Polk County Dem Leaders Defend Convention Process

In the days following the Democratic county conventions last weekend, controversy continued to swirl over the handling of the one in Polk County. There have been calls for the county and rules committee chairmen to step down and accusations that the head of Hillary Clinton’s delegation pulled dirty tricks to convince Bernie Sanders supporters to go home early on Saturday, effectively reining in what to many initially appeared to be a victory for the Vermont senator that would have flipped the state to him.

This week, the Informer reached out to two of the three men for their reactions to the discord.

But first, some background: On caucus day Feb. 1, Clinton won Polk County with about 53 percent of its delegate count, contributing to her razor-thin victory that night over Sanders in a neck-and-neck contest with its own share of controversies. Her victory was based on what’s called state delegate equivalents, an estimation of the breakdown once the state convention rolls around in June when the remainder of Iowa’s 44 pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention will be elected. Clinton won that count 700.47 to 696.92, roughly the same margin as the 704-700 result in her favor Saturday.

None of those national delegates will be elected until the district conventions in April; last weekend, district convention delegates were elected from among the more than 11,000 precinct-level delegates initially at stake in the caucuses. The Sanders camp was counting on a superior turnout effort Saturday, which was ultimately effective in netting it six additional delegates in Polk County, but the gains were lost in other counties’ results.

The drawn-out, daylong process in Polk County, during which time delegate credentials were checked to ensure the right people were being counted after the initial late-morning tally (delegates are free to change sides from whom they initially supported), resulted in the late-morning count that showed Sanders with more supporters eventually switch back to Clinton, causing a great deal of confusion and anger and even drawing a sharp rebuke from Sanders’ official Twitter account.

Bleeding Heartland‘s Laura Belin — a Clinton supporter — attempted to dissect what exactly happened at the convention in a long post, concluding that the “evidence points not to ‘stealing,’ but to mismanagement by convention leaders, especially Rules Committee Chair Jeff Goetz.

“Unusual procedures implemented without transparency,” she added, “fueled suspicions among people who may have gone into the convention expecting dirty tricks from party establishment types supporting Clinton.”

Two days later, prolific caucus blogger Pat Rynard — an Iowa staffer for Clinton during her 2008 presidential bid — wrote a more strongly worded post at Iowa Starting Line demanding the resignation of Polk County Democratic Chairman Tom Henderson and accusing the county party of being an “underperforming organization that feels like they’ve been coasting on autopilot for years.” Already, he noted, “some corrections are being made,” namely that he’d heard Goetz was stepping down from his rules committee position.

The Informer reached out to Henderson and Goetz to get their sides of the story and ask them to react to Rynard’s assertion that the county organization was in need of a major shake-up to restore Democrats’ faith in the process. (At the convention, some delegates also angrily demanded resignations.)

Henderson, who’s chaired the Polk County Democratic Party since 1998, said he had no plans to step down. He defended his record, noting recognitions he’d received in the position over the years and arguing he’s helped erase party debt, increase voter registration, and establish neighborhood party groups to boost the grassroots.

“I know this is a tense election season,” he said. “The Sanders supporters, understandably, may not have understood the process because some of them are new to it. But it was done pursuant to the rules” and “was run well.” Henderson also dismissed allegations of backroom shenanigans among the rules committee lacking transparency and done to aid Clinton’s numbers, which the Informer reported on earlier this week: “All of the counting was done with a Clinton and Sanders person as a team. They were joined at the hip; they did the counting together.”

Goetz, the county rules committee chairman for the past several years, also defended his role at the convention. The rules employed Saturday, he said, were essentially the same as those that have always been used. He dismissed Rynard as “uninformed” and a “flamethrower” and said he thought any controversy was the result of rumors floated by people unfamiliar with the convention process.

“The door to the room where the rules committee met, from 7 in the morning till after 8 at night, never closed,” he added. “It was always open and lots of people walked in and out, both from the rules committee and people who were just at the convention. So the concept that anything was done behind closed doors is completely false and inflammatory.”

Goetz did confirm, in part, the report that he would step down from the rules committee — but only for April’s district convention, saying he may return to the committee in the future. “I’m not going to step up to do that [at the district convention], not because of the convention but because of personal and business constraints,” he said. “I’m a pretty busy attorney.”

Both men dismissed claims that Sean Bagniewski, who led the Clinton convention delegation, told Sanders supporters they could leave early. “Sean wouldn’t have said that,” Henderson said. “First of all, it made no sense. And second of all, if you’re a Sanders delegate, why would you listen to the head of the Clinton delegation if he tells you you can go home now? That doesn’t make sense.” The drop in the overall count by the end of the day from the initial count showing Sanders with more supporters, he said, was typical and by a number similar to that at past conventions.

Added Goetz: “Anybody who’s been to a county convention would know that you don’t go home until there’s a motion to adjourn. So it just does not seem logical, based on my experience” that Bagniewski would say otherwise.

The truth about what Bagniewski said might be a little more complicated than that, according to Belin at Bleeding Heartland, who wrote that “Bagniewski told me that he said to Sanders group leader Fred Trujillo something along the lines of, ‘I think we can go home.'”

Belin added:

Multiple sources in the Sanders group confirm that Trujillo told Sanders delegates that the Clinton leader (Bagniewski) had “told” Sanders people to go home. In the retelling on social media, Bagniewski was said to have tried to trick Sanders delegates into leaving to gain an advantage for Clinton. Many people claimed to have video of the evil Hillary leader lying to Bernie’s loyal followers. Based on conversations with multiple Sanders delegates, including Neiderbach and the Henry brothers, I do not believe such a video ever existed. No one seems to have seen it — they only heard other people talking about it.

Much of the caucus and convention process is about perceptions of momentum. We’ll never know if a Sanders victory last weekend would have changed things on Tuesday, when Clinton sweeped five primary states, but as things stand now, Sanders has a very narrow path to the Democratic nomination.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.