Idaho woman bent on saving Democrats and democracy

Portrait of Sally Boynton Brown, the Executive Director of the Idaho Democratic Party who is running for national Democratic party chair. Kyle Green / Idaho Statesman

Sally Boynton Brown would not be bested by a backhoe.

A few days before Christmas, the executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party sat for one interview at party headquarters in Boise, awaiting a phone call for a second interview on live radio with Alan Colmes of Fox News. The backhoe was tearing up the alley behind headquarters, making non-stop racket with its motorized grinding and back-up chirping.

The call from Colmes’s producer rang in. Boynton Brown, the chief paid staffer for Idaho’s plucky if electorally challenged Democrats and the fifth announced candidate to chair the Democratic National Committee, jumped into a darkened closet, closed the door, and did the 20-minute interview from there.

So it is that someone with Boynton Brown’s job might not last long without learning to improvise, roll with the punches and not stand on ceremony: She leads her party in a state where opposing Republicans hold all federal and statewide offices and outnumber Democrats by more than 4-1 in both party affiliation and state legislative seats.

Given those state odds, there was never any doubt that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump would carry Idaho. But Democrats also lost ground in state races, losing three seats in the Idaho House and one in the Senate.

And those defeats, Boynton Brown reasons somewhat counterintuitively, are among the factors that make her the right pick to lead a national party still in stunned mourning over its surprise November defeat: She knows how to lose.

“In Idaho we lose elections,” said Boynton Brown, who took the state party’s top job in 2012. “It’s my job to figure what the small wins are along the way so that we can stay focused on doing the work that needs to be done. If we closed up shop and went home every time we lost, we would not be anywhere.”

The Idaho native is 40, born 30 miles west of Boise in Middleton but raised in the state’s capital. Married at 19, she became an instant mom to her stepson, now 23, and has two other children, 19 and 17. Her husband, Burr, works in property management. She went back to school and got her degree in communications from Boise State University in her late 20s, graduating in 2005 and running her first Democratic campaign for Boise legislator Sue Chew in 2006. She says she spends 100-120 hours a week on party business.

“This is my life. I don’t have work. I am here to save democracy,” she says, without a hint of irony. “That’s a personal mission I took upon myself 10 years ago and I give it every single thing that I have, much to my poor family’s chagrin. On the side, I sleep.”

TURNING WEAKNESSES INTO STRENGTHS

Boynton Brown is the only woman among five announced candidates for DNC chair; the committee’s 447 members will make their pick in late February. She is the only candidate from the West, and the only one to be working in an operational role for the party (though two others serve as state chairs).

That Idaho, by population, is a tiny western state and politically among the reddest in the country, not to mention that Democrats here struggle to be relevant except in populous urban areas such as Boise, doesn’t register with her as potential turn-offs to national Democrats.

“Everybody looks at me and thinks that those are weaknesses — I actually see them as strengths,” she said. “If you haven’t noticed, much of the country is red, so having somebody from a blue state trying to take on that task seems a little ridiculous to me. We really need to have somebody from a red state with a red state perspective that knows how to really attack those issues.”

She has the unanimous backing of the Idaho state party chair, vice-chair and national committee members. Chairman Bert Marley credits her, despite tough losses, with building up fund-raising and ground-game efforts and says her relative youth will be critical to attracting disaffected younger voters that are critical to Democrats’ future success.

While short on the national exposure and connections that some of her competitors have, as a woman and party leader from a Western red state, “she does fill a niche out there that I don’t think anybody was talking about,” Marley said. “If somebody can even be marginally successful in a state as red and Republican as Idaho is, think what they can do in a more open and more level playing field.”

Boynton Brown plays all perceived deficits as strengths, including that lack of a national profile. She jumped into the race in mid-December after mulling over what she had heard and seen at an election post-mortem for Democratic leaders and staffers in Denver.

“I didn’t really hear any new ideas coming out of that meeting,” she said. “I think that collectively we all left feeling more unsettled than when we arrived, which is saying something since we all are grieving for the results of this election cycle.”

