The DCCC’s Finger on the Scales

Jason Crow is a candidate for the sixth congressional seat in Colorado. According to his campaign website he is “the grandson of a bricklayer and son of small business owners” who payed for college by enlisting in the National Guard and working construction. In college, he joined the ROTC and finished at the top of his class as the Distinguished Military Graduate. He served with the 82nd Airborne Division during the invasion of Iraq and won the Bronze Star for his actions at the Battle of As-Samawah. He served two more tours of duty with the Army Rangers in Afghanistan before retiring with the rank of Captain. Here’s a little more about what Mr. Crow has done since he left active duty.

In 2012, fueled by the same patriotism and sense of justice that drove him to enlist in the military, Jason spoke at the Democratic National Convention, making the case for President Obama’s repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He has also advised President Obama’s reelection campaign on military and veterans’ issues, co-chaired Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper’s Veterans Affairs Transition Committee, and co-chaired Veterans for Mark Udall…

…Jason served 5 years on the Colorado Board of Veterans Affairs, focusing on veterans homelessness and substance abuse issues. He also chaired the statewide veterans committee that led the charge to bring the Denver Veterans Medical Center to Aurora – replacing an overcrowded, 60-year-old VA hospital no longer able to meet the need. Jason has dedicated hundreds of hours mentoring individual veterans transitioning from military to civilian life, and helping expand programs in Colorado addressing veterans substance abuse.

Mr. Crow is also an attorney who works with the firm Holland & Hart.

In recognition of his legal work, civic involvement, and ceaseless pro bono volunteerism, Jason was named one of Denver Business Journal’s “40 Under 40” in 2013; received the University of Denver’s Amie Hyde Award in 2015; and was honored with the United Veterans Committee’s Outstanding Service Award in 2011.

Based on what I’ve told you so far, it might seem like Mr. Crow is a model candidate to fill the role of a moderate or centrist Democrat running in a competitive swing district with a Republican incumbent. I’m sure the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee loves his biography. They put him on their Red-to-Blue fundraising list last November, and that put an end to any pretense of neutrality in the primaries for the sixth congressional seat. Prior to that, Crow received donations from PACs controlled by DCCC chairman Ben Ray Luján and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer. He also seems to have enjoyed other preferential treatment including specialized training and access to data and donor lists, none of which were offered to other candidates.

One of those other candidates is Levi Tillemann. Mr. Tillemann is “the grandson of the late Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., on his mother’s side and the grandson of former Colorado Lt. Gov. Nancy Dick on his father’s side.” Despite this, he says he grew up in “a working-class neighborhood of Denver.” He has a PhD and speaks Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, and Japanese. He had the capital to found “an energy efficient engine design company” and “in 2012, was appointed by President Barack Obama to advise the Energy Department.” By all appearances, Mr. Tillemann comes from a politically elite family and might expect to follow the family tradition of public service in the political field, and to have considerable support for his efforts.

He discovered, however, that the DCCC had a clear preference for Mr. Crow and was putting their fingers on the scale. And, to be honest, it’s pretty clear that the DCCC wasn’t honest about this for quite some time. They professed neutrality in the race not only to Mr. Tillemann but to other candidates as well despite the fact that they, with the agreement of the Colorado congressional delegation, had secretly made the decision to back Crow.

Tillemann didn’t take this lying down. He complained repeatedly and with growing volume until Steny Hoyer agreed to meet with him. When they sat down to talk, Tillemann pressed ‘record’ on his phone and captured the entire conversation. He then leaked that audio file to The Intercept which has now published a truncated version along with a wise-ass cartoon animation.

In the cartoon and accompanying article, Mr. Crow is portrayed as a “corporate lawyer” and as a centrist moderate who was hand-picked as a way to shut out more progressive candidates. For me, that’s where this controversy goes off the rails.

