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Dems in disarray as Whitmer faces internal battles

Sarah Ashton-Cirillo
Sarah Ashton-Cirillo

Revolution. A word singularly capable of indicating that a seismic occurrence has transpired in the realm of geo-politics. 

Revolution. A word overutilized in the hyperbolic, propaganda laden verticals from which the tenor and tone of the 24-hour news cycle is formulated. 

Revolution. A word associated with chaotic unsteadiness, whether the revolution it references is real or imagined, of importance to many or a select few. 

Nevada in 2016 saw the stirrings of what some called a revolution. A schism within the state’s Democratic party — one witnessed by the national media and brought about by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ first presidential campaign — grew ever wider across several party gatherings, eventually culminating in a battle for delegates at the state party convention. Ultimately unsuccessful in his aspirations, Sen. Sanders transformed the apparatus guiding his White House run into a political action committee called Our Revolution. From that tumultuous beginning, new voices emerged in Southern Nevada, many echoing Sanders’ platform. 

Four years after his first attempt to secure a win in the Silver State’s caucus, Sanders returned. Finding a network which had grown in size, influence and verbosity, the senator leveraged his immense goodwill from groups across the Las Vegas Valley to throttle the opposition and achieve an overwhelming victory in the 2020 contest. Those who had participated in Sanders' four-year revolution unleashed their energy locally. In swift succession, a socialist/progressive alliance achieved victories at multiple levels of Democratic party governance, culminating in a near unfathomable event: A unified slate of four Democratic Socialists and one progressive completed a takeover of the Democratic Party organs in Nevada by winning election to every state-level officer position 

Since that time, local and national press coverage has mostly focused on the insider vs. outsider trope, a narrative that has been highlighted by a public and messy intraparty divorce: a split leading to the formation of a quasi state party operating out of Washoe County, taking the name of Nevada Democratic Victory. While close attention has been paid to the ongoing push and pull between “Victory” and the state party, very little has been reported about another feud: A squabble among a coalition of leftists, springing forth from a well of deeply ingrained factionalism and replete with accusatory recriminations that pose an existential threat to the entire stable of Democratic candidates and elected officials on the 2022 ballot.  

More than a dozen individuals with close ties to the state and county parties, along with members of the Las Vegas Democratic Socialists of America (Las Vegas DSA), are faced with a movement in peril — but also have found a bit of common ground. In guiding members of the Las Vegas left from their first, nascent steps into the heady heights they now occupy, Judith Whitmer, chairperson of the Nevada State Democratic Party, now occupies an undisputed leadership role among her base. Whitmer is, however, facing strong headwinds as she endeavors to forge a thus far elusive spirit of unity with those leading Nevada Democratic Victory, as well as taming incessant infighting among those who rose into positions of leadership and influence alongside her. 

Conversations this past month have exposed an unreadiness by those near the levers of power for the first time, along with frustration over a lack of cohesive messaging and the public embrace of a former rival just days after he publicly criticized her leadership in a widely read publication.

In July of 2020, shortly after the Left Caucus slate took over a majority of seats on the Democratic State Party’s executive board, the Pahrump Valley Times ran a piece that included the following: “‘With a clear majority of seats now held by progressives, the Nevada State Democratic Party Executive Board will seek to ensure transparency, ethical operations, and fairness within the State Democratic Party,’ the Left Caucus said in a statement.” 

But by September of 2021, Dan Rolle, a former Las Vegas area congressional candidate and once active member of the Las Vegas DSA, suggested on Twitter that possible conflicts of interest had arisen between Whitmer and those in “leadership” at Left Caucus and the DSA. Less than a month after those tweets appeared, a story ran in the local press highlighting a financial connection between the Nevada State Democratic Party and Silver and Blue, a Nevada LLC helmed by Chris Roberts. 

According to the article, Mr. Roberts, the head of Left Caucus, who would soon be voted in to lead the Clark County Democratic Party (CCDP), formed the business in March in order to offer IT and communications services to the state party, which had just seen a mass exodus of staffers and contractors after the election of the DSA heavy board. While Roberts and Whitmer both offered vehement denials against suggestions of impropriety, one comment raised concerns, when speaking to someone well versed in the area campaign finance regulations.

Federal Election Commision reporting shows that all payments from the state party to Silver and Blue were accurately noted (Roberts noted that a substantial discount was given to the Nevada Democrats, and said the difference would at the very least have to be reported as an in-kind gift, if allowed at all, under FEC reporting guidelines).

What went unreported at the time was that Roberts’ company did more than just stop gap contract work for the state party. Nor was the firm formed solely to hire employees to work on that state party contract, as claimed in the original story from the Las Vegas Review-Journal documenting the working relationship between Roberts and Whitmer. In addition to serving several private clients, it has since also been confirmed by Roberts that Silver and Blue has provided services to Clark County District Attorney contender Ozzie Fumo, congressional candidate Derek Marshall from California, and Arizona State House hopeful Brianna Westbrook. Each of those aspiring office holders, including the two from out of state, have close ties to the progressive movement in Nevada.

