Stein Club Point/Counterpoint: Earl Fowlkes Jr.

In a contentious election between committed activists, ''carpetbagging'' language was an offense to young activists of color

On Dec. 3 the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club narrowly elected Martin Garcia as president (47-45), Angela Peoples as vice president for political and legislative affairs (47-44), and Vincent Paolo Villano as vice president for administration (48-41). Current Treasurer Barrie Daneker and Secretary Jimmie Luthuli ran unopposed and as such were re-elected. The margin of victory was apparently provided by an influx of dozens of new members who were recruited days before the election by taking advantage of the Stein Club’s liberal membership requirements. In fact, the new officers only became new members just before the election. The Stein Club’s membership requirements allow new members to register up to the day of the election as long as they have paid membership dues. In addition, there is no provision in the bylaws that prohibits new members from being elected officers.

Unfortunately, I was in Long Beach, Calif., attending the Victory Fund’s LGBT Leadership Conference and was not able to participate in the ”spirited” debates that took place during the club’s annual meeting. The debates, I am told, were followed by the election and while both sides were bruised in a tight election, the new slate of officers were prepared to take their positions in January 2013. I know candidates from both slates and was amazed at the array of community-organizing experience and leadership ability on both sides.

However, there were more seasoned members who were upset by the influx of last-minute new members. Some of the Stein members have subsequently claimed that some of the new members had addresses that could not be verified and falsely paid the $15 ”Special Membership” dues, reserved for low-income persons, full-time students and senior citizens. The GSDC executive committee convened, sought legal counsel and called for a special meeting based on ”membership irregularities” to overturn the Dec. 3 results with the possibilities of holding new elections in January 2013.

I attended the special meeting on Dec. 19 to hear about the ”membership irregularities.” I was surprised to see nearly 80 people in the room. Like me, very few people could find one sentence that defined the criteria for ”low income” and how the GSDC defines a proper member’s address. In the end, a few seasoned members were not happy about the perceived takeover by new members; a few new members spoke of not feeling welcomed and nearly everyone affirmed what was already a fact: The Dec. 3 election and valid and legal.

Like many members, I was concerned about the process as opposed to who won or lost the election. What also concerned me as a Stein member is the rhetoric that has followed the election. One Stein Club member referred to the election as a sham and called the new members strangers to the club. Is the election a sham because a group of 20-something people of color took advantage of a flawed process (that others have before them have likewise taken advantage of without question)? Does being unknown to some Stein Club members mean that the new members are not involved in the political process in other communities? Another self-identified Southern-born member inferred the new officers and their supporters were carpetbaggers. As an African-American, I cannot imagine the use of the word ”carpetbagger” describing any political process in an appropriate context.

For me the bottom line is that as an openly gay Democrat I believe that members of the Stein Club should avoid language and actions that sound like those who oppose our values. This is the same language used to limit political access and invalidate the votes of people of color, women, immigrants, young adults, labor and the LGBT community. We can and must do better! Clearly, membership and criteria for officers needs to be redefined as to provide clarity, while not being restrictive. Perhaps we (the Stein Club leadership and members) can also reform the membership criteria to prevent mass influx of membership 30 days before the GSDC endorsement process, which can skew the results favoring one candidate over another. We have moved forward by honoring the elections’ outcome, now we need to support the new officers in a proper leadership transition and hold them to the same standards of excellence that past GSDC officers have upheld.

Earl Fowlkes Jr. is a Democratic National Committee at-large member and the president/CEO of the Center for Black Equity.

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