This Woman Pushed Her Party to Reform. And It Worked.

This Woman Pushed Her Party to Reform. And It Worked.

Rep. Diane Russell at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

SourceAndrew Harrer / Getty

Why you should care

Because, as Diane Russell said, “It may be hard, and believe me it may be messy, but, ladies and gentlemen, this is what democracy looks like!”

Diane Russell was nervous. By the time she crossed the Democratic National Convention stage for her big moment, disgruntled delegates had already booed many of the speakers who went before her. Russell identified herself as “a proud delegate for Bernie Sanders” at the outset of her 13-minute speech — here, she relished the cheers and standing ovations— but then she dug into the tough stuff: trying to unify the divided Dems by backing Hillary Clinton for the White House.

This Maine state representative and former convenience-store cashier seems to have found a new home — in the land of compromise. Many superdelegates in her state favored Clinton, before rank-and-file Democrats had the opportunity to vote; about 64 percent supported the bespectacled senator from Vermont. Earlier this year, Russell introduced an amendment in Maine to reform the superdelegate system, and if she wins a national battle the number of superdelegates could be reduced by two-thirds.

For some, this battle became “very much a Bernie versus Hillary thing,” Russell told OZY after her address this week. “But that was never what it was about for me. Bernie was the example, the case study, of something that needed to be fixed before we ended up in a really bad scenario. It was about: How do we pave the way for the next election and the generation after?” Here, Russell discusses her push to reform her party’s presidential nominating process.

Getting the word out: She ruffled political feathers, both in the Maine Democratic Party and the national group, by helping to craft rule changes so that, in 2020, Maine’s delegates will be bound by the popular vote. Last week, in her New York Times op-ed — “Abolish Superdelegates. It’s Only Democratic.” — she took a stand for “those of us who have been left behind by establishment politics — or the Good Old Boys Club.”

The impact: Russell is part of a grassroots movement in which more than 750,000 progressives have signed petitions calling for serious structural reform to the superdelegate system. Already, Democrats in nearly 20 states have voted for their own reforms. And Russell’s efforts have helped form the DNC’s unity reform commission, which recently brought together the Sanders and Clinton campaigns before passing a resolution charged with cutting the number of superdelegates by two-thirds.

The aftermath: “This is a tremendous victory for Sen. Sanders’ fight to democratize the Democratic Party and reform the Democratic nominating process,” Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager, said in a statement this weekend.

But not everyone seems pleased. Some delegates who met with Russell this week accused her of not supporting Sanders to the end and of failing to enact rules that would take effect this year. Russell argues the changes couldn’t have passed this election cycle but that she desired “real change, and I wanted people to walk away from this convention understanding that they got something.”

Lost in translation? Commissions sometimes seem to lead nowhere; “they’re an excuse to put a book on a shelf,” says Russell. Yet this one, she insists, is different because it directs members on how best to reduce superdelegates.

Even so, she notes, “there were some real concerns by the Congressional Black Caucus because … some of the states have been gerrymandered to diminish the vote and power of minority communities. Yes, we didn’t get 100 percent, but we realized why we might need some superdelegates.”

The best lines from her DNC speech: “You know, Dumbledore from Harry Potter once said, ‘It takes great courage to stand up to your enemies. It takes even greater courage to stand up to your friends.’ Obviously, we had a real family disagreement over the role of superdelegates in our party’s nominating process. Working to get a president elected is supposed to be hard work. But we can definitely do more as a party to ensure a fairer, more open process that places everyday voters at the center.”

What’s next: Russell is finishing her fourth term in the Maine House of Representatives, and she’s run into the limit for her state. And she recently lost a “very brutal” primary battle for a Senate seat. “If you have to choose between losing the election and losing your principles, lose the election,” Russell told OZY. “Look at what just happened — we won on principle. This is so much more important than serving in elected office. Making change? That’s the point of serving in office.”

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The route to the White House: news, stories and analysis from on and off the presidential campaign trail.