One more contract that Robert’s company was given raised concerns from those involved with the newly ascendent Left. Within weeks of Silver and Blue, LLC entering into an agreement with Whitmer and the state Democrats, the firm received a no bid contract from the Clark County Democratic Party. While he hadn’t yet moved into the position of county chair, Roberts was already serving on the state party’s executive board. Several parts of the county party’s Rules and Bylaws manual cast doubt on whether such an action was permitted. However, one person with direct ties to the matter rebutted that suggestion, pointing to the fact that the county party’s attorney, Robert Kern, had issued an opinion approving the formal business relationship between Silver and Blue and the Clark County Democrats. 

When reached for comment, Kern said client confidentiality prohibited him from discussing the matter.

However, Roberts was willing to provide an explanation. Describing himself as a solution-focused problem solver, he said the agreements were all either “temporary” or “short-term” in nature, with several having already expired. While acknowledging complaints that he was utilizing his official positions and close ties to Whitmer for personal financial gain, he insisted that the work and revenue coming in was so small as to actually be a burden, and that his ultimate goal was to help institute a streamlined system allowing for progressive candidates and organizations to build their own internal procedures,  eliminating the need for Silver and Blue’s services. 

CCDP also faced questions about its contract with Silver and Blue, along with what seemed (and still seems) to be a precarious financial situation.The latter has provided additional fodder for those on the outside claiming that progressives in leadership positions throughout Nevada lack the institutional knowledge needed to support candidates in their pursuit of elected office. 

Contribution and Expense reports from 2021 indicate that month after month, CCDP received a negligible amount of donations (or any other income) — so little, in fact, that the amount of losses by the county party has outstripped receipts by more than $10,000 this year. The reports initially contained no entry for payments to Silver and Blue. However, an amended filing was submitted to the state on November 16th, reflecting the payouts. At $1,500, the value of the contract between Silver and Blue and the county party wasn’t large — but was still significant enough to trigger state reporting requirements.

When asked about the discrepancy, CCDP Treasurer Joe Throneberry proceeded to inspect the filings. He confirmed the oversight, and promised it would be rectified, adding, “Challenges were faced by us during the turn over of party offices, including resignations without notice. These factors contributed to the inadequate preparation which was needed by the incoming team. We are still in the process of cleaning up from that time due to the poor transition, which included inaccurate record keeping and a failure to turn over documents. This has led to the need for a significant audit to be conducted, one which is in the process of being undertaken.” 

Even more trouble in paradise

Moving beyond perceived ethical lapses and rectifying tangible errors aren’t easy, but with time and patience they can be overcome. Less apparent for Chairwoman Whitmer and her closest advisors, including Roberts, is how to manage the divergent interests of the foot soldiers who made the revolution a reality while adhering to the protocols and practices being suggested, if not implemented, by the paid employees brought on by Whitmer in the spring to carry out the Democrat’s day to day operations. 

Several recent incidents caused tensions on both sides to flare up, two catching the interest of both the the news media and chattering classes, while another has been unreported until now. These events, when combined, highlight a leader at a crossroads. As Whitmer prepares to enter the unrelenting gauntlet of election year politics, those close to the situation have suggested she is facing stark choices on how to proceed. 

Among Whitmer’s defenders some of the fiercest vitriol has been reserved for Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom, a DSA member who maintains extremely close ties to the so-called “Reid Machine.” Segerblom challenged Whitmer for the position of state party chair at the behest of Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto, according to published reports. At the time, his run was viewed as apostasy, with both Whitmer and Roberts questioning his loyalty to the progressive movement. 

During the first week of November, the commissioner was quoted in Politico as saying. Whitmer “kind of scared people,” and was thought by some to be “antagonistic.” Those who know Whitmer understood her to be extremely “frustrated” by Segerblom’s statements. Days later, the Las Vegas DSA, in hyping their ‘Holiday Solidarity’ event, announced that Commissioner Segerblom was hosting the annual socialist food drive and meal giveaway. Caught off guard by this partnership, one person close to Whitmer seemed exasperated, going so far as to ask “Who’s side are they on?” 

Asked directly whether he thought Whitmer was leader of the state party, Segerblom responded, “She is definitely the chair of the Nevada Democratic Party,” adding, “The governor is the leader of the party.” Segerblom sidestepped other questions, though, including whether he believed Whitmer should be entrusted with money from a coordinated campaign, or if she was antagonistic.

