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Some complain of ‘packing’ Democratic clubs for endorsements

Monday, February 3, 2014 by Jo Clifton

There was an unusually fierce internal battle at Saturday’s endorsement meeting of the Central Austin Democrats. Essentially, the argument was over the fact that numerous members of the University Democrats had joined Central Austin Democrats, ostensibly so they could vote in Saturday’s endorsement elections.


This is not the first time this sort of thing has happened. It’s called “packing” or “stacking” and it has been done for years. But according to longtime consultant David Butts, the winning campaigns had put together what he called a “mobile majority” by signing up new members to various organizations and getting them to vote.


Although those efforts may have added 25 or 30 members to groups like Austin Environmental Democrats, it was not a majority. AED President Ted Siff said he handed out 140 ballots, certainly a healthy number compared to the number of people who attend those meetings regularly, but not a majority. AED endorsed Andy Brown for Travis County Judge and Ramey Ko for County Treasurer but did not endorse in the Commissioner Precinct 2 race.


So, after sweeping all the Democratic club endorsements Thursday night, Brown won the endorsement of both the Central Austin Democrats (CAD) and University Democrats Saturday, giving him the coveted Austin Progressive Coalition endorsement.


Also, winning that endorsement, as well as most of those granted Thursday, were Precinct 2 Commissioner candidate Richard Jung and Ko. Jung and Ko are law partners and share a campaign manager, Mykle Tomlinson. According to Brown campaign manager Jim Wick, “Mykle isn’t a consultant for us, but we have hired his firm YstrategY to make phone calls for us in the past, and likely in the future. For phone services, we paid YstrategY $13,868.80. I can’t tell you how many phone calls that was for strategic purposes, but it was a lot.”


Asked how many club members he recruited, Tomlinson said, “probably 20-25, depending on the clubs, but a lot of those folks didn’t show up.”


CAD President Glen Coleman tried to stop Saturday’s packing by declaring that at Friday’s meeting he would not allow members who were going to vote in the UDems election to vote in the CAD election, too. There was a lot of push back against this idea and it did not win a majority of supporters when the question was put to the membership at Saturday’s meeting. Of course, many of those voting on the question, members of UDems, would have been disenfranchised if they had voted in favor of that motion.


On Sunday, Coleman was philosophical. He noted that he is a Brown supporter but said he was concerned that the “packing” would damage the value of the endorsements. He acknowledged, however, that packing was not a new thing and had been practiced for many years before this one.


Tomlinson said Sunday, “This is not a new thing. This happens every campaign cycle. David (Butts) has played this game for years…he’s very good at it.” He said he had organized people “to join the clubs to support our candidates,” adding perhaps 20 to 25 new members to a variety of clubs.


But Butts said, “He’s just basically fouling the whole process with this approach.”


Sarah Eckhardt campaign spokeswoman Genevieve Van Cleve did not complain about the process or the result. She said, “I think in a year when Senator (Wendy) Davis and Senator (Leticia) Van de Putte are actually running for the two top seats and the Democrats have become competitive for the first time in years, we have got to take a breath . .  We need to put it behind us and we need to concentrate on the opportunity ahead and the values and beliefs we share.”


Chuck Herring, a former chair of the Travis County Democratic Party, wrote the following concerning packing, “The practice has been around forever. At its simplest, it’s just another form of encouraging voters and supporters to help a candidate. As long ago as the mid 1980s, the County Party studied the issue (during Herring’s tenure.) He had beloved former Sen. Walter Richter (also a former Chair) study the matter after the 1986 primaries, which had several particularly hotly contested races – including for county judge, county clerk, county chair and others. Senator Richter studied the issue and found that while the practice might be subject to abuse, it had several advantages and should not (and could not) be eliminated.”


Mary Ann Neely, who is the treasurer of the Austin Environmental Democrats, pointed out that “the multi-club endorsement meetings facilitate people just walking from table to table…without having to attend meetings,” before that. In the case of her group, they allowed people to vote by proxy. At Thursday’s meeting, Neely said, there were 18 proxies. She said the group will be talking about whether the group needs to change its rules in this Friday’s meeting.

Note: this section added at 9:55am on 2/3/14

Andy Brown campaign manager Jim Wick was disappointed by our story. He sent an email statement following publication of the initial story. He said, in part, “We have worked very hard for many months to win those endorsements, and we basically spent all of last week on gotv for those endorsement meetings. In fact, if you would have asked me, I would have been happy to tell you that it was actually the Sarah Eckhardt campaign that added 21 members to central Austin democrats. . . While we encouraged some of our supporters to join the club months ago, our efforts focused on identifying known supporters within clubs and making sure they turned out to the meeting to vote. Our margin of victory on many of these clubs endorsements hasn’t even been remotely close.”


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