Feud by Alabama Democrats threatens Doug Jones's reelection

A yearlong power struggle between the only Democratic senator who represents a state in the Deep South and the head of his own state Democratic Party organization has exploded into charges of discrimination and intimidation, and party officials worry the feud could complicate an already difficult reelection bid in one of the most conservative states in the country.

The fight for control of the Alabama Democratic Party between Sen. Doug Jones (D) and Nancy Worley, the current head of the party, has revived painful allegations of racial discrimination, never far from the surface in a state at the heart of the battle for civil rights — even though both Jones and Worley are white and their chief allies are black.

But what makes matters complicated are the countercharges of generational discrimination and acrimony between the African American Democrats who were on the front lines of the fight for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s and a younger group of rising leaders who say they are being shut out of the party they will soon control.

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The dispute has even roped in Tom PerezThomas Edward PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), who has withheld money meant to build up the state party and threatened to leave Alabama’s delegation out of next year’s party convention in Milwaukee. Legal costs have decimated the state party’s campaign coffers, just a year before Jones faces reelection.

In a letter to Perez, two of Alabama’s representatives to the DNC called it “a urinating contest” between factions at war over the future of the state party.

The feud began last August, when Jones made known he wanted Worley to step aside. But Worley ran for another term — beating back the entire slate Jones supported.

“He went after Nancy’s seat. He lost,” said Joe Reed, a civil rights veteran who heads the Alabama Democratic Conference, the state’s principal African American Democratic club, and Worley’s most powerful ally. “Doug’s slate lost. He came back. He got with Perez. They then came up with a scheme to challenge Nancy’s election.”

Two groups of Alabama Democrats did challenge the election results, and Worley’s handling of the meeting, in an official complaint lodged with the DNC. A detailed report found a series of rules and parliamentary violations and raised questions about the accuracy of the vote count.

In February, after that investigation, the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee vacated the August election results and ordered the state Democratic Party to come up with new bylaws meant to increase representation of minority and members of the LGBT community among party leadership.

But Worley and her allies ignored two DNC-set deadlines to present new bylaws in accord with DNC rules. In retaliation, the DNC revoked Worley and her vice chair’s credentials to the party’s summer meeting in August.

Earlier this month, Worley held an executive committee meeting to approve yet another set of new bylaws — and again the DNC said those bylaws did not conform to national standards.

Instead, the DNC has accepted bylaws passed by a rump faction of executive committee members, led by state Rep. Chris England (D), which held its own meeting earlier this month. In a letter to Worley, Perez said the DNC would recognize the results of the meeting held by England’s faction and not the results of the meeting her faction held.

In statements after the dueling October meetings, Jones said the new bylaws would “create a more transparent, diverse and inclusive Alabama Democratic Party.”

Now the two factions have set dueling meetings for November, when both intend to elect a new state party chair. Perez said he would recognize only the results of the England faction’s meeting, scheduled for Nov. 2.

England declined to be interviewed for this story. But at 43 years old, he is one of the leaders of the rising younger generation that is chafing to earn seats at the table.

“There’s now a holding on to power, and from what I understand, many younger people, importantly including younger blacks and younger black legislators, simply feel as if they have no role in the party because Joe Reed has a throttle hold on which blacks become members of the party,” said Harold Ickes, the longtime DNC rules expert whom Perez dispatched to observe the rival October meetings.

When England’s faction convenes early next month, he is likely to run for Worley’s position. It is not clear if Worley, who says she will run for election too, will show up. If Worley decides to run for chair at her own meeting two weeks later, two different candidates may declare themselves the rightful chairs of the Alabama Democratic Party — less than a year before Jones is on the ballot.

“You never know what will happen when it gets in court,” Worley said in an interview. “If you’re in a foxhole, I don’t think you’d want [Jones] in there with you.”

The dispute has taken on racial overtones in a state where virtually everything political is viewed through the still-raw lens of racial division.

The bylaws at the heart of the DNC’s complaint are the legacy of a decades-old plan meant to increase black representation within the state party. Reed says the new rules the DNC wants will substantially reduce black representation on the executive committee.

“What [Perez] is trying to do is turn the party over to Doug Jones and to strip black people of our traditional way of electing people to the” executive committee, Reed said.

