On Saturday, a year after Sen. Bernie Sanders won the Nevada caucuses in the Democratic presidential primary, a slate of progressive candidates swept elections for leadership positions in the Nevada State Democratic Party. Ryan Grim talks to activist Keenan Korth and Judith Whitmer, who was elected state party chair, about how they out-organized establishment Democrats.
Ryan Grim: Welcome to Deconstructed. This is Ryan Grim.
On Saturday afternoon, the Nevada Democratic Party leadership was thrown out of office by a coalition that had come together organizing for Bernie Sanders in the state’s caucuses in 2016 and 2020. What happened next was both shocking and, if you’re cynical enough, expected.
To back up — a group of five candidates calling themselves the progressive slate, running in coalition with the local Democratic Socialists of America, swept four of the five races Saturday against the establishment slate, which dubbed itself “Progressive Unity.” After a fight over who was eligible to vote and whose vote hadn’t been counted, the one race they lost flipped, meaning the DSA-backed slate had won all five party leadership positions.
The party establishment, which is still led by former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a titan in Nevada politics, quickly ditched the rhetoric about unity. Local reporter John Ralston reported that nearly half a million dollars was drained from the party’s coffers and transferred to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Every employee quit; all the consulting contracts were severed.
Not long after winning her chair race, Judith Whitmer got a blunt email from the soon-to-be-former Nevada state party executive director, Alana Mounce. The email begins:
“Judith — congratulations on being elected the new NV Dems Chair. I am writing to inform you that I have received resignations from all NV Dems staff, as well as notices of termination of contracts from our consultants. Additionally, I will resign effective Monday, March 8th.
The NV Dems had already made arrangements with our payroll provider to process the 3/15 payroll for our employees (before learning of their earlier departure). To recognize these employees for their contributions to the party and facilitate a smooth transition we have also already provided them severance through the end of the month.
Mounce didn’t respond to a request for comment, but that ruthlessness is part of what has made the Reid machine so effective against Republicans in the state, but it’s unclear how it’ll work against the party’s progressive wing.
In a twist of history, Reid himself actually produced the conditions that led to his own lieutenants getting tossed from office. It was Reid who successfully maneuvered in 2008 to make Nevada the first presidential caucus in the West. His reasoning was simple: He wanted presidential candidates to have to take a position on whether nuclear waste should be stored at Yucca Mountain — more precisely, he wanted that position to be no. In exchange for Obama’s promise to scuttle the Yucca Mountain project, Reid endorsed him for president, after encouraging him to run. It worked: Obama appointed a former aide of Reid’s to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission with instructions to halt the project.
Reid also wanted the caucus to help build the party’s infrastructure, and that worked, too. After years of Republican control, Democrats now hold the governor’s mansion, the state Senate, and the state House, as well as both Senate seats. Without those two senators, there’d be no Democratic majority in the Senate today.
But the caucuses also created an opening for Bernie Sanders, and his supporters have run through it to swamp the party. Instead of finding a way to work with the newcomers, the Reid machine is setting up an independent shop.
We’ll be joined today by Whitmer as well as Keenan Korth, a Nevada organizer you might remember as a character in the documentary “Knock Down the House,” where he was on the staff of Amy Villella, who lost a race for Congress in 2018 in Nevada. Korth went on to work for another “Knock Down the House” candidate, Cori Bush, in 2020.
Judith, welcome to Deconstructed.
Judith Whitmer: Thank you, Ryan. It’s good to be here.
RG: Keenan Korth, thank you for joining me here.
Keenan Korth: Great to be here as well.
RG: [Laughing] So, tell me what happened this weekend! Judith, you’re now running the Nevada Democratic Party?
JW: I am. I’m officially the chair of the state party here in Nevada. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re ready to do it.
RG: And so … winning this entire slate, how much of that had to do with Bernie Sanders victory in the Nevada caucuses a year ago, and how much of it relied on organizing over the last year? Was it a fait accompli once Bernie had done so well in the caucuses? Or was it kind of a push and pull since then?
