Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philly activist is running to help lead Democrats nationally

Melissa Byrne of Philadelphia wants to put her political organizing skills to work for the Democratic National Committee. She's running for vice chair in the most wide open party leadership race since 2005.

Melissa Byrne of Philadelphia has been on the front lines.

In 2000, she and other students held the University of Pennsylvania president's office for nine days to protest college apparel makers' overseas sweatshops. She marched against the Iraq War and organized Occupy D.C., the left-wing movement targeting income inequality and corporate power.

Now, Byrne, 38, wants to help a fixture of the nation's two-party establishment rebuild and connect with millions of activists energized by opposition to President Trump.

She is running for vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, part of an unusually wide-open campaign for party leadership positions, to be decided Saturday as committee members convene in Atlanta. All told, nine candidates are jostling for four vice-chair slots.

"We need a good organizer," Byrne said. "We have an obligation to strengthen state and local parties and get back to winning."

And Democrats hope the surge in anti-Trump activism provides an opportunity.

"This is an inflection moment," Byrne said. "It's a matter of providing avenues in, where new people are welcome. People don't have to invent their own organizations; there are good legacy organizations with people who know how to organize. It's up to the Democratic Party to make sure that we are one of funnels for new activists to get engaged."

Byrne was an organizer on the 2008 Obama campaign. Ahead of the 2016 primary, she ran Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' digital operations in New Hampshire, then moved to the national digital team for the rest of the campaign. After Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic nomination, Byrne ran's independent programs in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire in support of her.

In Philadelphia, Byrne is known for the get-out-the-vote operation that helped elect the public-education activist Helen Gym to City Council in 2015.

"She ran field for my campaign, and we won as an outside candidate thanks to enormous energy at the grass-roots level," Gym said. "First and foremost, Melissa understands the importance and power of the grass roots; she believes in it deeply and fervently. Melissa was always thinking about how to bring in and engage more volunteers … and channel all that into an outcome at the polls."

Gym said she was confident Byrne would bring a "local focus" as vice chair of the national party.

Kati Sipp, a union and political organizer with long experience in Pennsylvania and nationally, met Byrne when the latter was whipping up the Penn protests against sweatshops. "It's not easy to organize students on an economic justice issue like that," Sipp said.

Byrne grew up in Vineland, N.J., a largely working-class community, as the daughter of a single mom. "Melissa  had class consciousness, was not someone who grew up in privileged circumstances and came to it later like others do," Sipp said.

This year's DNC election is the most wide open since 2005, when former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was elected chairman and set about implementing a 50-state strategy that sent on-the-ground organizers to deep-red places where the Democratic Party was barely visible.

When a Democrat occupies the White House, the national committee ratifies the president's picks and runs the machinery. President Barack Obama did not take a deep interest in party matters, however, and his campaign created a separate organization, Organizing for America, which competed with state and local parties for money and energy.

Over his two terms, the party lost a lot of ground in the states, culminating in the loss to Trump. Meanwhile, some divisions remain from the primary battle between Clinton and Sanders supporters. The two leading candidates for chair of the DNC reflect that — former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, the choice of more establishment types, and the Sanders-endorsed Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison.

"Some people are portraying this as a proxy battle, and I think that's unfortunate," Byrne said. "This is a new year."

She also argues that the narrative of Democratic division is overblown, believing that unity against Trump will banish any ill will from 2016. "There's more than enough work," she said. "It's all hands on deck now."