Politics

Senior state Democratic official compares DNC to ‘dictatorship’

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.)
Josh Ritchie/The New York Times
US Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida.

A senior state Democratic Party official likened the national party chairwoman’s tenure to a “full-fledged dictatorship,” amplifying growing unease among some top Democrats about party leaders’ efforts to restrict the number of candidate debates during the presidential primaries.

Deb Kozikowski, vice chairwoman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, said the chief of the Democratic National Committee, US Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, had done a disservice to grass-roots volunteers by allowing Republicans to dominate the airwaves for the last month.

“How do I tell these really dedicated Democrats who work really hard from top to bottom that debates for our presidential candidates are restricted, and they’re there watching all these Republicans get all this air time?” she said. “I think about the folks at the grass roots who work day in day out, no money no glory, because they believe in democracy with a small ‘d’ and the Democratic Party with a large ‘D,’ getting bombarded with all these Republican candidates.”

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Kozikowski wrote in a posting Wednesday night on Facebook that Wasserman Schultz, who has said candidates who agree to participate in any debate outside the six sanctioned by the central party would be uninvited from the other sessions, had been “too busy establishing a full-fledged dictatorship at the DNC to recognize she’d gone over the top.” The Republican National Committee has sanctioned nine debates for its candidates with similar limits.

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DNC officials declined to make Wasserman Schultz available for an interview. Committee spokeswoman Holly Shulman, in an e-mailed comment, called Kozikowski’s dictatorship comment “absurd,” and said it “doesn’t warrant a response.”

Growing numbers of Democrats are voicing criticism of their party’s debate plan.

Two national committee vice chairs, US Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and former Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak, have broken with Wasserman Schultz, taking to Facebook to push for more debates and for eliminating the penalty for candidates who stray from the rules. Under the current arrangement, they said, “more people will feel excluded from our political process, rather than included.”

New Hampshire state Senator Martha Fuller Clark, vice chairwoman of her state party, also criticized Wasserman Schultz for threatening to punish candidates who take part in unsanctioned debates, and echoed Kozikowski’s concern that the Democratic Party is putting itself at a strategic disadvantage.

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“I’m very disappointed that the chair of the DNC has been unwilling to reconsider this schedule, which she determined on her own, with her staff. She did not run it by the executive committee of the DNC, she did not run it by the members of the DNC. People have been telling her that they are unhappy with this schedule, and she has been adamant about not making any changes,” Fuller Clark said.

“The decision that was made by Debbie Wasserman Schultz makes it harder to showcase all the candidates,” the Portsmouth Democrat said. Fuller Clark said that she has not decided which candidate she will support for president.

Shulman, at the DNC, stated in her e-mail, “We believe that six debates will give plenty of opportunity for the candidates to be seen side by side. I’m sure there will be lots of other forums for the candidates to make their case to voters.”

Describing herself as “leaning” toward supporting former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, Kozikowski nevertheless finds herself in the same camp on the debate controversy as one of Clinton’s rivals for the party’s nomination, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, who has been banging the drum for more debates for many weeks.

US Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist from Vermont also running in the Democratic primaries, has also called for more sessions. Clinton has said she would participate if the Democratic National Committee approved additional debates.

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O’Malley has sought to portray the strict debate framework as part of an effort by party leaders to gift-wrap the nomination for Clinton. Despite widespread perceptions that she would cruise to the Democratic nomination, Clinton has begun to struggle in recent national and early-state polls. Some Democrats have begun to pine openly for Vice President Joe Biden to enter the race.

Kozikowski, a longtime Democratic activist from Chicopee who is also vice president of the Association of State Democratic Chairs, said that New Hampshire Democrats, in particular, were wronged by the party’s schedule because their state’s single debate is scheduled for Dec. 19.

“New Hampshire’s not going to put up with one debate for their entire state, an early state, that happens between Hanukkah and Christmas. On a weekend, by the way. Nobody’s going to see that debate,” Kozikowski said Thursday during a telephone interview.

“I just think it would be better to face the idea that maybe it was not the best solution to restrict the debates,” she said.

For her part, Wasserman Schultz has not budged on the debate schedule.

“We’re going to have six debates. Period,” she told reporters Thursday morning at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor news organization in Washington, D.C., according to multiple published reports.

Fuller Clark said more Democrats should be lobbying Wasserman Schultz to relent.

“I think that we should be all speaking up to bring pressure on her to change,” she said.

The first debate for the Democratic contenders is scheduled for Oct. 13 in Nevada. The Republican Party, facing its own controversies about which candidates are permitted to participate in the debates, held its first on Aug. 6. The next debate is scheduled for Wednesday at the Reagan Library in California.

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at jim.osullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.