Reed called the England-led faction the “Dixiecrats,” a reference to the white Democrats who left the party in the 1940s and 1950s in opposition to civil rights.

But today, the DNC says those rules no longer conform to national standards that require representation from other minorities, those with disabilities and those of other sexual orientations.

“Unfortunately, Worley and Reed have made the situation quite racial,” Ickes said.

A spokesman for Perez, a former prosecutor in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and a civil rights adviser to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and former President Clinton, declined to comment on the record.

Few outside Reed’s circle see Jones as anything but a civil rights defender. As a U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, he prosecuted two members of the Ku Klux Klan for the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Four young black girls were killed in the bombing.

In 2007, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute gave Jones a Distinguished Service Award for his work on the case.

A group of younger black political leaders in Alabama is siding with Jones over Worley and Reed. In an open letter to Worley last week, 17 young black leaders accused her of keeping them off the central committee.

“We continue to be treated as second class citizens by Ms. Worley and the SDEC, and it is time for that to stop,” the group, led by Young Democrats of America Vice President Terri Chapman, said in its letter. “We deserve better. It is time for Nancy Worley and the SDEC to stop discriminating against us and include us at the table.”

Kyle Whitmire, a columnist at the Alabama Media Group, said in a Reddit commentary that the divide reflects a long-running schism within Alabama’s African American Democratic community.

Reed’s group, the Alabama Democratic Conference (ADC), has been fighting with another group of black activists, the New South Coalition (NSC), since the 1980s, Whitmire said. Because of Reed’s alliance with Worley, Reed’s ADC holds more seats than those affiliated with the NSC on the state Democratic Party’s executive committee.

Jones allies are worried that the dysfunction will hinder the party’s ability to build a field operation in the months leading up to his reelection bid.

Jones, who won a special election in 2017 to fill a seat left vacant when President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrat calls on White House to withdraw ambassador to Belarus nominee TikTok collected data from mobile devices to track Android users: report Peterson wins Minnesota House primary in crucial swing district MORE tapped Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsKamala Harris: The right choice at the right time Three pros and three cons to Biden picking Harris The 'pitcher of warm spit' — Veepstakes and the fate of Mike Pence MORE (R) to be his first attorney general, is the most endangered incumbent running for reelection next year.

Reed and other Worley allies said Perez had withheld more than $100,000 in state partnership funds, money meant to build capacity among state parties that rarely raise enough to operate at high levels on their own. He compared the unspent funds to Trump withholding military aid from Ukraine.

“Perez may be thinking he’s helping Doug Jones, but he’s hurting the Democratic Party,” Reed said in an interview. “They’re doing to Alabama what Trump is doing to Ukraine.”

But Jones won his first election without the help of what his allies called a virtually nonexistent state party apparatus. Sources close to Jones said the campaign is preparing to rebuild the same type of field effort, one that’s run in-house rather than through a state party organization.

The more immediate threat is to Alabama’s delegation to the 2020 Democratic convention. The national party has not approved Alabama’s delegate selection plan, which lays out how delegates awarded in the state’s March 3 presidential primary are allocated. Without a delegate allocation plan, the DNC’s convention credentials committee may not agree to seat the Alabamians who show up in Milwaukee claiming to represent their state.

“The Alabama party as it exists under Worley’s leadership has really put into question whether the Democratic National Committee will approve a delegate selection plan. And if that doesn’t happen, Alabama will have no delegates to the national convention,” Ickes said.

Even more worrisome, Alabama state law requires a political party to certify candidates to appear on the ballot. To qualify for the March 3 presidential primary, candidates must file papers with the state Democratic Party by Nov. 8 — only days after England’s faction holds its meeting.

If Worley does not back down, it is possible that two different people could claim to be chairman. A spokeswoman for Secretary of State John Merrill (R) declined to comment on the politics at play, but it is unclear which potential chair Merrill’s office would recognize.

In a state Trump carried by nearly 28 percentage points in 2016, Jones cannot afford anything but complete party unity as he seeks a full term next year. In interviews, those in Worley’s camp made clear the raw feelings that already exist are likely to continue until Election Day.

“Instead of us spending a whole year arguing among each other, we should have spent a whole year getting folks organized for Doug Jones. If a house divided cannot stand, a party divided cannot win. This thing has gotten to be a racial war. That’s what it is,” Reed said.