For starters, with some exceptions in extreme cases, it’s generally unfair to attack attorneys for the clients they choose to represent. In this case, Crow has apparently represented the payday lending company Western Sky Financial and the fracking firm Slawson Exploration. His firm has also defended gun manufacturers. That’s fodder for his political opponents, certainly, but objectively it doesn’t tell us that Mr. Crow is in the bag for these clients. In truth, the central theme of Crow’s campaign so far has been an aggressive push for gun control measures. The Sixth Congressional District contains Aurora and is adjacent to Columbine, where two of the most infamous mass-casualty gun crimes in our nation’s history took place. Crow’s proposals include “universal background checks, a ban on military-style assault weapons, magazine limitations, closing the gun show loophole, addressing ‘no fly, no buy,’ overturning the Dickey Amendment, and better checks and mental health reforms.” He also proposes the compelled “disclosure of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing operations to protect public health and safety,” and has a very detailed and progressive-minded set of environmental proposals.

As already mentioned, he’s been a leader on LGBT issues. He’s pro-choice and supports Planned Parenthood. He supports the Dreamers and comprehensive immigration reform. He promises to fight school vouchers and support public education. If you’re trying to find any place where he might not pass the progressive litmus test, you can look to health care. He supports the Affordable Care Act and wants to add a public option, but he isn’t calling for a Medicare-for-All single-payer system.

There isn’t any doubt that the DCCC and the Colorado congressional delegation wants Crow to be the nominee and that they’ve been less than forthright about their efforts to help him at the expense of other candidates. What’s not clear is that they’ve been doing this because they want a candidate who doesn’t support progressive issues. They like his biography. They like his ability to raise money. They think he’s capable of winning this seat and they’re not so sure about the others.

What Steny Hoyer told him is that the DCCC picks winners in primaries all the time because they don’t want to run into the problem the Republicans have faced repeatedly where badly flawed candidates win the nomination and then blow easy chances to pick up seats. In some cases, that could be a decision made on the types of issues the candidates are pursuing. In certain seats, the DCCC may believe (sometimes incorrectly) that a more progressive candidate won’t have a decent chance at winning. I just don’t see those factors as having a role in Colorado’s Sixth Congressional District. If they wanted someone who could appeal to Republican voters, they would not choose a guy whose main theme is gun control and who checks all the boxes on abortion, gay rights, and immigration. This is a seat that voted narrowly for Hillary Clinton and the DCCC thinks an unapologetic Democrat can win it.

The way The Intercept portrays this race and its candidates is deeply misleading and dishonest.

And it’s a shame because there is an actual issue here that is worth discussing. Levi Tillemann is justifiably incensed that his campaign for office is being opposed by the DCCC and that they are supporting one of his opponents. He has a right to be angry that he’s been denied resources that were offered to Mr. Crow. Most of all, however, he was lied to and misled for months and months as party operatives assured him of their neutrality.

Tillemann sees all of this as deeply undemocratic because it’s taking a choice away from the voters. Mr. Hoyer unapologetically asked him to drop out of the race. I think that’s a simplistic and idealistic way of viewing politics, and it doesn’t give enough consideration to the duty and responsibility party leaders have to recruit, train, and finance candidates. But the role the DCCC plays (or should play) in primaries is certainly a good topic for discussion and debate. What I think they certainly should not do is be dishonest.

These worthy areas of conversation are lost, however, when the whole thing becomes a false story about the DCCC preferring an anti-progressive corporate lawyer to a genuine grassroots member of The Resistance. Personally, I like that Tillemann is focused on anti-monopoly measures and seems a little more focused on economic inequality than Mr. Crow. But I don’t see that much difference between them, and I think it can be argued that Crow had fewer advantages in life and more of a working class upbringing.

I certainly understand Tillemann’s frustrations and his complaints. His decision to tape and share his private conversation with Steny Hoyer is an outgrowth of those frustrations. It might have been a defensible thing to do if the information had been presented fairly and honestly, but that’s not how The Intercept treated it. They mischaracterized Mr. Crow’s record and built a false narrative based on erroneous assertions. This isn’t a case of the DCCC picking a pro-corporate candidate over a genuine progressive. It isn’t an example of the Democratic Party abandoning key constituencies and selling out core principles by backing a GOP-Lite candidate. It’s a case of the DCCC finding a candidate they think is a winner and working to strengthen that candidate for the general election campaign.

In other words, the DCCC was doing their job of trying to build a team of candidates that can win a majority. They can defend most of what they’ve done here, but they should not have lied about it. If they make a decision to back a candidate in a primary, they should announce their decision. And if they have some reason why they’re afraid to announce it, then they should stay neutral.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.