To say that the 2021 leadership contest for the Nevada Democratic Party has been anything less than dramatic would be a grave understatement. It was a fight between uneasy teammates – the progressives and the even-more progressives.
What the Washington Post touted as the takeover of the state Democratic Party apparatus by Democratic Socialists has its roots in the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primary, when Hillary Clinton narrowly defeated Bernie Sanders in the Nevada Caucuses and the Bernie supporters and Clinton supporters continued their battle at the state convention in May.
There has been friction between the Sanders faction and the Nevada Democratic establishment ever since. The conflict came to a head on March 6 when a slate of Sanders devotees defeated the “establishment”. As outgoing NVDems Party Secretary Marla Turner told the winners: “You are the establishment now!”
Whitmer’s slate triumphs
The Nevada Central Committee leadership election saw then-Clark County Democratic Party Chairwoman and Sanders’ supporter Judith Whitmer defeat Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom, a former state party chairman who also was on board with Bernie back in 2016. Whitmer and her four running mates dubbed themselves the Progressive Slate. Segerblom, known as one of the state’s most liberal Democrats, and the four other candidates for offices called themselves the Progressive Unity Slate.
Yet, even before and after the ballots were cast, the unity tag didn’t necessarily apply. Unbeknownst to the eventual winners, the party’s professional staff and executive director Alana Mounce, who is about to become the political director for the Democratic National Committee, sent a notification letter to the NVDems party that the committee’s staff had formally tendered their resignations. In addition (at some undetermined point in time during the week of March 1 to 8), about $450,000 had been transferred from the state party’s coffers in advance of the new leadership team’s takeover.
Bernie congratulates winners
As a journalist and political geek, I’m usually interested in party elections, but I was a bit under the weather on March 6. I first learned of the leadership race victory, in an email blast from Sen. Bernie Sanders congratulating Whitmer and the other four winners. I had questions, so I sent a few emails to staff members. I got automatic replies in return: “Hello! I am no longer with the Nevada State Democratic Party. For inquiries about Nevada Democrats or just to keep in touch, please e-mail me at…..Thanks!”
More revelations followed throughout the weekend, including news of the resignations and the draining of the party funds.
Details trickled out later via Whitmer’s interview in The Intercept. In that Q&A, she paints a rosier picture of the party’s future than you may find among the state’s establishment Democrats. While some observers see the change in leadership as a mere swapping of figureheads, the takeover shows that the well-oiled party that chalked up an impressive series of local, statewide, and federal victories since 2008 is now experiencing a very different state of play.
What’s the game plan?
Based on interviews and background conversations with Democratic Party leaders, committee members and activists, the newly-elected leadership team hasn’t been very communicative with the folks on the ground. I heard concerns that that constituency groups in what has been a broad coalition aren’t being heard or that their influence is deliberately being diluted.
Just prior to the leadership election, 23 Nevada BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of Color), party leaders and activists signed a letter accusing Whitmer of blocking efforts to “empower diversity within the Democratic Party and have tried to stifle the voices of people of color who voiced differing opinions.” That prompted a response from 37 Democrats (the majority based in Clark County.), all members of minority communities, defending Whitmer as a candidate who has demonstrated a commitment to “diversity, inclusivity, outreach and organizing with our communities.”
I made several attempts to talk to Whitmer about her slate’s victory and the future of the central committee, but was unable to obtain an interview. A press release was issued, however, announcing the vision for the new party leadership. The release stated the party’s goals are to grow and strengthen “Party membership through constituency organizing, (take) measures to enhance diversity and inclusion” and to highlight Democratic achievements and efforts to improve life for working Nevadans across the state.
“The past year has laid bare the need to transform systems and institutions that perpetuate poverty, lack of health care, mountains of debt and housing insecurity right here in Nevada. The Nevada State Democratic Party’s newly-elected leadership is determined to steer the party in a direction where we prioritize addressing the most urgent needs of Nevadans, lifting up some of our most marginalized voices, and putting grassroots organizing at the heart of electing Democrats up and down the ballot.” – Judith Whitmer, chair of the Nevada State Democratic Party.
A time of transition
The release stated the party is committed to helping Nevadans transition to a post-pandemic world and provide state residents with information on how they can navigate help via the newly-enacted “American Rescue Act“.
With Whitmer out-of-reach, I reached out to other Democrats, including Rural Nevada Democratic Caucus Chair Kimi Cole, who works with leaders in the 15 rural Nevada counties and the state party. Cole said she and the rural enclaves of the party will “continue doing what we’ve always done.” She stated many rural county leaders have become motivated and self-sufficient over the years, and will continue to be so. “All I can say is if we work together, we’re going to be stronger,” she said.
