The Alabama Democratic Party approved new bylaws Saturday that eliminated youth, LGBTQ+ and disabled caucuses and reduced the powers of others.
The proposed bylaws, which passed the State Democratic Executive Committee (SDEC) 63-49, eliminated the three caucuses because they don’t represent 15% of the executive council. The bylaws also reduced the powers of affirmative action; Asian and Pacific Islander; Hispanic; and Native American caucuses “to monitor the affairs of the groups listed.”
The elimination of the caucuses was a victory for Joe Reed, who chairs the party’s minority caucus and lost a struggle over the direction of the party in 2019.
Reed said Saturday that the 2019 bylaw changes, which had been ordered by the Democratic National Committee, were “corrupt” and “took out a lot of stuff” that provided for Black participation in the party.
“We never should’ve even changed the bylaws,” he said.
The Democratic National Committee in 2019 ordered the state party to create the caucuses or lose their representation in the presidential nomination process, and it was not clear what the changes might mean for the state party’s role in future national contests. An email seeking comment was left with the Democratic National Committee on Friday.
But the vote also reflected ongoing feuds over the leadership and direction of the Alabama Democratic Party, which has struggled to re-establish a statewide profile over the last decade. Several SDEC members said their ability to vote Saturday was challenged because they had not paid a $50 fee, which many said they had not been told of.
Tabitha Isner, vice-chair of the Alabama Democratic Party, called it a “poll tax.”
“Are these people elected members of the State Democratic Executive Committee, or are they not?” she repeatedly asked chair Randy Kelley during the meeting on Saturday. Kelley told Isner to sit down and said she was out of order.
Members of the affected caucuses were also sharply critical of the vote. Virginia Applebaum, who chairs the Native American caucus, said that the moves seemed like an attempt to erase Native American identity.
“People are telling me that the current members [of the caucus] will represent us, while taking away the very vehicle that we have to represent ourselves,” she said.
Applebaum said that the Native American caucus was important to her because indigenous people need representation and the “right to self-determination within the party.”
“Imagine for one moment that somebody, other than your representative group, was trying to tell you what’s best for you and your people,” she said. “How would you feel about it?”
Antwon Womack, chair of the LGBTQ+ caucus, asked how he could be expected to support a party that doesn’t “believe [he] exists.” He said that he believed his voice was not heard by the leadership, especially as it concerns the rights of LGBTQ+ Alabamians in the party.
“It just basically lets me know that the mindset of Jim Crow doesn’t have to look Caucasian, it’s actually within my own race,” said Womack, who is Black.
A long feud
The party created the new caucuses in 2019 after a standoff between the DNC, which wanted the party to broaden its representation, and Alabama Democratic Party chairwoman Nancy Worley, who said the DNC’s orders were confusing and contradictory. The standoff turned into a proxy battle between a wing of the party loyal to Reed, who backed Worley, and then-U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, whose supporters sought new leadership.
Jones’ supporters won the battle in 2019, creating the caucuses and installing new leadership. But Reed’s supporters managed to elect Kelley chair of the party last year. Kelley, who served as vice-chairman of the state party during Worley’s term, signaled last year that the caucuses could be abolished.
According to the new bylaws, a special committee may be created by the chair, whereas in the previous bylaw, it was set that “The Executive Board and the Affirmative Action Committee may from time to time establish additional Caucuses in order to give underrepresented constituencies.”
Leaders of the party conducted the vote by having members of the SDEC stand to show their support or opposition for a motion. It was unclear whether the votes were verified by another member. Calls for a roll call vote were not heeded.
Tori Jackson, vice chair of the Native American Caucus, said there are bigger issues that Democrats should be tackling, such as the recent push against critical race theory, which is not taught in Alabama’s K-12 schools.
“As a Native American and a Black person, they are doing the same thing that they did to Black people,” she said. “How many years ago? Really not that long ago, honestly. They just took away our voice, and how can you vote on something and you’re not really a part of it?”
The fight over the admission fee further divided the SDEC. Isner said that there was no logic provided – if it were required that they pay a fee, that fee would have been required before the May meeting, and that members weren’t told about the $50 fee when they voted in January. She said that at last August’s SDEC meeting, members were elected and credentialed, and called it “bizarre” that these members would be asked to pay a fee now.
“This was an example of ‘Oh, I’m sorry, we’ve lost your voter registration, for a fee, maybe we could get you back on now’,” she said. “Funny enough when we offered to pay the fee. That was a big deal. They still weren’t going to let these people be seated.”
Ralph Young, a Democratic activist, said that there was “no interest in an accurate vote,” and that there were many procedural problems with the meeting.
“It was just simply a rush to get one close enough that could be ruled without challenge,” he said.
Young said that in a party with many marginalized groups, everyone is fighting for some recognition, and that it feels like no one wins.
“And it feels like a zero sum game, that if I give you any dignity, that comes off my balance,” he said.
Delandrion Woods, who chairs the Youth caucus, said today was disheartening and disappointing and that “a delay is not denial.” But Woods said he would continue fighting.
“In the words of Dr. King, we have to fly, and ‘If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward,’ and that’s what we have to do – is to continue to move forward even if there is delay,” he said.