JW: I think that it goes all the way back to 2016, actually, and the fact that we saw some missed opportunities, but there was still progressive engagement and a few progressive startups that didn’t go anywhere. And then when Bernie announced his run for 2020, I think it was reinvigorating for a lot of the progressives that were still here and were still engaged, but just not organized. So once we started organizing for the Bernie campaign, we went all in on that, we had a very effective strategy — a very effective ground game in coalition with DSA — and then a coalition with the Left Caucus to bring all those people into the fold and back into the progressive movement. And that’s what led to a landslide win here for Bernie Sanders in Nevada.
RG: Now are both of you dues-paying DSA members? How many of the five-person slate are DSA members?
KK: I believe four of them are formerly dues-paying DSA members and one of them located in Carson City County simply does not have a local org to join. But we are certainly trying to get DSA up and running in every county here in Nevada, so that our inside-outside strategy works in every county.
RG: So what was the message that you ran on? I noticed that you called your slate the progressive slate, whereas the establishment called there’s the “Progressive Unity” slate. So what were the differing messages?
JW: [Laughing] Well, we were up and running with the progressive slate back during the state convention. So what happened was we were organizing for the caucus, obviously, and, you know, we had a big win here and a big celebration with Nina Turner. And so after that, we worked really hard to keep those delegates engaged through the convention process. When Bernie suspended his campaign, of course, a lot of people were feeling pretty frustrated, and disappointed, and we couldn’t let them all just disappear. So we worked overtime to make sure that we gave them a reason to stay engaged in the progressive movement through the work of DSA on the outside, Left Caucus on the inside; we kept them engaged through the state convention, and that’s when we elected members of our organization of DSA and Left Caucus to the state party executive board as at-large members, and that was on the progressive slate. So we decided to carry that over for this campaign as well, because it had been so effective. We won nine out of 10 races in that particular campaign for the state convention.
KK: And, you know, our progressive slate here that we ran on, right, that was like 12 months-plus in the making versus the “Progressive Unity” slate, which was much more of a reaction to, I think, the establishment or the status quo seeing the writing on the wall, seeing what we had been able to accomplish last summer. And I think the the implicit message of their slate, they wanted to project that they were progressive because they knew that they had to be — to a certain extent — to have a shot at all, because of the sheer numbers that, under Judith’s leadership, we have been able to recruit into our county and state central committees here.
But, you know, the implication was always that they were uniquely suited to be able to unify the party, whereas our slate was divisive or would be unable to do so.
RG: Which is fascinating, given what the reaction has been from the “Progressive Unity” faction since then.
RG: Judith, you, not long after winning, you got an email from the executive director of the party saying: Congratulations on becoming the new chair, effectively I’m writing to quit — and also everyone else is quitting, all the rest of the employees are quitting, and we have severed all of our contracts with our contractors. Were you surprised to get that message?
JW: We weren’t really surprised, in that we were prepared for it. We were hoping that that would not be the case. I mean, we’ve had many conversations — we do a lot of consensus building, we do a lot of worst-case scenario discussions about OK, what if this and what if that — so it didn’t hit us by surprise, necessarily in that regard. But what is sort of shocking is that for a slate that claimed that they were all about unity, and kept this false narrative of division going on throughout the entire campaign, in fact, they kept intensifying that, that’s what was surprising about it was then the willingness to just walk away instead of working with us.
KK: And yesterday — sorry, yeah — even before the meeting was over, the virtual Central Committee meeting, it was kind of ironic to see John Ralston here reporting some comments from those inside the “Reid machine” — as they framed it — that even before the meeting was adjourned, and these elections were ratified, that they were framing this as they had no other option but to work around the party.
RG: Right. And I understand, I mean, from the local reporting, that they moved something like $400,000, $500,000 out of the party coffers and transferred it over to the DSCC somewhat recently. Is that accurate? And what is left of the party that you’ve now taken over?
JW: Well, we are still working through our attorney to gain access to everything. So that’s an ongoing effort right now.