I also checked in with Clark County Commissioner Segerblom, the former party chairman who lost to Whitmer. Segerblom is part of a Nevada Democratic dynasty. His great grandfather was a state senator and his grandmother and mother were state assemblywomen. He was chairman of the Democratic Party of Nevada from 1990 to 1994, served in the Assembly from 2007 to 2012 and in the Nevada State Senate from 2013 to 2018.
Tick picks a slate
Segerblom said he ran for the party chairmanship this go-round because he was asked. “I thought about it, and you know, I’ve got the background,” he said. “I thought it would be a great year coming up and I could be the best person.” He said he had about a month to pick his slate of candidates.
“So I reached out to people I knew in the Democratic Party, both north and south,” he said. “I tried to find a diverse slate, and the only suggestions that whittle through those suggestions.” He said he choose a diverse slate. “I wanted to demonstrate that I support diversity and that my team reflected that.”
Segerblom said Whitmer assured him that she had the votes to win. “But I know most Democrats, and I wasn’t sure she had most of the votes,” he said. “So I thought, ‘let’s go out there and see what happens.’”
He thought he would win, he stated. “I thought it was going to be close… I felt I had a good chance.” He didn’t. “She finally had the votes like she said she had,” Segerblom said with a laugh. “There’s a big enough margin; she had the votes.”
What did Whitmer win?
The state party chair is not really a position of power, he said. “The head of the Democratic Party is basically a Rolodex. That’s literally what happens. If you know the governor, you know the senators, you the people to call, you know how to build coalitions, then you have something. But the Democratic Party there’s no, there’s nothing there. So it’s not like you just walk into something and take over, like you’re governor or county commissioner. There’s no structure there, or government, or anyone you can go in and manage.”
Segerblom said he didn’t know that the staff was going to quit. “But in retrospect, I thought they were going to be fired,” he said. “So I didn’t figure they’d stick around or (Whitmer) could even afford to pay them. I didn’t know there is money in the bank account at the state party, but I know why it was there (and) that obviously was logical to take it out. At least until you know you can have an agreement of how it could be spent in certain ways.”
Where’s the power?
The state chair “isn’t really involved in elections,” Segerblom said, noting that candidates have their own campaign teams. The state party “kind of coordinates. So essentially, they can reach out to those different groups and see if they want to be coordinated. We could try that, but they pretty much do things on their own.”
The committee runs the state party and there are 500 members, he said.
“They have quarterly meetings. So they can run those meetings so they can debate rules, and talk about “Medicare-for-all”, and wherever they want to talk about. As far as actually making a difference as far as elections or whatever, I don’t think that is going to happen.” –– Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom.
Did someone say ‘socialist?”
Still, having Democratic Socialists at the helm of the state party has potential repercussions, especially when the state is attempting to become the site of the nation’s earliest presidential primary. Biden will want an early state that will deliver a win. “He did win here in November so he does look favorably upon Nevada,” Segerblom said. “He’s fairly close, especially now with the Culinary Union, so they will be behind him, but he wants to have states where he can win early on and not have to worry about having a challenge.”
Will the new leadership work with the establishment or will the committee be an empty shell, existing in a limbo beyond the orbit of the fearsome party machine built by former Sen. Harry Reid? Will there be two competing fund-raising efforts, new PACs and primary challenges? Will a new coalition emerge among the moderates, left and even-further left?
A year of decisions
In 2022, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is up for reelection, as are the House seats, three of the four of which are now in Democrats’ hands.
Gov. Steve Sisolak will face the voters again and four other state constitutional officer’s positions, now held by Democrats, are up for grabs. About one third of the seats in the Nevada Senate, a majority of Nevada Assembly slots, as well as many local and county offices now occupied by Democrats also will be on the ballot.
Nevada – a red state that morphed into purple, and then turned azure over the last few presidential cycles – will find out how many shades of blue the Silver State’s political spectrum can encompass without atomizing the gains that Democrats have enjoyed since 2008.
Don Dike-Anukam is a Reno native and a Northern Nevada college student. He has been a regional and local activist and is currently a political and news writer, interested in all things political and newsworthy in Northern Nevada. He is a former ThisisReno political writer and intern.
Ruby Pressman, who edited this guest editorial, lives in New Rochelle, N.Y. She is a graduate of Hunter College with a BA in English and holds an MFA in creative writing from the New School in New York City.