Is unity democratic? It depends on what you mean by “unity.”
Newly-elected members of the Franklin County Democratic Party Central Committee assembled outside Ohio Democratic Headquarters on April 20.

Newly-elected members of the Franklin County Democratic Party Central Committee assembled outside Ohio Democratic Headquarters on April 20.

The air crackled with anticipation on Wednesday evening as newly-elected members of the Franklin County Democratic Party (FCDP) Central Committee gathered outside Ohio Democratic Party headquarters. In a few minutes they would join a Central Committee meeting for the first time as voting members.

“We’re here because we deeply care about concretely improving people’s lives,” said Will Petrik, Central Committee member for Ward 18. “We believe in freedom, in democracy, in social and economic justice, and in making sure that everyone in the community can live a decent life.” Petrik is affiliated with Yes We Can Columbus, one of several coalitions who are trying to make the local Democratic Party more transparent and responsive to the needs of its constituents.

“I was elected because people in my neighborhood want a change,” said Mario Cespedes, Ward 40. “They want big money out of politics, and they want a debate around raising the minimum wage.”

Cespedes is also affiliated with Yes We Can. “In my ward, I’ve seen neighbors pushed out of their apartments for large developments,” he said, noting the stark difference between the Weinland Park and Short North districts. “The divide is economic and racial,” he said. “I want to be part of a Democratic Party that makes this booming development work for our working class, our forgotten neighborhoods, and our immigrants — not just for wealthy residents, young professionals, and college students.”

 “My constituents are tired of corruption,” said Denisse Hernandez, Ward 58. “The people of Franklin County are tired of coronations. All of us stand here today because we want an open democratic process and a chance at a fair shot to have our voices heard.”

“We want a party that includes the opinions of working families, not just the ultra-wealthy,” said Adam Parsons, a leader with Central Ohio Grassroots for Bernie Sanders. “Forty-five percent of Democrats in Franklin County voted for Bernie Sanders. This is an indication that people believe the system is rigged and our democracy is broken. They know that the only way to take our democracy back is to get big money out of politics.”

On January 14, several Yes We Can members attended a FCDP meeting as candidates. They wanted to ask the Executive Committee not to rig the outcome of the Central Committee race by endorsing incumbents, shutting out new voices that are calling for change.

Being mere citizens, they were not permitted to speak at the meeting. Without any opportunity for public debate, the Executive Committee voted to give party chairman William Anthony the authority to endorse Central Committee candidates for the sample ballot — the so-called “Unity Ticket.”

Is unity democratic? It depends on what you mean by “unity.”

The words of Otto Beatty, who was elected chair of the Democratic Central Committee on Wednesday, represent the party establishment’s view of unity. “Our purpose is to elect Democrats,” he said to the Central Committee. “We can’t be diverted or divided. We need everybody in this room on board for our goals.  Not individual goals, but the group goal, throughout the United States, of making certain we take back the Senate, take back the House, and that we have a Democratic President, whether it’s Bernie or Hillary.

“We can disagree later on. But we’ve got to have that common goal.”

By “unity” Beatty seems to mean unquestioning conformity to the goals of the Democratic Party establishment, without a healthy debate within the party about what its priorities should be. The driving purpose of the party — “to elect Democrats” — trumps all other considerations. Genuine solutions for economic inequality, lack of affordable housing, and other afflictions of the poor and marginalized all take a second seat to the goal of keeping the party in power.

A genuine unity — one that gives everyone a seat at the table — is not incompatible with Democratic wins in November, according to Willis Brown, Central Committee member for Ward 7 who is affiliated with Count Me In. “Now more than ever, the Democratic Party needs to be a unified force for freedom, democracy, racial justice, economic opportunity, and participation for all,” Brown said. “In order to win in November, we need to be the party that values the voices and ideas of everyday people and gives all of us a stronger voice.”

The Unity Ticket did endorse some Central Committee candidates who are vocal about wanting change — for example, Kurt Bateman, a Yes We Can affiliate. “Small businesses, union members like myself, and people who live paycheck to paycheck should be able to participate in our democracy,” Bateman said. “We’re the people who make Columbus successful. No corporation should get a tax break if we don’t have money for schools and addressing violence in our communities.”