The Democratic Club of Sunnyvale was formed over a year ago for Democrats in Sunnyvale, California and the neighboring region to promote Democratic values. I attended a few meetings last year and found the group to be dedicated to using the political process to fight for local environmental, labor and economic fairness issues. They’re a nice group of people. One of the individuals whom I met was Nancy Hirstein Smith. Nancy is the founder of the Democratic Club of Sunnyvale and has been heavily involved in campaign and voter registration efforts.
Thanks, Angelo! It’s an honor to be invited to answer questions about myself and the Democratic Club of Sunnyvale. Before I start answering your questions, I wanted to brag that our club has been growing steadily since its first meeting in May 2009. It’s hard to believe we’ve already been in existence three years!
You were one of the founding members of the Democratic Club of Sunnyvale. How did the Democratic Club of Sunnyvale come into being?
When I became active in local party politics, I noticed that our area has a lot of dedicated Democrats and a lot of active clubs, but I had to drive 20 minutes to get to most of the meetings. Many groups were concentrated in San Jose or further north in Palo Alto. There was a great club that meets in our neighboring city, Santa Clara, but they are what is known as an issues club and are not focused on local Sunnyvale candidates and concerns. Sunnyvale is the second largest city in Santa Clara County and I began to feel more and more strongly that the progressive Democrats in Sunnyvale needed an organization just for them. At the Regional delegate elections in January 2009, I recruited five other Sunnyvale residents and we formed a core team that came up with the bylaws and mission statement for a so-called geographic club. In May 2009, we held our first meeting, signed up more than 20 members, and by September 2009 were officially chartered by the California Democratic Party!
How did you become a Democrat? Was there a particular person, book or historical figure that influenced your political outlook?
I took a journalism class at the fundamentalist Christian college I attended. For one of my assignments, I did a story about how students would register to vote and then vote straight-ticket Republican without any understanding of local issues or candidates. To prepare for the story, I searched hard to find Democrats to interview among all the Republicans at the school. When I found Tony, an aide to the area’s state senator, he recruited me to gather signatures for delegates to the National Democratic Convention in 1984. Imagine my surprise to find my name on the petition as a delegate!
Tony and I went on a few dates, but it didn’t work out. He was an intense person and soon became embroiled in a scandal related to the story I did about voter registration. After Tony wrote, copied and distributed fliers in the campus dormitories that scolded students for not voting conscientiously, the local paper (not just the campus paper) wrote an exposé about how Tony used state resources to copy those fliers
For quite a few years after that, I adopted a political stance of “journalistic objectivity.” I still remember Tony fondly for shoving me in the deep end of the political pool. My name made it on the ballot even though my candidate, George McGovern, dropped out early in the race. The Rev. Jesse Jackson’s people hounded me for months to pledge for Rev. Jackson instead. At this conservative college, I flaunted my liberalism: I wore a black leather jacket and put a “Vote Democratic” poster up in my dorm room window. It was all very exciting.
The journalistic objectivity didn’t stick. Being a chameleon and trying to blend in means you cannot debate issues and influence others. As I mature, I am becoming more and more comfortable expressing what I really think about issues, even if I still can’t quite shake the softer touch.
When I attended your meetings last year, we were able to meet many Democratic politicians in the Sunnyvale City Council and in many state offices. How has it been to meet these various officeholders? Do you think the club has influenced these officeholders?
I’ve been involved in Sunnyvale politics for a while, so I already knew all the Sunnyvale City Council members when the club started. I’ve also known some of the County Supervisors and Assemblymembers.
Our club started in 2009, the year after a presidential election. Not only is 2012 a Presidential election year, it’s also the first election after redistricting. I’ve recently had the honor of meeting or deepening acquaintances with several fine Democratic candidates for State Assembly, State Senate, and Congress.
There is a protocol for inviting candidates and presenting them to your club members. When you first invite them, you want to be very clear about what will happen at the meetings, what the format will be, who goes first, and how much time they have to present themselves. The process needs to be fair to all candidates, as much as you can possibly control. Even though there are often more candidates for local city council seats than for higher office, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s less work to plan forums or debates for higher offices.
My impression is that, the higher the office, the more politically savvy the candidate. The more they know about how debates and forums work, the more challenging it is to meet their needs. It’s been a thrill to get to know them all, no matter what level of office they are pursuing.
For local candidates, it’s especially helpful that our club fills out response forms for them when they answer questions for our club. One candidate, who did not quite get our club’s endorsement, felt a lot better after she read some very positive responses in her candidate evaluation forms. Candidates for higher office really appreciate having a Democratic club in Sunnyvale, a group of people they know will be sympathetic to their positions. We met some grateful candidates after redistricting changed all the boundaries. Sunnyvale was affected in that we got new representatives for our state assembly, state senate, and congressional districts. All Democratic candidates for these seats have visited our club meetings at least once in the 2012 election cycle.
The Democratic Party is far more diverse than the Republicans, with moderates, liberals, progressives, all under one tent. How do you think the majority of the club members lean?
Funny story. When we set up our vision statement and guiding principles in 2009, we claimed that “We are an active and welcoming group that promotes progressive, Democratic values and positions.” Before May of 2012, I would have said that our members tend to be quite progressive. However, it turned out that one of our regular attendees was a registered Republican. We discovered it after we elected him president and he got a bit more scrutiny! When I reported this kerfuffle to the Democratic party chairman in our county, I joked that we are maybe a bit too welcoming.
