BRATTLEBORO—The recent Democratic caucus meeting in town attracted all of seven people, and that’s about two more than usual, according to Chairman Clarence Boston.
But the meeting ran unusually long as Marlboro Democratic Committee members debated whether to endorse U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., for president.
In doing so, they thwarted the wishes of state and county party leaders, who are urging no primary-season endorsements for any candidate at any level.
Boston says the committee wasn’t interested in heeding that advice and voted almost unanimously to take the unusual step of backing a presidential candidate.
“It’s a left-wing committee in a left-wing county in a left-wing state,” Boston said. “It’s not such an amazing thing that we’re not Clinton Democrats.”
The sole “no” vote was from Marlboro committee member Brandon Batham, who was in an awkward position due to the fact that he’s also chairman of the Windham County Democratic Committee.
Batham acknowledges the political value of Bernie fervor, but he’s nonetheless urging all towns to refrain from endorsements in the interest of party unity.
“I don’t think it is the Democratic Party’s [job] or any of the town or county committees’ jobs to tell voters how to vote in the primary — regardless of what the intentions are, regardless of what the values are behind any individual candidate that people are trying to endorse,” Batham said.
It’s a balancing act that the Vermont Democratic Party also is trying to pull off, though it’s a lot more difficult this year than it has been in the past.
“It’s unique, I think, with Bernie in the race especially — the hometown favorite,” said Conor Casey, the state party’s executive director.
Both the county and state Democratic organizations generally shy away from pre-primary endorsements. The Vermont Democrats sent an August email to state committee members warning against backing any specific candidates.
“Needless to say, as the election heats up many of us will have strong feelings about particular candidates and may even be volunteering on campaigns,” wrote Dottie Deans, the state Democratic Committee’s chairwoman.
“While it’s certainly encouraged to be politically active, we want to remind you that the [Democratic National Committee] will not be making any endorsement in the presidential primary, nor will the [Vermont Democratic Party] in keeping with past policy,” the email continued.
“Town and county committees are asked to do the same,” Deans added. “We would ask that whenever you make a statement publicly supporting or opposing a candidate that you clarify it is your personal position and not in your capacity as an elected leader or an activist within the party.”
The policy is even more formal in Windham County, where bylaws say the county committee “shall endorse only candidates for statewide or countywide office and shall not endorse any candidate for office prior to the primary election for such office.”
The fact that Sanders’ presidential campaign has caught fire, however, has made such policies more difficult to adhere to.
“It’s tricky,” Batham said, “because there are a lot more people energized by Bernie’s candidacy.”
He can count Marlboro’s Democrats among those feeling that energy. Boston said his town’s Democratic Committee, at a Sept. 21 meeting, “was well aware of and wanted to take up the issue of endorsements.”
The committee’s resulting announcement notes its unusual but “heartfelt endorsement” for “Vermont’s favorite son, Sen. Bernard Sanders.” Boston said the committee closely identifies with Sanders’ support for organized labor.
“We think it is more important than ever that we remember our history and the struggle of labor and the struggles of farmers,” Boston said.
Boston also makes it clear that the Democratic leadership in this town of roughly 1,070 is no fan of Sanders’ principal Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
“Not many of us can stomach the politics of the Clintons [...] moving the party to the center and going after corporate money,” he said.
Boston has a beef with the Democratic Party on that very same issue, saying he believes the organization — even in Vermont — is too focused on fundraising.
In short, he says, the party faithful in Marlboro “wish to not be dictated to by a committee that we don’t share political values with.”
The local debate is made more complex because Batham is, from a personal perspective, a longtime supporter of Clinton and has worked for her campaign.
“It’s public knowledge, and there are two Hillary Clinton stickers on my car,” he said.
Regardless of his choice of bumper stickers, though, “if everybody in the room was saying, ‘We should universally endorse Hillary Clinton,’ I would say, ‘No, we shouldn’t,’” Batham said.
As a county chairman, Batham is interested in getting more people involved with the party and with politics in general. And he’s concerned that many hard-core activists have been departing due to a general disillusionment with the political process.
Sanders’ candidacy, Batham believes, has the potential to bring some of those folks back into the fold. But Batham doesn’t want to win more devotees while losing others who are not as enthusiastic about Vermont’s independent senator.
“My role as a party leader is to bridge that divide,” he said, adding that he’s heard from no other Windham County town committees that are making endorsements.
From the state party’s perspective, the primary is a chance for all Democratic candidates to get positive exposure. In spite of Sanders’ obvious popularity in Vermont, “to a certain extent, we have to be Switzerland in this race – a neutral party,” Casey said.
But in Marlboro, Boston isn’t buying the big-tent philosophy.
“Our committee doesn’t take well to centrists,” he said. “The left is getting a little fed up.”