“I think we can all work together, starting with baby steps,” he said. Continuing on, after praising Whitmer for pulling a controversial agenda item aimed at county parties, and touching on the need to ignore “turf battles,” Segerblom, referencing the state party Whitmer now heads, added that “At its core, the Democratic party is the head cheerleader.”

Confusion among top Nevada party officials surrounding the “Solidarity” event wasn’t limited to Segerblom’s prominent role and the lack of outrage or reprisal by the DSA for his public undercutting of fellow DSA’er and elected party leader Whitmer. A tweet from the state Democrats’ Twitter account sharing the food drive information and touting the state party’s sponsorship of the event contained misinformation: It trumpeted that this was the second year in a row that the Nevada Democrats had taken part as a sponsor. Several people involved with DSA during 2020 said that wasn’t the case. This led to questions about who sent the party’s tweet, especially as Roberts’ Silver and Blue shares control of the Dem’s social media feeds with the state's full-time staffers.  

One source close to both Whitmer and her staff offered an anecdote about a 2021 election night communications debacle, one which brought Whitmer directly into conflict with her hand-picked Executive Director, Chris Klarich: 

Mr. Klarich, an alumni of the Bernie Sanders campaign, came to Nevada in order to rebuild the decimated state party infrastructure left behind from the prior staff’s abrupt abandonment of their positions in March. Known as an operative who understood the mechanisms necessary to bridge the wide gulf between progressives and moderates, Mr. Klarich and his team is reported to be increasingly removed from any real decision making authority with Ms. Whitmer and the contracted team of Silver and Blue leading day to day operations. 

On the night of November 2nd, as the results of the Virginia governor’s race came into focus and the gains by Republicans in New Jersey were clear, Ms. Whitmer looked to issue a scathing statement, a fiery, defiant press release meant to point out that it wasn’t the progressive agenda that lost, but the lack of strength to pass it that caused the off year shellackings. According to a source with direct knowledge of the debate, the unreleased statement was deemed too inflammatory by Mr. Klarich who refused to be part of it being sent out. A stalemate ensued, causing a fissure to open in real time, as the clock counted toward midnight pacific time. This rupture saw Ms. Whitmer, Mr. Roberts, and some officers aligned on one side, while multiple members of the executive team along with at least one other officer opposing them. 

Eventually Ms. Whitmer took much needed control of the situation, slightly pairing back the language in the communique and sending it out to the press. Ultimately it was well received in the circles that the Chairperson was aiming for, with her comments being reported on by at least one national media outlet. 

According to someone with direct knowledge of their thinking, Mr. Klarich and other employees are said to be looking at what comes next, “fed up” by Mr. Roberts involvement and the desire by Ms. Whitmer to keep his counsel. Mr. Klarich did not respond to attempts to reach him directly by phone or text.

In conclusion

History shows that governance after a successful revolution is often significantly harder than taking power initially. Expanding it is even more so. The revolution that swept up Democrats in the Battle Born state is no different. 

Multiple candidates with knowledge of the chaotic nature of Democratic operations across the Las Vegas Valley and Nevada are aghast. One, an experienced official who is running this cycle and empathizes with Ms. Whitmer stated plainly, “This is crazy, it needs to end. They all have to come together.” Another, an elected office holder running for a different position, expressed dismay at the lack of cohesion while speaking highly of party officials as individuals. Another candidate said simply, “I support Judith Whitmer — but the people around her, are they a social club or people who want to succeed in politics outside of their bubble?”

Whitmer responded to a request for comment with a sweeping pronouncement, one focusing on the core values that swept her coalition into the spaces they now occupy, “Progressives cannot be distracted by the noise. We’ve worked hard to remove the obstruction, but we still have much to accomplish while climate change is still an existential threat, justice is still out of reach for black lives, working families still struggle and millions are without healthcare. It’s time for progressives to take power and keep fighting together for a better world. We must make sure every voice is heard and no one is left behind. Progressives understand that the stakes couldn’t be any higher. And it’s going to take all of us to bring real change.”

With poll ratings sliding among Democrats across the nation, Whitmer understands the need to harness the collective power of her fractured party in order to see Nevada Democrats victorious in the 2022 election cycle. She’ll also have to do so in order to make certain the years she spent dedicated to overthrowing the existing power structure in order to elicit the changes she believes are necessary for society aren’t squandered.

Correction (9:39 a.m. on 11/27/2021): This column originally stated that the Clark County Democrat Party saw losses which resulted in a negative operating balance of more than $10,000. However, that number only reflects CCDP finances since the beginning of the year. As of 11/20/2021, the party’s cash on hand was slightly more than $30,000.

Sarah Ashton-Cirillo originally moved to Las Vegas in 2004. A parent to one child, she is an analyst by profession and also publishes at the Nevada news portal, Ashton-Cirillo is a registered Democrat and member of DSA who also has donated to the Nevada Democratic Party. Follow her on Twitter @SarahAshtonLV.


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