DPOE endorses 2021 municipal candidates, addresses membership questions


Daily file illustration by Jacob Fulton

The Democratic Party of Evanston released 2021 municipal election endorsements at the end of last month. Some residents have found problems with the party’s endorsement process and membership requirements.

Delaney Nelson, Assistant City Editor

The Democratic Party of Evanston has endorsed mayoral candidate Daniel Biss, city clerk candidate Stephanie Mendoza and 1st Ward aldermanic candidate Clare Kelly for the 2021 municipal elections. The organization also endorsed Ald. Cicely Fleming (9th), who is running unopposed for reelection.

Throughout January, the DPOE shared candidate endorsement videos on their social media pages. Now, the organization is focusing its efforts on getting out the vote, board president Rachel Ruttenberg said.

But the endorsement process came with controversy, as residents questioned the party’s membership requirements — concerns Ruttenberg said bubble up annually.

To participate in the DPOE’s endorsement session, individuals must pay a one-year $40 membership fee, a two-year $75 membership fee, or complete volunteer hours for the organization. Some say the requirements perpetuate classism and ableism by shutting out community members unable to afford the fees or volunteer.

Karla Thomas, an Evanston activist and Northwestern graduate student, said DPOE’s requirements privilege more affluent Evanston residents and bias the group’s endorsements.

“The only way to vote is to pay $40 and become a member, and that creates an equity issue,” Thomas told The Daily prior to the DPOE’s endorsement vote. “That then gives a voice to those who can throw in 40 bucks without a blink of an eye.”

Residents questioned these requirements online after a Facebook user posted screenshots from the Reopen Evanston/Skokie School Districts 65 and 202 Facebook group. The groups had encouraged its members to become DPOE members to vote for school board candidates who support reopening schools.

The DPOE endorsed Soo La Kim and Elisabeth “Biz” Lindsay-Ryan for District 65 school board, and Patricia Savage-Williams, Patricia Maunsell and Gretchen Livingston for District 202 board.

In response to community concerns and conversations with Thomas, at least one party member agreed to sponsor memberships for some residents unable to afford membership fees.

Through Every Single Person Committed to Anti-Racism, a nonpartisan community organization, Thomas helped create and market a Google form, where residents unable to meet membership requirements could sign up to be sponsored for an equity-focused membership. ESPCAR is not affiliated with the DPOE.

Thomas said 24 people received sponsored scholarships through the form. While more people were included in the endorsement process this cycle and she was happy with the party’s responsiveness, she said the last-minute sponsorships were a short-term, “makeshift” solution instituted because residents “put the fire to their feet” and created a “PR nightmare.”

In the future, she hopes the DPOE will distribute more sponsored memberships and improve outreach to community members unable to fulfill membership requirements.

Ruttenberg said the DPOE is open to community input and any community member can meet with the organization. Nevertheless, she said a volunteer-driven party does need to raise money to cover its operational costs, and the DPOE has a “very small budget.”

“If we’re not going to do membership fees, we have to find the money some other way,” Ruttenberg said. “We’re definitely open to a conversation…but logistically we like to keep it simple for people, so right now it’s structured as either you pay the membership to be a member, or you volunteer.”

Lisa Levine, an Evanston resident and D65 employee, was able to take part in this year’s endorsement session after realizing she could log the time she had spent phone banking and postcard writing to become a member. But she said she was “uninformed” on how the DPOE endorsement process worked until she saw the Facebook post.

Levine said she credits the organization for its problem-solving and responsiveness to resident concerns, but she worries only a small portion of Democrats in Evanston are aware of DPOE membership requirements.

“Through that post, I realized that people who were informed really slanted or created a network that wasn’t representative of all Democrats in Evanston, or what I thought DPOE represented,” Levine said. “It’s another example of elevating networks, versus actively seeking a wide representation.”

This year’s endorsement process also looks different because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ruttenberg said members would normally gather in a church, listen to candidates speak and then vote on endorsing the candidate. This year, the candidates were virtually interviewed and the voting took place online.

For a candidate to win an endorsement, they must meet a threshold of two-thirds of the vote. Despite voting on each aldermanic race, the DPOE only endorsed two candidates: Clare Kelly, who is running against incumbent Judy Fiske, and Cicely Fleming, who is running unopposed.

Residents can vote early at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center until Feb. 22. Individuals can also request mail-in ballots, which must be postmarked by election day, Feb. 23.

Clarification: The article has been updated to include that Clare Kelly is running against Judy Fiske.

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Twitter: @delaneygnelson

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