New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Raymond Buckley isn’t taking a break after an Election Day in which Democrats at the top of the ticket, including Hillary Clinton, did well in his state amid losses elsewhere. He’s thrown his hat into the ring to become the next chair of the Democratic National Committee.
At a time when the DNC is reassessing after its election losses, recuperating from apparent hacking of emails by Russia and preparing for the vote on a new party chair, Buckley — the first openly gay state chair for a major party — has a lot on his plate. At the start of an interview Monday with the Washington Blade, Buckley quipped after reviewing the proposed topics for discussion, “Are you prepared to be talking for an hour or two?” (The conversation lasted a little more than 30 minutes.)
Boosting Buckley’s prospects in his bid for DNC chair is that he was the state party chair in New Hampshire on Election Day on 2016. Although Clinton’s win there was marginal, she won the state at the same time she lost Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, which are states Democrats traditionally win. Gov. Maggie Hassan also won election as a Democrat over incumbent Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) in a year that was good for Republicans.
“We have a proven record here in New Hampshire by surviving the Republican wave of ’14 and ’16 — the first time in history having our entire congressional delegation as Democratic,” Buckley said. “And when you compare that to the other battleground states or purple states, nobody fared as well as we did.”
Running on a 15-point plan that he says will restore the Democrats to power much like Howard Dean’s 2006 “50-State Strategy,” Buckley said New Hampshire “should be used as a model for ground operations across the country.” Among the items in the plan is reforming the process for the Democratic presidential nomination, cultivating vibrant local and county committees and permanent Democratic headquarters in every congressional district that would be used as community centers.
“One difference that we did here in New Hampshire — and there’s a lot that has already been written about this — that we actually did persuasion to our voters,” Buckley said. “We identified them. In most of the other states, if not all of them, they simply did the modeling and did the get out the vote. There have been stories written that perhaps the Clinton campaign actually pulled out Trump voters in some states. That didn’t happen here in New Hampshire because we knew exactly who we were talking to because we actually had conversation, and more than likely it was a conversation by somebody who was their neighbor, and that had a very powerful impact on our ability to be successful.”
Buckley, 57, said a number of factors contributed to why Hillary Clinton lost the election, but he placed significant blame on the process for nominating the Democratic presidential pick. Among the ways Buckley proposed to reform the process is projecting neutrality, ensuring state delegations are reflective of their primaries, ending joint fundraising agreements during a primary and removing the chair from scheduling decisions about debates.
“I think there were millions of Democratic voters that were turned off by our nominating process and either voted for Jill Stein or wrote in Bernie Sanders or simply didn’t show up to vote, and I think that we need to reform that process significantly,” Buckley said.
Despite the wins for Democrats in New Hampshire, Republican Chris Sununu won the gubernatorial election and the state legislature remains in GOP hands.
That could spell trouble for one LGBT issue that remains outstanding in New Hampshire: The lack of transgender protections under state law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation but not gender identity. Earlier this year, Hassan signed an executive order barring anti-trans discrimination, but that directive is limited to state government.
Buckley said legislation to bar anti-trans discrimination in New Hampshire “certainly is going to be introduced,” but acknowledged a difficult path forward.
“I would hope that Gov. Sununu and the Republican majorities would be supportive of it,” Buckley said. I’m hopeful that they would, but that said, just four years ago, we had a Democratic majority in the New Hampshire House and a Democratic governor willing to sign it and a very close state Senate. We could not get a single Republican state senator to be supportive of the issue.”
Should Buckley succeed in his effort to become the next DNC chair, he’d become the first openly gay person to take on that role — a distinction Buckley acknowledged has significance.
“I think the reality of growing up gay in the ‘70s and ‘80s certainly has given me a particular sensitivity to all who feel marginalized in society,” Buckley said. “It has been [part of] my work within the Democratic Party from the time of my teen years — whether it’s been very supportive of electing women to office, making sure that people of color are properly represented and supported, encouraged, to young people, to the parts that make up the wonderful rainbow of the Democratic Party, making them feel they’re being reflected within the party and respected by the party.”
When Buckley first became chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party in 2007, he was the only openly gay party chair. There are now five. Buckley also enjoys the distinction of being the first openly gay person elected president of the Association of State Democratic Chairs.
“People are feeling more comfortable with running for political office, for running for party office and being openly gay,” Buckley said. “And that means transgender, bisexual, gay men and lesbians as well. It was just a few years ago, there wasn’t a single transgender member of the DNC, and now we have a couple. I think that’s progress.”
Buckley said he’d put front-and-center the 2016 Democratic Party Platform to champion LGBT issues as DNC chair. The platform, he said, has pro-LGBT language he said makes clear “elected Democrats down to the municipal level understand that we are the party of non-discrimination and the welcoming party.”
“I don’t think it’s an additional issue that needs to be included in our platform, but our platform needs to be articulated in a way that it reminds Democratic activists and elected officials from every corner to know that the party stands with the LGBTQ community,” Buckley said.
The New Hampshire Democrat is running to become next DNC chair in a crowded field that includes Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who has accrued significant endorsements, and Labor Secretary Tom Perez. But Buckley rejected the perception he’s a long-shot contender.
