Democrats Argue Over How to Prevent Another Mark Clayton Fiasco



Mark Clayton
  • Mark Clayton
Tennessee Democrats met Saturday to grapple with the thorny question of how to distinguish between true party members and crackpots like Mark Clayton who put their names on primary election ballots as a lark and sometimes wind up winning. After a freewheeling and relatively prolonged argument, the party’s executive committee — meeting for the first time since Clayton took the Democrats’ U.S. Senate nomination on Aug. 2 — agreed to think about it for a while longer and went home.

The proposal, which will come up again for debate at the Democrats’ next meeting in January, is to add this to the party’s bylaws:

A bona fide Democrat is defined as an individual whose record of public service, actions, accomplishments, public writings and/or public statements affirmatively demonstrates that he or she is faithful to the interests, welfare and success of the Democratic Party of the United States and the State of Tennessee.

The party chairman could strike any would-be candidate who didn’t meet that definition—vague as it might be—from the party’s primary ballot. As was pointed out, that gives the chairman a lot of power.

David Briley, an executive committee member and frequent critic of party chairman Chip Forrester, said he might have trouble staying on the ballot himself under this bylaw.

“This rubs me the wrong way,” Briley said. “In this language of the proposed change, essentially it says that if your public statements have not been supportive of the Democratic Party, that potentially by itself could be justification for your removal from ballot. I know I’ve said stuff that people here didn’t like, and I intend to do it again, frankly.”

Will Cheek, a former party chairman himself, was so concerned he gave a little speech in opposition:

This is a very serious issue. The right to go on the ballot is just as important as the right to vote. I’m certainly not happy about Mark Clayton myself. But I just want to urge this committee to go very slowly and be very cautious about getting into this area of defining who can go on our ballot and who can get struck. This is not a Mark Clayton problem. The problem is that we didn’t have a Senate candidate. We didn’t have an A list Senate candidate. We didn’t have a B list Senate candidate. We didn’t really have a Senate candidate. That’s the problem. That’s what’s created Mark Clayton. If we start striking people [off ballots] it’s a very slippery slope.

It makes me very nervous. I can see, five years down the road, the chair being besieged with requests in state House races, even in municipal races. ‘This guy’s not a Democrat. You have to strike him off.’ Then that chair’s in the position where (a) he’s got to spend time deciding this and (b) he’s got to piss somebody off.

Besides, Cheek said, “it looks crummy” if Democrats start deciding in a backroom somewhere who qualifies for their ballots.

Supporters said the definition’s vagueness is the beauty of the thing. A party chairman would have the leeway to toss obvious lunatics off the ballot and no one could argue about it, they said.

“We know it when we see it,” said Sean Braisted, referring to candidates who need to disappear.

Braisted said the Clayton fiasco has hurt party fundraising and disillusioned young people, so something needs to be done.

The executive committee’s bylaws committee presented this idea. Its chairman, Jim Bilbo, pointed out that state law requires the political parties to vet their candidates — something Democrats never have done as far as anyone can remember.

Under the current bylaws — which empower the party to strike candidates from ballots if they haven’t voted in three of the past five party primaries — Forrester could have gotten rid of Clayton. Instead, all the embarrassed party could do after the primary was disavow Clayton, a far-right weirdo.

Many party insiders blame Forrester for failing to vet the candidates or to find a Senate candidate who could have beaten Clayton, who probably won only because his name was at the top of the alphabetically ordered ballot. But Saturday, there was no open criticism of Forrester. Without naming names, one executive committee member did acknowledge the party was “asleep at the wheel.”

Update: Mark Clayton sends a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder calling for an investigation into whether the party violated the Voting Rights Act by disavowing his candidacy. "Democrats want voter protection from the self-appointed state party bosses," Clayton declares.

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