Sally Boynton Brown is one of seven candidates to become the next chair of the Democratic National Committee; the election will be held at a party convention in late February. She is currently the executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party, a position she has held since April 2012. Previously, Brown worked on several Idaho campaigns, including serving as director of operations for Keith Allred’s 2010 run for governor, and served as the Idaho Democratic Party’s communications director. She spoke over the phone with the Gate’s Ridgley Knapp on Inauguration Day, January 20, 2017.
The Gate: Let’s start with the main question: why did you decide to run for chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC)?
Sally Boynton Brown: There are a lot of reasons. I probably have about ten of them. It starts with that fact that I have always been a person who jumps in to fix a problem when I see it. What we are seeing is twofold. One, we get into this continued argument between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and I don’t think we can afford that. We can’t afford to lose a single person. We’ve got to figure out what we agree on, what our core values are, and how to all come around a shared vision to be able to push back, take our democracy, and build a twenty-first-century organization that is resilient and innovative at the DNC and in all of our state parties. I wasn’t hearing that. Instead it was, “Oh, who are you for? Who did you vote for in the primary?” Well, I didn’t vote in the primary. I’m a staff person, and it was really important for me to stay neutral, so I figured the best way to stay neutral was not even to have the conversation with myself over who I was going to vote for. I think it’s important and it behooves us to remember that we are all a community, and while we don’t agree on everything, there are really critical issues in our party that have to be dealt with. There are some revolutionary things we have to do as a Democratic Party, and we need to be doing that as one team.
Gate: You announced your candidacy on December 16, after the declaration of the candidacies of Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison and former labor secretary Tom Perez, as well as state party chairs Ray Buckley and Jaime Harrison. What prompted you to jump into the race even after Ellison announced high-profile endorsements from both the “Sanders” and “Clinton” wings of the party?
Brown: I think, first of all, not having a woman on stage was a huge reason. Obviously, I am a woman with a lot of ideas, a clear vision, and passion, and I am a worker who follows all of that up and turns ideas into action. It was a disappointment to see four men onstage. Now we have nine candidates, seven of them are men and two of them are women, and that’s really sad for me. [Editor’s note: there are seven candidates, five men and two women.] I thought it was really important that we have a woman’s voice—important that we weren’t just talking about their wives, their mothers, their sisters, and their daughters, but that we actually had a wife, a mother, a sister, and a daughter on stage talking issues from a woman’s perspective. That was definitely a piece of it as far as the timing went. I also didn’t see any candidates talking about the innovation and resiliency that I want to see in the Democratic Party, that we need to revolutionize the party from the foundation on up. We need to be returning and asking, “What is the purpose that the DNC plays?”, the specific building and staff and the money that we put into that. We need to be a service organization, and while I heard a lot of people talking about the fifty-state strategy that we used in the past, I didn’t hear anybody talking about what we needed to do for the future. I didn’t hear anybody talking about the 50 percent of the voters who didn’t vote in this election cycle. In fact, I’m at a conference today, and I’m still not hearing that. We’re spending a lot of time talking about the people who voted for Trump or the people who didn’t vote for Clinton, but we’re really not talking about those people who didn’t vote at all, and what we need to do to get them to vote. Those are the conversations I believe we need to be having desperately if we’re actually going to save democracy in our country.
Gate: At the DNC debate, you spoke a lot on the need to increase turnout. As you said, 50 percent of the population didn’t actually vote. Considering that, what are your plans to increase turnout in states where Democrats need it most, as opposed to deep blue states like California, where turnout increased despite the fact that Democrats were going to win anyway?
Brown: The first thing that we need to do is get data and develop good data on finding voters who are not registered to vote. We also need to get better data on folks who are registered to vote but don’t. We see registration projects run all the time a month before elections, where we don’t actually have the time and resources to make sure those people turn out to vote. When you register somebody to vote, you have the responsibility to help them practice voter identity that they can then take with them through the rest of their democratic life, as a participant in democracy, and most of our voter registration programs don’t do that. First, it is the data so that we can find the conversations. Second, it’s having the conversations on why they’re not currently voting so we can make sure we’re not missing the ball on what those reasons are. I think there’s a lot of opposition. Voter suppression—it can’t be denied that the Republicans have stripped us of our voting rights across the country, and we need to push back on that. There are a lot of people, I imagine, who are disenfranchised. So we can’t just run up to them as a candidate wanting to get their vote. You need a long-term, strategic plan on how to build relationships with those individuals, and ensure that you are taking them seriously as a new member of your party, and not as election-year currency, which is how we often treat them.
We tend to look at one cycle at a time rather than saying: for the next ten years, this is our systematic, step-by-step, strategic plan for being able to attack this issue. Whether that’s the 50 percent who aren’t voting, whether that’s people of color not being fairly represented in the party, or whether that’s the white women who have been voting for Democrats for decades. Each of those things needs to have a long-term plan that we roll out each election cycle. We absolutely need year-round organizing, but we need the strategy to make sure those dollars are actually effective.