“The last thing I knew there were only 447 members of the DNC and as of any list I’ve seen, less than 30 of those 447 endorsed the two of them combined,” Buckley said. “And they’re terrific folks and either one of them would be a fine choice, but I also think Jamie Harrison is a phenomenal chair in South Carolina as well. I think that while folks with within Washington may have a perspective, the reality is the votes are in the states, not within the Beltway.”
Barbra Casbar Siperstein, who’s transgender and represents New Jersey as a member of the Democratic National Committee, said she intends to back Buckley in his bid to become DNC chair.
“He is smart, tough and well respected by members and staffers alike,” Siperstein said. “As a state party chair, a former Eastern Caucus Chair and now president of the Association of State Chairs he knows not only the importance of connecting to the grassroots and all the constituencies, but also the individuals in the states, the strengths, weaknesses as well as the differences among the states. The fact that he was neutral throughout the primary is a plus for bringing the different factions from within the party together.”
The election for chair will take place at the DNC’s winter meeting in Atlanta, scheduled for Feb. 23-26.
Buckley defensive over DNC email hacks
One factor cited as contributing to Clinton’s loss was the illegal hacks of the DNC and John Podesta emails, which were then published by Wikileaks and reported on by the media, including the Washington Blade. Media outlets have reported the CIA and FBI believe with “high confidence” the cyberattacks were the result of Russian hackers seeking to tilt the election in favor of Donald Trump.
Although Buckley maintained other factors were in play, such as Democrats’ ground operation in the states, he acknowledged the apparent Russian hacks were “a piece” contributing to the election results and said more investigation is warranted.
“It was unprecedented to have foreign actors be involved so aggressively and openly in our election of president,” Buckley said. “I think that it is going to go down as one of the darkest points in our political history and in the country. It certainly is important for Democrats and Republicans to work together, to find out all of the evidence that can be found and work diligently in a bipartisan manner to make sure that this never happens again.”
In his final news conference of 2016, President Obama said his administration was aware of the the hacking, but he told Russia “to cut it out” and no further attempts were made. But during an interview Sunday on ABC News’ “This Week,” Interim DNC Chair Donna Brazile contradicted Obama and said Russia “came after us absolutely every day until the end of the election” and “tried to hack into our system repeatedly.”
Buckley conceded he agrees with Brazile when pressed on the issue.
“I know for a fact that Donna is right,” Buckley said. “Perhaps I would assume that the president was not briefed every time there was an attempt at hacking into the DNC, but certainly she can very much document what was going on within the building.”
On whether he personally was subjected to hacking attempts, Buckley said “of course” and acknowledged Wikileaks obtained some of his emails, but added they were “simply nothing” and said he was “referenced in a few here and there, but nothing in a negative way.”
Buckley was defensive when asked to confirm whether Russian hackers sought to obtain DNC emails by hacking his personal accounts.
“I think you need to understand how horrific this really is,” Buckley said. “I don’t think it does anyone any good to taunt them, and so I prefer that we just not get into all of this. I don’t want to freak you or anything, but this really is really, really serious and it’s stuff that isn’t much fun when you’re the victim.”
After the Blade acknowledged the situation was serious, Buckley responded, “I believe it’s safe to say that most Democratic Party leaders were a victim of it in one way or another.”
To guard against further hacking, Buckley said the DNC has spent “an enormous amount of money” and established a “constant around-the-clock monitoring system” to monitor for potential cyberattacks.
“Apparently, that’s what might have happened, where somebody went in, planted something and then six months later it came alive and then sent someone’s entire email system out, so it’s having that sort of extraordinarily sophisticated system,” Buckley said. “But trust me, we are in the beginning stages of how to deal with this, and this is going to be a bipartisan challenge. The concept that a foreign power was actively engaged in manipulating the electoral process is something that you’d only think was in the movies.”
LGBT people must ‘stand up’ to Trump
Speaking to the Blade at the same time members of the Electoral College were casting their votes in state capitals and making Trump’s win official, Buckley said Democrats have the power to thwart Trump’s agenda and any reversal of LGBT rights under his administration.
“We have to stand up against any attempt to roll back any of our rights, and I’m not talking just specifically about the LGBT community,” Buckley said. “We should be fighting just as hard for voting rights, fighting just as hard for reproductive rights, for environmental rights. All of these issues affect all of our community, and people need to be very, very strong and very, very loud and very, very organized in the sense of organizing your own group of friends to do your own visibility or your own messaging.”
Among the officials Trump has picked to administer his policies are Cabinet members with a history of anti-LGBT views, including Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as attorney general, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) as secretary of health and human services and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry as energy secretary.
Buckley said the Cabinet picks demonstrate any predictions Trump would govern as a moderate are false and compared to his nominees one could “look back at George W. Bush’s nominees for Cabinet as being moderate.”
“And I think that if we had a Democratic majority, I think a lot of them would have very difficult time being confirmed,” Buckley added. “I suspect that there will be a couple that have a very difficult time being confirmed even with a Republican majority.”
For LGBT people fearing a roll back of their rights under the Trump administration, Buckley said the main thing is to maintain solidarity — both within the LGBT community and with other groups affected by the president-elect’s policies.
“If we stick together, we will succeed because they can’t come after us all,” Buckley said. “There’s too many of us and too many of us are willing to support the transgender youth in Dallas or the young lesbians in Utah. If we all support each other, we all stand together, we will be victorious.”