West Virginia Democratic Party wrestles with internal diversity and national deadlines - West Virginia Daily News
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West Virginia Democratic Party wrestles with internal diversity and national deadlines

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The West Virginia Democratic Party drew criticism from its own executive committee members on Friday, June 4, after a plan to increase diversity drafted without input from those communities was approved to be submitted to the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

“We had no input on this plan. We weren’t asked our opinion,” said Hollis Lewis, cochair of the black caucus. “You can’t draft something on behalf of us. We just now threw these affirmative action committees together within the last two or three weeks — we’ve had no time to review the plan, we didn’t see the plan. We should be able, at the very least, to have a thorough review of it before a vote takes place on it.”

The issues emerge from challenges filed against the state party that “raised concerns about how the State Party has conducted its delegate selection process, including issues” around “affirmative action and outreach to traditionally underrepresented groups.”

The new affirmative action plan was due June 4, the day following the meeting. This deadline was established in a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed in July 2020 by West Virginia Democratic Party Chair Belinda Biafore, the Rules and Bylaws Committee of the DNC, and Selina Vickers on behalf of challenges filed against the West Virginia Democratic Party.

“About two years ago, myself and some other grassroots reformers began a journey of trying to recognize major problems, no transparency, closed meetings, no diversity, not letting even women have a fair opportunity to participate in the party,” Vickers explained in a press conference the day following the meeting. “We began filing a series of challenges that went to the Democratic National Committee. … In 1974, West Virginia … was required to have an affirmative action plan to provide for representation. … From what we understand, West Virginia has never, ever implemented or developed [an affirmative action] plan. … [Now], when it was time to implement it, instead of acting in good faith, they tried to ram through a plan that [ignores those it should be representing].”

The affirmative action committees responsible for creating an affirmative action plan were not formed until shortly before a February 15, 2021, deadline. However, after this was not met, the deadline was extended to June 4. During the Thursday, June 3 meeting of the West Virginia Democratic Executive Committee, Biafore explained the plan was developed and intended to be a draft.

“Over the last year, we have worked very hard to make things and changes happen,” said Biafore. “We have met all of our goals that we need to present to the rules and bylaws committee. Our deadline is tomorrow. When we first adopted this plan, the affirmative action committee as we know it now, was not in place. I certainly didn’t expect them to come up with a plan overnight. Let me stress that this is simply a draft. … The passage of an affirmative action and outreach plan by this executive committee does not prevent further amendments and revisions in the future, as a matter of fact we encourage them and want to make them happen.”

However, pushing the plan through without input from the affirmative action committees, even in draft form, was met with ample criticism, both during the meeting and after.

“In March, they passed bylaws establishing that we would have an affirmative action committee,” said Mary Ann Claytor during a press conference the next day. “Those meetings, set up by the West Virginia Democratic Party leadership, were not scheduled until around May. Our very first meeting wasn’t until June 2 or 3.”

“I get that I’m supposed to be appreciative right now apparently,” said Susan Miley during the executive committee meeting. “I get it. I’m not though. We didn’t set these deadlines. We didn’t ask for an extension to be a part of drafting an affirmative action plan. I’ve never had to ask for an extension, if you guys had given me a deadline, I would have had a drafted plan. I would’ve done it myself. I would’ve reached out to people myself. … I had no idea this was a looming thing. I don’t think it’s wise, I really, to my core, don’t think it’s wise to have a draft affirmative action plan without any minorities that actually wrote it for the state of West Virginia. I just think that’s a bad idea.”

The looming deadline of the MOU pushed many party members to move forward anyway.

“An hour ago [the DNC] denied [a second] extension,” said Rod Snyder. “I [don’t] know how to state that any more clearly. I’m tired, this has been emotional. I appreciate where everyone is coming from, but I’m speaking up because I do not think we can afford to not meet the terms of the MOU.”

Despite this, several members still objected to the plan, such as Walt Auvil asking “When the DNC is informed that the affirmative action plan that we adopted … with zero input from the committees we created, in violation of the bylaws we passed, do you think they’re going to accept that as compliance?”

In response to Auvil, Biafore explained the plan “is just the end result of what we had to do for the MOU. We start fresh from here. We turn it over to the affirmative action committees, they do what they want. Nobody is going to make this a permanent document, nobody said that from day one. Earlier, she noted that the plan’s deadline had “been extended once. We’ve just got to get this put to bed with the DNC according to the memorandum of understanding, then we can move forward with all the discussion.”

Delegate Cody Thompson motioned for the plan to be tabled, seconded by Auvil, but the committee voted 35 to 14 to continue with the approval. Kim Felix voted to table “as a representative of two caucus’ that have yet to meet and/or be established with a chair.”

A second motion from Pamela Van Horn was approved, placing the word “draft” and other language into the plan expected to go to the DNC. No other motions were considered after this, bringing more criticism from members.

“We didn’t get a chance for if anyone else wanted to make amendments,” said Mary Ann Claytor.

“We’ve discussed this around and around. We’ve moved that we’ve put it to a vote, so that’s what we’re going to do,” Biafore said.

“Oh okay so that means we don’t have any voice in this,” Claytor responded. “I don’t even know why y’all have a caucus.”

“As a member of the black community, this is a slap in the face,” Lewis said.

“I move we adjourn,” said Nick Casey, just before the motion was approved and the meeting ended.

The tense executive committee meeting also saw the approval of new members recommended by the affirmative action committee shortly before the vote. Technology issues also plagued the meeting, in which the expected appointees were not able to log in to the direct zoom meeting. Instead, the new members were placed in a waiting room and could only watch the meeting on Youtube until they were approved.

The next day, several members of the caucus called for a press conference to voice their disappointment with how the vote and plan were handled.

“I’m no stranger to this type of treatment from the West Virginia Democratic leadership,” said Mary Ann Claytor. “… [Due to technology issues], every time I tried to unmute myself to make a statement, I was muted. By the time they actually let me say something, they said well we called for a vote. I asked if no one else could make amendments. I had attempted, several times before that, to let my voice be heard, to represent my caucus. My caucus, we met, [and] they instructed us to reject what Belinda Biafore sent out.”

“I listened to and watched the entire meeting and, as a long time member of the party, this is the most disgusting display of discrimination and racism that I’ve ever seen overtly occur in a space for the Democratic Party,” said Kaylen Barler, cochair of the LGBTQ caucus. “People of color were told to sit down, shut up, and wait their turn. LGBTQ people were told to sit down, shut up, and wait their turn. This is an affirmative action committee. This is a plan for the party to reach minority voters and if this is the way that they’re going to treat the people inside the party that are trying to help to build a cohesive and effective plan … after years of significant losses to the party, this isn’t the way to get this started. … These spaces are lead primarily by older, white, cisgender, straight women and men, and there’s not representation of the people that make up the Democratic Party in West Virginia.”

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