JW: So we don’t even know if that reporting is entirely accurate, especially given the source of some of that information. We’re not entirely sure it’s accurate. But we have taken measures to make sure that everything is safeguarded: A letter went out today from our attorney, making sure that no other actions were taken.
We are officially in charge of the party. That became the case as soon as the election meeting adjourned; there’s no gap in that or no wait time to take that office. So as the state party chair, I made the decision that we had to safeguard our party assets, our party bank account, and everything else. And the letter from our attorney went out today.
RG: And Keenan, I want to read you the quote that you were referencing, and ask you to unpack it for people. So this is in the [Las Vegas] Review Journal, this is a source to an operative, somebody who’s close to what’s known as the Reid machine. So the quote says: “But keep in mind, the Reid machine is not the Central Committee. It’s the operatives, volunteers, fundraising, and organizing capacity, all of which can be accomplished outside of the state party organization. Unfortunately, there’s no real choice but to work around the party.”
So what signal is the operative sending there? And, functionally, how does the machine carry that out?
KK: Well, you know, I think to start, one of the things that’s notable is, and we saw this in the lead-up to the election this weekend, this sort of reframing of the party, of the Central Committee membership, trying to minimize the role of that governing body of the party, trying to minimize the scope or the legitimacy of the decisions we make; it’s funny, because over the past four years, there have been a lot of efforts for progressives — for Sanders supporters post-2016 — to engage in the party, a lot of fights have been mounted at the county and state level at our Central Committee meetings, whether they’ve been leadership elections, motions to implement new rules and procedures or change bylaws. And we would routinely come up short prior to this most recent caucus-to-convention process, we would get a 40-45 percent of the vote. And we were always told: Well, you know, this is how it works. Don’t hate the player, hate the game. If you want to make change, get involved.
KK: Right? There’s been this sort of this specter of “Dem exit” — at once scornful of people who maybe get frustrated with the party and leave and they say: Well, you need to just stick around and make it better. And then also dismissive of anyone who actually does.
And so what we’ve seen now is, OK, we’re going to double-down and play this game where we understand how it’s done and knew the opportunity in Senator Sanders’ landslide win in the caucus that we had. By no means was it inevitable — it was a concerted organizing effort — but we knew what the rules of the game wore, and we played by it accordingly. This is the first time we really heard the Nevada State Central Committee members, as a body minimized, and it’s in the same way that the left always has been, that DSA has been, that progressives have been.
RG: And, Judith, the reaction of the establishment here feels almost tailor-made to breed cynicism. Like Kenan was saying, the message that leftists are always given is: Look, if you don’t like how things are, be the change, make the change; do the work, show up for the meetings, be a loyal party member, we follow Robert’s Rules of Order, make your case, and may the best person win.
You win. And, as he said, it seems like they would rather burn the thing to the ground, than have somebody else be in control of it — literally draining funds from it, and stripping it of all of its staff, and its contract, and its consulting contracts, and suggesting that they’re going to build a rival kind of party apparatus to it.
So, for people who hear that and say: “See? I told you! This is pointless.” What would you say to them? What are the tools that you have? And what should people look for from this new Nevada Democratic Party over the next couple of years? What can you do?
JW: Well, actually, one of our biggest goals was removing the obstruction. And when they talk about putting in the work or putting in the time, I was one of those people.
So in 2017, I ran for party office. I’ve been serving on the Clark County Democratic Party Executive Board since 2017. So I’ve been putting in the work. What they just didn’t expect is that we got better and better at organizing and out-organizing them at every turn.
RG: Right, don’t put in that much work!
JW: Yeah! Exactly, right? That’s not really what they met. They meant just, you know, show up and do what you’re told — which was never me, it was never going to be me. But I did put in the work.
So I have been at all the meetings. I’ve been at all the campaign events, all the canvassing, everything it takes. I did the fundraising for Clark Dems. We raised more money during small-dollar, grassroots fundraising than they’d ever had before. And we had money to help in this last election.
