One measure of how Chris Finnie assesses her own chances of being elected California Democratic Party chair this weekend is the song she picked to be played when she’s introduced to speak to the delegates.
The opening lines of Abba’s “Take a Chance on Me” do not suggest an overwhelming confidence that she’ll prevail in the voting:
“If you change your mind, I’m the first in line,
Honey, I’m still free. Take a chance on me.”
The 59-year old Finnie, a grassroots, netroots, bran muffin activist from Boulder Creek who runs her own PR business, is matched in the leadership contest against Democratic war horse John Burton, who’ll enter the weekend as the safest bet since the U.S. took on Grenada.
“I started running because of how this unrolled as a sort of smoke-filled backroom deal,” she told Calbuzz. “Senator Burton leveraged his connections and years in office, and nailed down most of the delegates before he entered the race.
“He came through like the German army through North Africa –- it was a blitzkrieg,” Finnie added. “I came to the conclusion it was sort of a sham, and I didn’t like the feeling of being marginalized.”
A longtime Democratic foot soldier who worked in campaigns for Howard Dean, John Kerry, Barack Obama and Rep. Jerry McNerney, among others, Finnie has held a host of local and regional party posts, and believes there is a serious imbalance of power between volunteers and elected officials.
As evidence, she points to intraparty division over the May 19 special election, in which many activists are unhappy with program cuts mandated by Props. 1A, 1D and 1E, while officeholders shine them on, and line up in support of the measures behind Democratic legislative leaders.
She also is rankled by the Democrats’ decision not to run a candidate against Republican state senator Abel Maldonado in a competitive coastal district last year, after the GOP lawmaker threw a key budget vote to former senate leader Don Perata in 2007. She also believes the undue influence of incumbents has blocked a series of grassroots efforts to put the party on record against the death penalty.
“Electeds get into an exclusive club and they don’t want to play with us anymore, until they need us,” Finnie said. “We help them get elected and we pay their salaries . . . Then they’re telling us what we should support and not support instead of us telling them.”
Beyond her motive to change the party structure’s insider-outsider dynamic, Finnie said she has also been motivated to run by what she sees as Burton’s shabby treatment of her. When she called the 76-year old former senate leader late last year to tell him she was going to run, Burton was rude and dismissive, she said.
She asked some tough questions like: “Do you think your age is going to be a liability with all the traveling you have to do as party chairman?”
“He yelled at me and said, ‘I’m on a couple of medications but I’m in perfect health. That’s a stupid question.’”
Then according to Finnie, he added: “I’m going to win this thing and if anybody doesn’t like it they can go fuck themselves.”
(Burton disputes this account. And, honestly, who can imagine him talking like that?)
“What I want is a party that’s open, responsive and empowers activists,” said Finnie. “And he doesn’t have that to give me but he does have that to take away from me.”
“I’m actually running for power so I can give it away,” she added.
Tomorrow: An interview with John Burton.