While epic ineptitude during the Iowa Democratic caucus has caused chaos and embarrassment for Democratic leaders, a scandal is flying under the radar in Wisconsin that could threaten the success of the 2020 Democratic National Convention.
The two top officials overseeing Milwaukee’s Host Committee for the 2020 Democratic National Convention were abruptly fired this week amid allegations of corruption, mismanagement, misogyny and creating a toxic, hostile work environment.
“It’s one of the worst — if not the worst — I have worked on,” a veteran political operative who worked with the Host Committee told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The investigation leading to the firings became public after former committee officials leaked news of the probe to the newspaper.
The allegations, which were investigated by an outside law firm, fly in the face of everything Democrats are trying to use as the moral basis for their challenge of President Trump’s re-election. Republican supporters have said that such a scandal would be front-page news if it happened to the Republican National Committee.
The sacking of the two officials comes less than six months before the start of the convention, scheduled for July 13 – 16 in Milwaukee. The Host Committee — the civic, nonpartisan arm of the convention — is responsible for the enormous task of raising $70 million to stage the July event and recruit some 15,000 volunteers.
Holding the convention in Milwaukee sends a clear signal that Democrats don’t plan to overlook Wisconsin this time around. During the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton never campaigned in the state and Donald Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to carry the state since 1984.
With such a critical role in helping propel their presidential candidate to victory, the Host Committee leadership is handpicked by the upper echelon of the Democratic National Committee.
The two ousted officials are Host Committee President Liz Gilbert and Adam Alonso, her chief-of-staff. Both officials have ties to New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, who has risen to national prominence in the DNC as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.
Alonso briefly served as Murphy’s deputy chief of staff after working on his election campaign and remained a political adviser until news of the scandal broke. He was considered a power broker in New Jersey Democratic politics.
Gilbert was the national finance director of Murphy’s campaign and then became executive director of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee. At 30, she was a rising star in the Democratic National Committee, having held leadership positions at the Democratic conventions in 2016 in Philadelphia and in 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
In interviews with the newspaper, two experienced political hands described the Host Committee as having “a toxic culture rife with power struggles, backbiting and mismanagement.” They accused Gilbert and Alonso of giving contracts to their friends in New Jersey, calling meetings and then failing to attend them and being more focused on accumulating power than promoting Milwaukee.
One official said they would become “sick to their stomach” when working with the host committee because they had never felt such a toxic atmosphere in political campaigns.
In an anonymous letter to the Convention’s board of directors, a group of women on the Host Committee alleged Alonso “bullied and intimidated staff members” and those actions were “primarily directed at the women of the staff.”
The sources said it appeared that the former employees have been emboldened to speak out after Alonso was accused in his home state of New Jersey of shaking down lobbyists and campaign contributors for his own consulting firm, the Cratos Group. Those accusations came just a week prior to the Host Committee allegations.
The two have previously come under criticism for continuing to do work for New Jersey Democrats while leading the Host Committee full time. The New Jersey Democratic Party dumped Alonso from his $15,000-per-month consulting gig after news of the investigation broke. The party had paid him $80,000 since he came to Milwaukee to work on the host committee in May.
The situation could provide more embarrassment for Murphy, a self-described progressive Democrat who is also dealing with similar allegations surrounding his 2017 campaign.
Julie Roginsky, a former strategist for Murphy, said his gubernatorial campaign operation was “toxic” and that she experienced “rank misogyny.” Furthermore, she said lobbyists told her during the 2018 campaign that Alonso and the campaign manager were pressing the lobbyists for private business.
Roginsky gained national attention when she sued Fox News in 2017, alleging she was denied a position co-hosting a midafternoon show after refusing to have a sexual relationship with CEO Roger Ailes. The two sides settled for an undisclosed sum later in the year.
Last year, Roginsky and fellow Fox News alum Gretchen Carlson formed a group called Lift Our Voices. The organization is focused on trying to discourage companies and political leaders from using the secret agreements that can end up protecting those accused of sexual harassment and discrimination.
Beyond the leadership scandal, a potential inter-party fight over big-money donors hangs over the convention too.
Documented, a watchdog group that investigates how corporations manipulate public policy, obtained a DNC fundraising brochure targeting potential big donors for the convention. The now-disgraced Host Committee was selling “Plantinum Sponsorship Packages” for $1.5 million that offer exclusive VIP access and sponsorship opportunities. Other packages offered are gold at $1 million, silver at $500,000 and bronze at $250,000.
Both parties rely on big money contributions to hold their conventions. But the windfall of corporate cash in Milwaukee could blow up the convention if either Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren win the nomination. Both have eschewed big money donations in the early stages of the election.
The issue of corporate influence on politics defines both the essence and success of Sanders’ appeal. Sanders pledged that if he were to win the nomination, he would ban corporate donations to the convention and related Democratic party committees.
The Vermont senator has raised more than $121 million through 6.4 million donations since launching his second presidential bid. More than 1.5 million people have made donations that average $18 and January was his campaign’s best fundraising month to date.
“Our grassroots-funded campaign is proving every single day that you don’t need billionaires and private fundraisers to run for president,” Sanders said.
In announcing his proposed ban, Sanders claimed that just 17 donors gave three-quarters of the Democratic National Convention funding in 2016, with large corporations like Bank of America, Peco Energy, Comcast, and Facebook each donating over $1 million.
“Their lobbyists were everywhere and filled the VIP suites,” he said. “This type of corporate sponsorship is a corrupting influence and must end if politicians are going to represent the American people.”
Despite Sanders’ warnings, the DNC’s Convention CEO Joe Solmonese said he has no plans to return corporate contributions already made to the convention, setting the stage for a potential clash before it even begins.
Milwaukee Alderman Bob Bauman, concerned about his city squandering such a historic opportunity to shed its “rust belt” label, claimed his requests to meet with the convention committee president have been ignored. “Let’s get competent people in here and maybe instead of bringing people in from New Jersey, Washington, and New York they can look to local folks,” he said.