So they tried something similar with Clark County Executive Board when we had these massive resignations and they walked away, thinking that we were going to fail and then they would just be rid of us, and that we would just give up and go away. Well, it didn’t quite work out the way they wanted it to. And Clark County Dems is thriving and has grown to over 1,200 members under my leadership.
So I have been constantly encouraging people, and recruiting people, to go onto these central committees, to become members of them, knowing full well that there is power there because it’s the governing body of the Democratic Party. They can try to minimize that role, but the main thing here is that those rules are made by a body bent on the whole philosophy that you have to vote blue no matter who, you always have to fall in line, you have to do what you’re told, and — maybe — you might someday get rewarded for that. I don’t believe in that. I believe that this should be an open and democratic process and that people should get to choose their own candidates. But when the party keeps constantly putting obstructions in the way of people doing that, then the best option — to me — is removing the obstruction.
RG: Right. So what will it look like on the ground, this new Nevada Democratic Party, for regular, rank-and-file members of the Democratic Party, for voters, for disaffected people? What change will they see in how they kind of relate to the Democratic Party? And, related to that, how has the last day of fundraising been? It’s been a bit more than 24 hours since you won. Has there been a national response?
JW: We have just — like I said — literally been dealing with issues at hand, trying to get access to everything. But we do have a fundraising plan, and a fundraising mechanism, and we will be doing that immediately. So I’m really not worried about the money or the fundraising. We know how to do that and we’ve got a really great team — and we work together as a team. We’ve already had numerous discussions about how we’re going to raise the money, how we’re going to support candidates, how we’re going to recruit and engage candidates from disenfranchised, marginalized communities. This is the kind of work that we’ve already been doing on the ground.
And we actually have been building a really effective ground game. And we’re about to roll out a new get-out-the-vote operation, because that’s being restructured as well, because the old, so-called precinct captain program doesn’t serve people well in a 2020-2021 cycle, and going into 2022, we saw during this pandemic, that it’s not going to just be knocking on doors anymore to be effective. We’ve got to be a lot more innovative in our approaches: We’ve got to have not only a great ground game and a great structure for implementing that ground game, but it’s gonna come down to the latest technology, the latest, great digital outreach as well, and finding ways to constantly engage people. Because people engage a lot differently now than they used to! And I don’t think things are going to go back to business as usual even once we have a fully vaccinated population, it’s going to mean that we’re going to have to find more creative ideas and solutions — and sometimes customizable solutions.
I’ve been meeting with all of our rural counties and our county chairs, and we’re mapping out statewide election strategies going forward. And some of our counties want to be able to recruit their own candidates in some of these rural areas, but they’ve been prevented from doing that before, because, typically, people at the top decide: OK, it’s mostly a Republican district, there isn’t a chance in hell, we’re not putting any money there, which totally ignores the efforts of those areas to start recruiting more people into the party or to growing and building the party. And if you’re going to have a successful Democratic Party going into an election cycle, then you damn well better be bringing people into the party, and engaging them, and giving them a reason to vote.
KK: You know, a lot of what Judith is speaking to is this persistent idea or this set of assumptions, which I think are ultimately a disadvantage to the establishment, or the status quo, or however you want to refer to it, which is this assumption that just things will never change. And I think they’ve looked at the past, right? The left doesn’t have a great track record if you go back cycle after cycle after cycle; this is kind of a new movement, built out of the 2016 and 2020 Sanders’ campaigns in many ways. But one thing I think that we’re cognizant of, that we’re certainly a part of daily — whether it’s engaging in this work as a volunteer in the party and orgs like DSA or those of us who work professionally on progressive campaigns — is that we are building infrastructure to go toe to toe with the long-standing infrastructure that the Democratic establishment has relied on, whether that’s just rank-and-file organizers with the skill sets necessary to staff these campaigns, to the consultants and firms that campaigns need to build their teams out around to do fundraising, to do digital outreach, to tap into and be able to translate that kind of really successful small-dollar operation that Sanders pioneered in 2016, but make sure it works at every level.
