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Dane Dems/PD dispute develops an online front

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The Democratic Party of Dane County and Progressive Dane (PD) are at it again. The recurring feud between factions of the local left has frequently found a home on talk radio or even Internet message boards. But the current chapter might be distinguished in the attention paid by local political bloggers.

On Wednesday, Jan. 10, the Dane Dems held their monthly meeting in downtown Madison. Meetings are open to the more-than-1,300 members and "interested people" alike. The main order of business at the January meeting was endorsements for the upcoming spring elections:

Municipal elections candidate-endorsements will occur at this meeting. To vote on endorsements, one must be a paid-in-full member of the county party.
A couple hundred members of the Dane Dems showed up for the meeting, many more than were originally expected or could comfortably fit into the conference room at the Concourse Hotel. After a long night of often contentious speechifying and discussion, the big story involved members of the Madison Common Council who did not receive endorsements, which included three incumbents who had been endorsed in 2005.

Zach Brandon and Lauren Cnare, both of whom are running unopposed and were recommended for endorsement by the Dane Dems executive board, were not endorsed. A third incumbent, Larry Palm, was also left out and one of his challengers, PD activist Vicky Selkowe, was nearly endorsed instead. Two candidates recommended by the board for endorsement were declined by the assembled membership. Troy Thiel and Chris Schmidt are challenging PD incumbents Robbie Webber and Tim Gruber, respectively.

These developments, coupled with the large attendance and contentious atmosphere at the meeting, kick-started the Dane Dems/PD debate again. Members displeased with the outcome of the endorsement votes accused PD or, more specifically, outgoing city council president Austin King, of packing the meeting. Other members amenable to the non-endorsements, meanwhile, framed the issue as a matter of liberal values and voting records, likewise saying that their competitors stacked the room.

Dane Dems opposed to the endorsement of moderate or centrist candidates explicitly compared this battle to the ongoing struggle seen in the national Democratic Party. Just as that debate is playing out online, some local participants have weighed in on their own blogs.

Almost immediately after the meeting Dane Dem and onetime PD Steering Committee member Lukas Diaz reported on the non-endorsement of both Palm and Selkowe. Less than a day later, Dane Dems vice-chair (and party insurgent) Russell Wallace addressed the issue, writing that the "majority of those there were part of two opposing efforts to pack the meeting." He also noted the sobriquet of "local Joe Liebermans" conferred to Brandon and Cnare by Austin King, a talking point often noted in subsequent discussions.

Late last Thursday night, PD co-chair and Dane Dem Lisa Subeck joined the growing brouhaha, writing, "the Dane County Democratic Party sent a clear message to party leadership, candidates, and others that we will not support self-proclaimed moderates who choose mediocrity over progressive values."

The pace of discussion about the meeting quickened last Friday (Jan. 12), when State Journal columnist Melanie Conklin wrote briefly about the matter, framing its outcome as a "coup" and featuring statements from King, Brandon, and Dane Dems chair Wayne Bigelow. This elicited a response from Subeck, who criticized Brandon's stance towards the Dane Dems and wrote, "the debate and the votes on these endorsements was about accountability to the party's platform and not about silly party battles."

Saturday saw a question from pseudonymous blogger and Democratic partisan "Dave Diamond," who asked about the political criticisms of Brandon. Then that evening, a former PD co-chair launched a discussion on TDPF trying to flip the narrative of a "coup" on its head, asking, "Has PD become the liberal/progressive caucus of the Dane County Democrats?"

Things really got rolling Monday, though. Paul Soglin lambasted PD and Austin King, writing that the local political party has infiltrated the Dane Dems. "The way it was done was perfectly legal," Soglin wrote. "With the encouragement of Austin King, they signed up online and in a timely fashion prior to the meeting. Despite the niceties, it does raises some interesting questions about Progressive Dane (PD) and its moral compass."

This triggered a flurry of responses about the meeting and its non-endorsements. Progressive blogger Ben Brothers addressed the issue, writing in support of any efforts to "pack" these kinds of meetings (and therefore build the organization), and also decrying the tone of the overall debate. Green Party partisan and blogger Nate Schmolze subsequently weighed in on the issue, writing, "I have never understood the Democratic villainization of Progressive Dane." Shortly thereafter, "Dave Diamond" noted the accelerating tempo of debate over the issue, writing, "This Zach Brandon thing is rolling on and building up like the snowman I would make had we gotten three more inches of snow." "Diamond" cautioned against the non-endorsements, characterizing them as an ideological purge similar to that seen in the state Republican Party and contending that it would prevent "the broad coalition we need for long term success."

As of late Monday afternoon, Brenda Konkel had written the latest word, commenting on several assertions all having to do with the policies and reputation of PD. Konkel closed by saying her party did not stack the meeting. "Several Progressive Dane leaders were busy having our monthly Steering Committee meeting while the Dems were doing their endorsements," she wrote. "It's getting deep out there, and I'm not talking about the snow. And that spinning, isn't tires."

Absent from this are Brandon, who was on vacation and has not written on his site since the end of last year, and Palm, who has removed his blog from public view.

The online volleys will undoubtedly continue and are by no means the only relevant perspectives on the relationship between the two political entities. Despite the introspective tenor of this issue, however, the interest that it is generating online is a clear indication that the Dane Dem insurgents are on the march. Their influence and activism may be integral in the outcome of April's elections.

What about last Wednesday's vote, though? Russell Wallace, the Dane Dems co-chair who describes himself as "at odds" with his peers in the party leadership, suggests that all of the hoopla over packing is irrelevant, and the proposed endorsements would not have passed anyway:

In the end the two opposing groups largely canceled each other out, and the endorsement votes probably turned out exactly the same as they would have if neither side had packed the meeting. Because an endorsement requires a two-thirds vote, which is a pretty high hurdle, almost every endorsement that faces a challenge fails.

So despite all the drama, the results on Wednesday are probably an accurate reflection of the will of the Dane Dems membership. We just took a somewhat roundabout path to get there.

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