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WV Dems have platform but wonder who’ll stand on it

CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail file photos
Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders wave a banner at last week’s West Virginia Democratic Party convention.
Belinda Biafore is leader of the Mountain State’s Democrats.

Progressive Democrats got pretty much everything they wanted in the new party platform at the Democratic state convention last Saturday.

Following significant losses to Republicans over the past four years, supporters think the platform could help usher in a new progressive agenda for the Democratic Party in the state and bring it more in touch with the national party.

Party leaders think the new platform might make some state races more difficult.

That is, if the platform even matters.

In the new state platform, the self-proclaimed Progressive Democratic Caucus came out against mountaintop-removal mining, the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It supported a $15 minimum wage, the legalization of recreational and medicinal marijuana, a single-payer health care system and the public funding of elections.

It only took five hours and a few ruffled feathers.

“A lot of people got frustrated,” said Belinda Biafore, the chairwoman of the West Virginia Democratic Party. “A lot of people left.”

By the time the convention was over, though, the group, made up mostly of supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ run for president, was ecstatic.

“We didn’t expect to win maybe half of this,” said Shane Assadzandi, a Sanders delegate to the state and national Democratic conventions from Monongalia County.

In theory, a platform defines the party. It lets voters know what Democratic candidates stand for and what they hope to achieve. But candidates for office hardly pay attention to it and many voters wouldn’t even know where to find the policy positions.

“The public knowledge of state platforms — with the exception of when there’s a huge controversy in drafting it — is minimal,” said Sandy Maisel, a political scientist at Colby College, in Maine, who wrote an often-cited paper on party platforms.

Influencing the Democratic Party’s platform at the national and state levels has been a cornerstone in the Sanders campaign and the Vermont Independent has said he will keep pushing his platform through the national convention.

Platforms usually contain language that gives people an idea of what the party stands for, not specific references to issues, according to Biafore. She said some of the issues that were added to the platform could have been done in a different way.

“A resolution is a particular cause that you’re about, a platform is what you have to live with for the next four years.”

The party did pass resolutions at the state convention, including one that called for the resignation of Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, the national Democratic Party chairwoman. Biafore called that resolution “a bit of a slap in the face.”

She went on to say that the new platform might complicate races in some areas of the state. And if it makes it more difficult for Democrats to get elected, then the party won’t have enough people in power to make the changes that the more progressive Democrats want to see.

“It’s going to be tough, for some,” Biafore said. “We’re just going to have to find that happy medium.”

And while the platform might define the party, Delegate Andrew Byrd, D-Kanawha, said it doesn’t define the candidates.

“To me,” Byrd said, “I run my own campaign because, while I notice the party focuses on the platform, my focus is on the issues in my district.”

Delegate Nancy Guthrie, D-Kanawha, said she pays attention to the platform but added that the newest additions only bring it closer to what she already believes in.

Guthrie said that, in the past, she was worried about the platform changing in the opposite direction.

“You always felt like you were struggling with your party to push forward,” Guthrie said.

Even if the platform doesn’t change the stances of Democrats like gubernatorial candidate Jim Justice, who members of the Progressive Democratic Caucus walked out on, it could make those candidates aware of what Democratic voters want.

Maisel said that, with the influence of Sanders supporters on the platform, candidates now have to acknowledge the issues they are passionate about, like income inequality and money in politics.

Having those stances in the platform, Maisel said, “doesn’t make much of a difference.”

Questions of whether the platform makes a difference or not have not deflated the enthusiasm of Assadzandi.

“I think it’s going to have a huge impact,” Assadzandi said. “This platform is something we can use to hold our elected officials accountable.”

Reach Daniel Desrochers at dan.desrochers@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4886 or on twitter at @drdesrochers.

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