history as a lobbyist.
"This issue has taken on significance for Bernie Sanders-aligned PCPs in District 38 like myself," Crawford told The Review. "Andrea Salinas is widely seen as the chosen candidate of the party leadership — that is, the Clinton wing that still dominates the Oregon Democratic Party."
Salinas voluntarily addressed those concerns during her two-minute statement, declaring that she had only done lobbying work on behalf of causes that comported with her values as a Democrat, and she pledged to quit her current job at the lobbying firm 360 Strategies if appointed to the HD38 seat.
Ortiz also faulted the Democratic Party for choosing to host the convention at what appeared to be the earliest possible date. State law says the party must choose replacement candidates within 20 days following the departure of a state representative, but the convention was held the day before Lininger's resignation officially took effect — a decision that disadvantaged the less-experienced candidates, Ortiz said.
"If you've run campaigns before and have mechanisms and volunteers in place, you can just call them up and get them going," she said. "If you're a less-experienced person, then you don't have those things at the ready and you have to create them. The tight timeline didn't give people time to prepare."
Robbins said the Aug. 14 date was suggested by the Democratic Party of Oregon, and a DPO spokesperson told The Review that the party suggested earlier dates because the solar eclipse and Labor Day both fell during the subsequent two weeks and would have created logistical difficulties.
Salinas and Kohlhoff were both nominated at the convention, along with Simon and Lake Oswego City Councilor Joe Buck. The next stage in the race will come on Sept. 13, when the commissioners from both Clackamas and Multnomah counties meet to interview the candidates and then vote on a final appointee.
But whether the convention process brought the two halves of the party any closer together is unclear. There were calls from some of the PCPs at the convention for unified support for whichever candidate receives the appointment, and they were met with agreement from the crowd. But Ortiz says she's not sure if the divisions can go away so easily.
"I don't think it's just Bernie and Hillary," she said. "It's generational, it's socioeconomics — it's people who are incrementalist versus people who want bigger change. That's huge when you're looking at the two sides of (House District) 38."