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Death penalty opponent Barbara Becnel explains...
Why I left the Democratic Party

October 27, 2006 | Page 8

BARBARA BECNEL is a journalist who was an advocate for and co-author with Stan Tookie Williams, the former gang leader-turned-peacemaker put to death by the state of California on December 13, 2005.

After leading a struggle to save Stan that involved thousands of people--and touched many more--around the country, Becnel ran for governor of California in the Democratic primary. Based on her experience with a party machine that tried to ignore the political issues she raised in her campaign, Becnel left the Democrats after the primary, and is supporting the Green Party campaign of Peter Camejo for California governor.

Here, Becnel explains to Socialist Worker why she left the Democratic Party.

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THE DEMOCRATIC Party disappointed me mightily on a number of fronts, regarding Stan and also regarding my own run for governor of the state of California in the Democratic primary.

What else to read

The International Socialist Review magazine contains regular coverage of U.S. politics from a socialist perspective. For a further look at the Progressive Democrats of America, see "Wading in the Democratic Party's 'Muddy Waters.'"

For the classic socialist statement on the politics of lesser evilism, read Hal Draper's article "Who's Going to Be the Lesser Evil in 1968?" Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils, edited by Jeffrey St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn of CounterPunch magazine, makes the case against the Anybody-But-Bush mania that dominated the 2004 election.

You can also download an ISO Web book by Lance Selfa, The Democratic Party and the Politics of Lesser Evilism, which is based on articles that appeared in the ISR, Socialist Worker and elsewhere.


Early on, I had an opportunity to directly talk to the person who since won the Democratic primary--Phil Angelides. I asked him in a public setting in front of about 300 people what his position was on the death penalty, and he sounded no different in his answer than Arnold Schwarzenegger. He stated on the record that he supported the death penalty--end of story. So there's no reason for me to believe that he would have done anything differently than Schwarzenegger.

He said that he supported the death penalty because the people of the state of California support the death penalty--so what he was essentially saying is that the polls say people want it, so I want it.

There are all kinds of implications in that. If the people of the state of California supported slavery, would he support slavery? All laws aren't correct laws, and all laws aren't moral laws, and the people aren't always right. So leadership means to fight for what's right, and educate people and bring them along.

Now Angelides is just one particular individual in the Democratic Party, though a significant one since he's now running against Arnold Schwarzenegger. But the California legislature, both the state assembly and the state senate, is majority Democrat. It's run by the Democratic Party.

There's a major player in the Democratic Party--a Latina state senator named Gloria Romero. I got her to go visit Stan. She spent two or two-and-a-half hours with him, and she said that it changed her life. She promised Stan that she would talk to the members of the Democratic majority to get their support, and send a letter to Arnold Schwarzenegger asking for clemency.

There are 73 Democrats total in the state senate and state assembly, and she was only able to get a total of nine Democrats to sign.

They were cowards. Some of these Democrats are against the death penalty, but they didn't have the courage to go public and support Stan. So that was another indication of the weakness of the Democratic Party--certainly in the state of California, but it's true nationally.

My next experience with the Democratic Party and its unworthiness to represent the majority of the Black vote or Latino vote or working-class vote is when I ran. A second-class citizen would have been treated better than I was treated.

I was making history. It turns out that I was the first Black woman to ever run for governor in the Democratic Party in the state of California. You'd think they could have at least taken some pride in that. Instead, I was treated as if--I'll paraphrase Ralph Ellison's book The Invisible Man-- I was the invisible woman.

I likened my situation to a 21st-century version of Fannie Lou Hamer's experience with the Democratic Party in the mid-1960s, when her delegation from Mississippi wasn't permitted to be seated at the Democratic national convention in 1964--because the segregationist wing of the Democratic Party said they would walk out.

The reason I compare my situation to that is that when the state Democratic Party had their state convention at the end of April, I was invited to speak. The progressive caucus of the Democratic Party sent me an e-mail and invited me to speak, and the day before I was to speak, I got a phone call that, with a lot of hemming and hawing, essentially uninvited me. I was offered instead the so-called opportunity to man the information table of the progressive Democratic caucus for 30 minutes.

What it really came down to is that the Dixiecrats, who discriminated in 1964 based on race, have become the Richiecrats, and now they're discriminating on the basis of class and race. They just added another bias--it's race and class bias now.

There are some good human beings in the Democratic Party. However, to succeed in their party, they have to allow themselves to be co-opted. What I witnessed is that for the most part, the decent human beings were simply not willing to give up their upwardly mobile political careers to challenge the Democratic Party.

To that end, even the decent human beings are allowing themselves to be co-opted by a party that has become pretty indistinguishable from the Republican Party.

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