Our meetings are open to anyone, unless we are holding a vote to endorse candidates in a race. We have invited several Republicans to take part in talks of general interest to the community. However, we never intended to let any of them claim membership.
The Republican almost-president in question offered to register as a Democrat and will soon have a seat on our board, so this story has a happy ending.
What are some things that the Democratic Club has done to promote its values and get them translated into political action? What are some issues that are important to the members of the Democratic Club of Sunnyvale?
In the winter of 2011, we spent a lot of time as a club defining what we value. To me, the results were somewhat surprising because they aren’t necessarily things the people would think differentiate Democrats from non-Democrats. The top five things our club members value are community, participatory democracy, compassion, pragmatism, and patriotism. We intentionally measure our monthly programs, the candidates and propositions we endorse, the people we elect to leadership positions within the club and the projects we undertake against these criteria.
In the winter and spring of 2012, we made a big push to became a more active, rather than have lectures at every meeting. We recruited leaders from the club to head up committees. After three years as president, I wanted to let someone else lead the group. We have been working with an organizational development expert — who offered her services to the Democratic Party — to make the transition a smooth and successful one. She’s giving us a lot of great advice about how to recruit good people, act from our core values, and clarify our guiding principals.
We had to take several steps back and restructure the club. I’m confident that we’ll emerge a stronger club that focuses on recruiting and electing qualified Democratic candidates.
What are some unique things about being a Democrat in the middle of Silicon Valley? Are they more interested in environmental issues, economic issues or social issues?
One exciting thing about Silicon Valley is its engineers. There are many very smart, analytical people in our club. When we discuss issues during a meeting and the exchange of ideas gets a bit lively, listening to the rational arguments of the engineers in our club gives me deeper insights into ideas like environmental conservation, transparency in government, ranked-choice voting, and campaign finance disclosures.
As the 2012 elections loom, what are your thoughts on important state and national issues that may be on the 2012 ballot?
The biggest concern to me now are the ginormous, democracy-killing concentrations of wealth. One of the biggest threats to our democracy is the growing wealth divide. Unless we take steps now, wealth will continue to be concentrated among the wealthiest 1% and we’ll see no more of our middle class and our hard-fought meritocracy.
Also, I hope we can do something about the Citizens United travesty. It is outrageous that faceless corporations have more rights than individuals.
What’s your opinion on President Obama’s first term?
I think the continuing drags on the economy and the nasty divisiveness in Congress have kept President Obama from making as much progress as I would like to see on some items on his agenda. The President’s records on privacy issues and net neutrality isn’t as strong as I’d like to see. I wish he would have come down a lot harder on AT&T after their snooping scandal broke just before he took office.
While he didn’t pursue the torturers, the scammers in the banking near-collapse or the invaders of privacy, he did take up several causes I support. He’s standing up for equal pay for women, keeping the estate tax, marriage equality, and healthcare for all.
I’m quite sure Mitt Romney doesn’t share my values, so I’ll throw all the support I can to reelecting President Obama.
In the past year, the Occupy Wall Street protests have sprouted throughout the nation, crying out against the growing economic inequalities in our country and pushing for greater accountability of our nation’s financial institutions. How do you think these protests might influence the upcoming elections? Do you think the Occupy message will influence the way Democratic candidates run in local and national elections?
I’ve been involved for 12 years with an organization called United for a Fair Economy. In that time, it’s been very difficult to raise the issues passionately about the evils of concentrated wealth and dynasties that pass untouched through generations by inheritance. Then, along came the Occupy Movement and took their outrage to Wall Street. Suddenly, everyone now knows there is an issue, even though many don’t know all the nuances and actual craziness that’s going on. I hope people continue to educate themselves, keep up their energy, recruit sympathetic and viable candidates, and vote. It’s the best way to make some changes. It’s the only way to make changes.
A big benefit of being in a club is just meeting people who share the same values and forming friendships with those people. Three years into the club’s existence, how has it been to see the club grow and evolve? What are some future plans for the Democratic Club of Sunnyvale?
The next big step is for me to hand over the reins to another president and take a role as an adviser. I would be delighted to see something I helped create continue on after I’m no longer its leader. I’ve made a lot of great friends in the club and look forward to many years of working together with them on current and upcoming progressive causes. This sounds like a cliché, but finding like-minded friends get so much harder after your twenties. Political organizations are a great way to meet people and make friends. It’s like a bulwark against the chaos to have people you can join with to make change possible.
Here are more interviews that I did for Everyday Citizen
An Interview With Cartoonist Ann Cleaves
An Interview With Muslim American Activist Zahra Billoo
An Interview With Cartoonist Monte Wolverton
An Interview With Cartoonist Adam Zyglis
An Interview With Reverand Gerald Britt
An Interview With Cartoonist Tjeerd Royaards
An Interview With Poet, Activist, and Teacher Diane Wahto
An Interview With Cartoonist Jesse Springer
An Interview With Cartoonist Steve Greenberg
An Interview With Eric Wilks
An Interview With Cartoonist Greg Beda
An Interview With Poet Melissa Tuckey
An Interview With Cartoonist Andy Singer
An Interview With Author Robert Balmanno
An Interview With Cartoonist J.P. Jasper
An Interview With Cartoonist David Cohen
An Interview that Everyday blogger Diane Wahto kindly did of me
Youtube videos of former California Assemblyman Sally Lieber talking about getting legislation through the California Legislature. Nancy Hirstein Smith introduces Sally Lieber.