No woman was in the running to succeed Donna Brazile, who took a caretaking role after Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned in July amid criticism over leaked emails and preferential treatment for Hillary Clinton.

Someone, Boynton Brown thought, “needs to be stepping up and saying, ‘OK we’re not going to play it safe. We have an opportunity here.’ The only silver lining that there is, right, is that we have a chance to rebuild our party. So let’s do that in a way that is bigger than we’ve ever imagined before.

“It became clear to me,” she concluded, “that if I wanted to hear that injected into the conversation, that I was the person to do it.”

WANTED: A NATIONAL MESSAGE

She’s also been hearing that Idaho Democrats were not alone in trying to wriggle away from national party positions that hurt candidates in conservative states.

“In Idaho we have a really specific message around our values and the issues that are important to us,” she said. “We need the national Democratic party to have same sort of brand. To continue to have to set ourselves apart and say, ‘Oh, we’re not national Democrats’ is not helping us. … We need to have that positive narrative where we talk about who we are as Democrats, what our values are, what we do for the people of America.

“We thought it was just Idaho that it hurt. It’s not,” she continued. “The majority of states had to walk away and say, ‘OK, but we’re not doing it that way. We’ve got our own way of doing business and it works.’”

Though she’s not a household name among Democrats generally, it’s not the general electorate she needs to convince. It’s party insiders, many of whom already know her “because of the time she’s put in,” said Greg Beswick, executive director of Ohio’s Democrats since 2015, who’s not voting and not endorsing in the race.

“I will say I think she brings a much-needed dialogue and direction to the conversation with her message, her understanding of where we need to go as a party, and what resources we need, rather than just rhetoric.”

Boynton Brown’s state-level perspective could find favor within the 50 state organizations that struggled to work with, or sometimes against, the top-down, one-size-fits-all party strategy blamed for helping Hillary Clinton lose states she needed to win to defeat Donald Trump.

“A lot of states are looking for us to make sure that whoever becomes the chair has a 50-state strategy,” Beswick said.

‘SOMEBODY THAT LOOKS DIFFERENT’

Among the national candidates are Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, who has endorsements from both Bernie Sanders and incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York; outgoing Secretary of Labor Tom Perez; and two state party chairs, Jaime Harrison of South Carolina and Raymond Buckley of New Hampshire. Each has a “very interesting constituency” and regions might line up to vote in blocs, Beswick said, adding that the race is “very even.”

Boynton Brown said she is working now to reach out to DNC members. Does her relatively low profile make her an underdog? “A very outside-the-box candidate… is exactly what we need.”

“We need somebody that looks different,” she said. “I have done a very good job of positioning myself between the Bernie and Hillary worlds and staying very neutral, and I bring a fresh new perspective to this race. I’m not a DC insider, I don’t have big connections at the top, I’m not beholden to any major political group that exists within our party, and that’s exactly what we need at this place and time in history where we have to remake our party and bring back peoples’ trust in not only the DNC but democracy.”

She pounces on the question any candidate for DNC chair must strive to answer:Why did Democrat Hillary Clinton lose to a candidate critics denounced as the least-prepared, least qualified in history?

Democrats lacked an overarching message on “who we are,” she says. The national party and the Clinton campaign instead went after Trump.

“Until we return to our values and connect with voters around those values and talk about those stories, I think we will continue to see close misses, because a lot of the voters are not interested in the facts and the policies and the issues,” Boynton Brown said. “A lot of the voters are very much human beings that are reacting to the emotional everyday realities of their lives and they want a leader that is doing the same thing. And, frankly, that’s what we saw in Trump. There probably is not a better example of somebody who reacts to the emotions of his day-to-day life.

“So rather than have this be a continuation of what the last year has been, this ideological debate about whether we’re liberal or whether we’re moderate, Bernie vs. Hillary, I want to move the conversation on to the foundational level, which is: What are our values … that no matter where you’re at on the ideological spectrum, we can all agree on and then build from there and attack some of these really big issues.

“And take on the world,” she added — irony, again, noticeably absent.