And so, I think when they do things like this kind of take-their-ball-and-go canceling these consulting contracts here, that they think: Our consultants aren’t going to work with them, so they’re not going to be able to do anything. But the fact of the matter is that there are incredible operatives on our side of the aisle — or within our wing of the party — that raise incredible sums of monies without relying on contributions, like here in Nevada from the mining industry or the gaming industry that are true to their value, that outraised campaigns. I’ve been part of campaigns that didn’t accept corporate contributions where we did outraise outright — outraised and outspent — our incumbent establishment opponents.
And I’m really excited about the opportunity here! By no means did this slate run with the intent of coming in, and firing everyone, and canceling these contracts — although the other side kind of cynically campaigned on that message that we were going to do that. But now that we are faced with a clean slate, to me, that’s nothing but an opportunity to rebuild the party even more quickly, and build a team out of staff, and volunteers, and rank-and-file members, and consultants that have been doing incredible work to engage new constituencies. It was a big part of the Sanders campaign, the outreach to Latino and Hispanic communities, to Muslim communities here in Nevada; in particular, we had an extraordinary engagement with the broader Muslim communities, and two leaders of which are on our slate, Dr. Zaffar Iqbal, our second vice chair; and Ahmad Adé, our newly elected secretary.
And there are folks that have been rebuffed by the Democratic establishment that want to help do that work, that have been rebuffed here in Nevada, specifically, that want to do that work, and that have a strong track record of success. So we’re looking forward to the opportunity to work with folks like that as we strengthen our party here in Nevada, prepare for victory in 2022; as Judith said on the campaign trail repeatedly, she and this slate are not willing to concede a single seat in 2022, no matter what the anxieties might be out there, because we have a different approach that we think is a winning approach — that when we do things differently, different outcomes happen. I think they’re anticipating just doing the same thing, and the same outcome’s gonna happen, right? We’re gonna have this midterm bloodbath. But I don’t think that’s a given.
RG: Well, Senator TK Catherine Cortez-masto is up in two years. She seems to have worked against your slate. Judith, have you heard from her since you won? And what impact will this change to Nevada politics have on her race?
JW: Well, it’s really kind of a shame, because I actually had some really great conversations with her prior to this race. In fact, my last one with her, she seemed impressed with some of my plans and said she would be great with working with me. And then, suddenly, everything sort of seemed to change or go off track. So I’m not really sure about that or why, because I thought we had a fairly decent relationship. And I reassured her that we weren’t going to primary her and we were planning on going all-in on making sure she got reelected. So it seems kind of strange to me that you wouldn’t see the value of what we’ve been able to do, and how well we organize, and how we’re winning these elections by keeping everybody actively engaged. It seems to me like she would see the value of that and want to utilize that.
And no, she has not reached out to me. But I have reached out to her and gotten no response. I feel like it’s appropriate for me to try to reach out to everybody; I don’t usually wait for people to reach out to me first. It’s just always good to have good relationships, and I don’t believe in burning bridges or being in any way toxic, or hateful, or anything else, even though I’ve had it directed at me for numerous years. But that’s just that [it] doesn’t accomplish anything. That’s not what we’re trying to accomplish here.
We’re trying to restore democracy. And I’m fully aware that we can’t do anything if Republicans are in control or running the show. But I also am worried that if we don’t do something, it won’t be Democrats anyhow, because of what I’m seeing and hearing on the ground. So why wouldn’t you want to engage with one of the most effective organizing and fundraising machines for progressives, and bring them to the table also as another tool in your resources to make sure that you win in 2022? So I am surprised by that.
But I have reached out to elected officials. I’ve been doing the work and trying to set up meetings. And, so far, only one elected official — well, actually two now — have reached out to me. So, hopefully, maybe some more of them will decide this isn’t really the right move, will see the value of what we’re doing, and want to be engaged because it’s only going to help them.
RG: Judith, thanks so much for joining us on Deconstructed.
JW: Thank you, Ryan.
RG: And Keenan, thanks for being here. And congratulations to you both.
KK: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.
RG: That was Judith Whitmer and Keenan Korth, and that’s our show.
Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Our supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
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