Gate: Going back to some comments you made at the last debate and what you have said today so far, you indicated that the DNC itself is an outdated institution and the other people running for chair are looking more to the past as opposed to a long-term plan for the future. You also said that Democrats have to turn to a value-centered message. Can you elaborate on how Democrats have to turn more to campaigning on values, emotions, and pocketbooks, like you said, rather than what they’re doing now?
Brown: I would reframe that a little bit because what I’m talking about is the need for every single Democrat in our party to know how to articulate—in a concise, emotional way—why they’re Democrats, and tell that story to the people they run into in their daily lives. This is not a campaign technique. This is a brand that we need to develop for the Democratic Party. The Republicans have flanked us around God, gays, and guns, as well as on a couple more wedge issues like abortion. They framed us while they stripped people’s freedoms, pretending to be the party of freedom. I think what’s needed desperately, especially in our purple and red states, is that brand. “Who are Democrats?” “When you think of a Democrat, what do you think of?” We need to be able to proudly stand under that banner and have those conversations with people, and it will help us during the campaign season, but it’s definitely not a campaign tactic—it’s just who we are. That’s largely gone untouched by the Democratic National Committee.
I would imagine that every Democrat in the country can say why they, as an individual, choose to be a Democrat, but we’re all over the place on why we’re Democrats collectively. We need to find that thing that ties us all together. I think that’s really typified right now in all of the divisiveness that’s happening in our own party. We automatically think of Bernie versus Hillary, but we also have an urban/rural split. We have this conversation about whether we continue to talk to people of color, should we continue to talk, or should we change our position to white people—it just goes on down the line. We’re looking at it as this either/or proposition. We’re looking at it in these silos where we’ve sectioned everybody off. We need to come back together as a community and realize it’s not [either/or]. We need to be doing it all. We can’t afford to lose focus on people because it’s the people who matter. We need to remind ourselves as a party that it all comes down to the individual. We can have data and we can have the polling—and we need to make decisions based on polling and data—but ultimately we’re in this business because we’re a party of the people. And we need to make sure that we’re in touch with people, talking to people, building relationships with people, and that we’re a community doing that.
Gate: You are a very strong advocate of the Unity Commission. If elected as chair, do you plan to defer to their judgment, or do you have a path that you would prefer they choose regarding superdelegates and other party issues?
Brown: I am definitely a fan of the democratic process, where we bring people together as a way to reconcile and negotiate our differences. I think that the superdelegates are actually one thing that we don’t have a lot of differences around. I think that most people agree that we need to come up with a solution that rebalances our party and gives more people equal access to the decisions of our party. This is one area where I might have my personal opinions, but I don’t want those personal opinions to ever influence the work the Unity Commission needs to do. I believe that as a leader, my job is to be the megaphone for the people. It’s not my job to plead my own agenda, so I am really excited and committed to get the Unity Commission going my first week as DNC chair and am looking forward to the work they’re going to do.
I think we need to expand the scope of their work to include some of the other issues we’ve seen in the primary. My colleagues and I get asked a lot of questions—caucuses versus primary elections is one of them—and I think we need to get the Unity Commission to review the whole delegate selection process, make sure we’re really clear on any pieces and parts that need to be cleared up. I think it’s vital that we give our staff a long-term policy and procedure plan to make sure that they are completely transparent and neutral. It’s not my place to judge, but the perception was that the deck was stacked against some of the candidates during the primary, and that Clinton had the advantage. We’re always going to have institutional candidates who have relationships with the establishment, but if we arm our staff year-round with a policy that makes it clear we don’t have a preference, then it cannot be perceived that those people who are closer to a part of the system have some sort of advantage. We need to be thinking about that now. I think we’re all hearing about names being thrown around for who’s going to run in 2020. That’s the reality of the way we do politics these days, and so we need to make sure our staff at the DNC and at state parties are armed with all the resources that they need to really make sure we are running a fair, transparent system.
Gate: As we speak, Donald Trump is being sworn in as the forty-fifth president of the United States. What do you believe should be the DNC’s position in regards to the Trump administration? Should Democrats keep an open mind, or should the DNC act to stop him at every pass, as the Republicans did in the beginning of President Obama’s first term?
Brown: Ultimately, I think we have elected officials who are going to have to take on that task and really make that decision. I would imagine that, like everything else we see in the Democratic Party, there will probably be a mix of people doing what they feel comfortable with, based on their values. At the DNC, I think it’s really important that we protect our American freedoms and constitutional rights, and that we are very focused on taking on Trump in a vigilant and proactive way. Just as we’re putting together an identity message to talk about the positive parts of the party, we need to apply those same values when we see Trump stepping out and working on things that are going to affect our freedoms and our constitutional rights. The thing that’s wonderful about the Democratic Party is that we have millions of people all over the country who can do this. The role of the DNC is simply to make sure they have the resources that they need to be strong advocates and voices. We’re going to need to train people on activism. We have seen a lot of periods in our country where we have had people protest, civil protest, and we need to make sure people know what their options are so that they can organize themselves and really take advantage of the grassroots power that’s out there. That is the most effective strategy. It’s perfectly in alignment with the Democratic Party, our values, and with giving more power to the people so that they can fight back against the powers that would do wrong.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
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