West Virginia Democrats are complaining that the state party set up an affirmative action committee that has been required since 1974 and then immediately ignored the wishes of the diverse committee.
Bottom line, leaders of the state party decided to submit a draft affirmative action plan to the national party without members of the new affirmative action committee signing off.
This all came to a raucous climax during a two-hour Thursday night meeting that was streamed online.
“The treatment and disrespect on display last night was unconscionable,” said Democrat Hollis Lewis, the co-chairman of the affirmative action committee.
In the aftermath, Democrats have complained that the meeting deviated from a previously-posted agenda, that members of the affirmative action committee were stonewalled from participating in the actual discussion of affirmative action, and that party leaders talked over members of the party from traditionally-underrepresented groups.
Democrats today used words like “egregious treatment” and “disrespect” to describe what happened.
Members of the party spoke out on practically any available format. Former Delegate Amanda Estep Burton of Kanawha County laid out her concerns on “580 Live” radio. Mary Ann Claytor, a two-time candidate for state auditor, spoke out on MetroNews’ “Talkline.” And several more Democrats outlined their deep concerns in a streaming press conference that lasted nearly an hour.
“It just kind of made me sad,” said Aryanna Islam, a former House of Delegates candidate from Marion County, who described herself as a rare young voice on West Virginia’s political landscape.
“We’re trying out best to be involved, but we feel like we’re constantly shut out, shut down. Last night sent a message that the diversity in the party is kind of like an afterthought. It’s another box to check.”
Kim Felix, a Democrat from Mercer County, also described a deep feeling of being let down. She made a point that the existing affirmative action plan hasn’t been drafted by one person of color.
“My initial reaction is one of sadness in that young persons like myself and people who identify as people of color have attempted to be proactive and involved and engaged in the Democratic Party. Incidents like what occurred yesterday really signal and send a message to young people that we are not valued, nor are people of diversity welcomed into the party,” Felix said.
“It would be my hope that we would be welcomed with open arms. What we’re hoping for today is to signal to the Democratic Party that this can’t continue.”
The affirmative action issue developed from reform efforts stretching back two years by Democrat Selina Vickers. She and state party leaders reached agreement on a memorandum of understanding, and establishing an affirmative action plan is an aspect of that. “We recognized major problems. No transparency. No diversity,” Vickers said today.
A change to party bylaws on March 15 allowed two months — until May 15 — to get in line with the national charter. The affirmative action plan was a key component of doing so. State party leaders asked for an extension on that aspect, and the Democratic National Committee allowed that until June 4, today.
The affirmative action committee met for the first time two days ago.
“When it was time to implement it, instead of acting in good faith, they tried to ram through a plan,” Vickers said at today’s press conference. “The whole thing is to have people of diversity develop a plan, do outreach and bring people into the party. In my opinion, these incredible people who are stepping up and trying to build this party were completely disrespected.”
A half hour into the Thursday night meeting, longtime Democratic Party Chairwoman Belinda Biafore gave her own version of the background. Even that was rocky.
“We’ve been working for over a year now,” Biafore began.
“Madam chairwoman,” said Mary Thorp, the other affirmative action co-chair, cutting in.
“Excuse me, I’m trying to explain what the plan was about,” Biafore said, continuing along.
Biafore described the deadline to submit the affirmative action plan and emphasized that it was a draft. She acknowledged the affirmative action committee was just being formed and described it as customary for the executive committee to come up with a first draft.
That’s when Walt Auvil, a Parkersburg resident on the state Democratic Party Executive Committee, broke in with a point of order. He suggested it would be a good idea for members of the affirmative action committee be seated on the executive committee so they could actually vote on the affirmative action plan.
“It defeats the purpose of having an affirmative action committee if they’re not part of the affirmative action plan,” Auvil said.
Biafore responded that their admittance was next on the agenda, after consideration of the affirmative action plan.
Susan Miley, a Democrat from Harrison County, spoke up to agree with Auvil.
“I can’t even comprehend us not seating the members of an affirmative action committee prior to voting on the affirmative action plan when they’re the ones who are supposed to be the ones creating the affirmative action plan,” Miley said. “That’s just insane to me.”
Pat Maroney, a former Democratic Party chairman, chimed in to again emphasize the approaching deadline. He said the affirmative action committee could make changes to the draft later on.
“We have before us an affirmative action plan. We have to adopt it first before any of the proposed members become members of the committee,” Maroney said. “It’s a question of which comes first, the chicken or the egg.”
The egg splattered from there.
“Why are white people drafting a plan for Hispanics and Black people? Why?” Miley shot back.
She wanted to know why West Virginia couldn’t plead for an extension from the Democratic National Committee by being open about just how little participation there was in the plan’s development.
The state party today produced a letter from the national Democratic Party denying another extension, saying West Virginia has already had enough time.
“I don’t understand why an arbitrary deadline that we have no control over, that we have no say in whatsoever, and I’m sure has been looming longer than five days — much longer than five days — why all of a sudden that is the deciding factor versus the voices of the people that actually live here, that actually care about this affirmative action plan,” Miley said.
Biafore responded that the state party just needed to hit the deadline and then could amend the affirmative action plan.
“I just want to stress that what everybody’s missing is this is simply a starting point,” Biafore said Thursday night. “After I turn this in tomorrow — you’ve all read it; it’s not like there’s anything binding in it. You got to work and get whatever you want and we’ll come back and approve it and amend it and send it on. I’ve just got to get something to the DNC that says ‘look, we’re making a good-faith effort here.”
Today, Democrats outside of leadership continued to express outrage.
Lewis, the affirmative action committee co-chairman who has served as a Kanawha County magistrate, said concrete actions not just an apology, would be necessary to win back trust. The first step, he said, should be delaying submission of the affirmative action plan and allowing participation.
“We want to see actionable steps. The first thing is to ask for an extension, not put that plan through and give us time to have input,” he said. “An apology is fine, but we need actionable steps to go with that.”
Amanda Estep-Burton, a former delegate from Kanawha County, aired out a Facebook post Thursday evening and then went on local talk radio this morning.
“There’s a complete lack of leadership. It was an absolute mess,” said Estep-Burton. “They completely violated all of their own bylaws.”
“They didn’t get input from any underrepresented person when they created and drafted this plan to present to the DNC.”
Another Democrat, Mary Ann Claytor, participated in the press conference and also went on statewide radio.
“We had not had input in that plan, and we wanted our members to have that input,” Claytor said. “We didn’t want to have a committee that was just full of party heads to make the decision.
“We wanted to have our members involved because we believe the best representation is listening to the voices of the concern of your members.”
— MetroNews (@WVMetroNews) June 4, 2021
Claytor was among the last to speak at Thursday night’s meeting. She wanted to know why so few people could make amendments.
“So that means that we don’t have any voice in this. I don’t know why you all have a caucus,” she said.
Lewis followed up by punctuating his own frustration. “As a Black West Virginian, this is a slap in the face.”
Nick Casey, another former party chairman, drove a stake in the meeting.
“I move we adjourn.”