Crashing the Party
Challenging the Democratic Party and Its U.S. Senator
The walls in the auditorium of Whittier Elementary were covered with green and blue Maria Cantwell signs. A giant Cantwell banner fluttered above the stage. Given that the Saturday afternoon event was being put on by the Coordinated Campaign, an arm of the Democratic Party that lassos staff and resources to support Democratic campaigns statewide, the Cantwell decorations seemed appropriate.
However, to Democrat Hong Tran, 40, who's running a long-shot campaign against Cantwell in the primary, the Cantwell feng shui was another indication that the incumbent senator is getting special treatment from the party. Tran—an attorney with the low-income advocacy group the Northwest Justice Project—had shown up at the May 20 Ballard rally with campaign signs of her own. However, she was stopped by party volunteers who pointed to a warning they had taped up on the door: "No Signs."
"No signs?" Tran asked. "What about all the Cantwell signs?" The volunteers didn't have a response. Rather than making a fuss, however, Tran turned her attention to working the crowd, hyping her antiwar position at Cantwell's expense. (Cantwell voted for the war in 2002, and has alienated the Democratic base by failing to denounce the war.)
Tran reserved her anger over the Whittier slight for Washington State Democratic Party Chair Dwight Pelz, to whom she sent an e-mail the following Tuesday, May 23:
"As you well know, the state party established the Coordinated Campaign to allow Democratic Party candidates to pool resources to get out their message. The event at Whittier Elementary School was an event sponsored by the Coordinated Campaign. The event would have been more accurately advertised as the Cantwell Campaign Event... I contacted you long before the event so the party had ample notice to include me. However, as is becoming evident, the Democratic State Party does not believe in fairness as it relates to other Democratic candidates."
The Coordinated Campaign says the Whittier event—which featured Senator Russ Feingold—was indeed a Cantwell event. "Senator Feingold came out here to help Senator Cantwell," Coordinated Campaign spokesman Kelly Steele says flatly.
Tran's letter—which also accused the party of preventing her from using its voter database—demanded that the party stop ignoring her. Tran wants speaking time at the June 2–3 State Democratic Party convention in Yakima. Tran says speaking time means equal time at the microphone as Cantwell, and slated immediately before or after Cantwell on the schedule.
Pelz says he will give Tran access to some voter files, and she will get three minutes on Saturday afternoon. But he adds: "Maria is the incumbent senator at the top of our ticket," and the convention is to "laud the leaders of the Democratic Party." Cantwell, with a 10-minute slot, will be a featured speaker on Saturday morning, along with U.S. Representative Jim McDermott. (Governor Christine Gregoire will speak at a banquet on June 1.) Pelz says it is "unprecedented" to let challengers speak at the convention, "but we're going to do it." In addition to giving Tran three minutes, Pelz says another antiwar Cantwell challenger, former Libertarian/former Green/perennial candidate Mark Wilson, will also get three minutes to address the convention. The convention is not for nominating or endorsing, but rather setting the Democratic Party platform.
Tran hopes her antiwar rap (she's calling for quick withdrawal) will have traction with the delegates.
It remains to be seen if Tran can play Ned Lamont to Cantwell's Joe Lieberman. On May 19, antiwar Democratic insurgent Ned Lamont got more than 500 delegate votes—33.4 percent at Connecticut's Democratic Convention—more than double the 15 percent needed to force a primary runoff in that state. Tran hopes her showing at the convention gives her similar momentum heading into the September primary.
Despite Cantwell's liberal leanings (90 percent approval from the environmentalists at the League of Conservation Voters; 100 percent approval record from women's rights advocates at NARAL) she, like Lieberman, voted for the war in Iraq and stands by it. And also like Lieberman, she voted for the USA PATRIOT Act. Twice. In this heated election year, when Democrats are calling for a bloody referendum on the Bush years, those two emblematic issues are serious hassles for hawkish Democrats like Cantwell.email@example.com