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Prof. Tobias B. Wolff on the Democratic party platform: A view from the inside

September 04, 2012

Tobias Barrington Wolff, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, was present in Detroit last month for a meeting of the Platform Committee of the Democratic Party, where the provisions of the party’s formal platform were finalized. Wolff served in 2007 and 2008 as the Chair of LGBT Policy for the first presidential campaign of Barack Obama, and he has provided input to the White House on an informal basis since the President took office.

Wolff has written and researched widely on civil rights and equality. He spoke with Penn Law’s Office of Communications about his role in finalizing the 2012 Democratic platform, and what he sees as stark contrasts between how the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and President Obama are unified in their respective visions, in contrast to the dynamics of the Republican party’s platform and their presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.

Penn Law (PL): Please tell us about your involvement with the Democratic platform and your work with the DNC.

Tobias Barrington Wolff (TBW): The finalizing of the platform unfolds in several stages. There is a team of people who work on producing an initial draft, which is then presented to the drafting committee. The drafting committee this year was made up of a group of notable figures, such as former Governor Ted Strickland of Ohio, Rep. Barney Frank, and so on, all of whom worked together, held public hearings and gathered input from a broad range of constituents and constituencies, to find out what they wanted to see reflected in the platform.

They produced a draft document that was then presented to the platform committee. The platform committee is the body within the Democratic Party that has the formal authority to finalize the substance of the document, and has the opportunity to submit amendments and so forth. That was the committee I was on. It met in Detroit and was co-chaired by Newark [New Jersey] Mayor Cory Booker and retired U.S. Army General Claudia Kennedy. That final document is being presented at the Democratic convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, and will be formally adopted as the platform of the party.

: How is the platform committee comprised?

TBW: The platform committee is made up of two groups of people: those selected by the DNC in Washington, D.C., who are called “Party Leader and Elected Official” members.  I was considered one of the “party leaders.” There were also about 200 people selected through the state party apparatuses, and all together that group made up the platform committee. I’ve done some work for the Obama campaign and I’ve served as an informal advisor to the White House, so they asked me to serve on the committee.

PL: What was the experience like? Was this the first time you served in this kind of capacity?

TBW: It was the first time. Everyone clearly took the duties quite seriously; the draft document we were presented with was very good. One of the issues that got a lot of attention was the support for marriage equality. There was a lot of consensus. There was no debate of which I’m aware within the platform committee about that – that was very heartening. As to the delegates, in one way or another they had come up through their state parties. Some of them had a lot of political experience, some of them were grassroots activists or community representatives; there were young people, seniors, and those in between. It was a good group of folks.

PL: What do you think you brought to the table as a law professor?

TBW: That’s an interesting question. I’m not aware of any other law professors in the room, though one of the members of the drafting committee is a law professor. I think my expertise was useful in that I could serve as another filter for ensuring there were no substantive issues that warranted further attention. But it was a really good document when we on the platform committee got it. I focused on several of the sections and wound up making an amendment on the floor - which was accepted - which included some language about LGBT families in the immigration context that had not made it into the original draft.

The room was thrilled to be adopting it, and it’s language the Obama campaign and the White House are happy with.  That language reaffirms the idea that the term “family” – as a legal term but also as a general concept – includes LGBT families and relationships in immigration. It also acknowledges the reality that families are getting ripped apart, often through deportation, because of unequal treatment that LGBT families still receive.

The administration has been working on this issue – they’re constrained by the federal Defense of Marriage Act – they’ve taken steps already in the context of DOMA that provide some protections against deportation with LGBT families. But with any issue involving relationship rights at the federal level, getting rid of DOMA is a prerequisite for these couples to receive fully equal treatment.

PL: What is your take on the Republican platform process by comparison?

TBW: Obviously, I’m not a neutral party here, but seeing how the Republican platform has unfolded I think it’s a remarkable comparison.  There is not a word in the Democratic Party platform that I’m aware of that isn’t fully embraced by the president, his campaign, and by the party itself. Of course, there is disagreement within the party on some issues, but there is a unity of sentiment between the language of the platform adopted by the party and the president’s campaign. 

In contrast, the Republican platform stakes out a lot of positions that their candidate now says he doesn’t support. Looking at it from the outside, the Republican landscape looks a lot more disjointed than is typical of a major party presidential campaign, and that may make it difficult for their candidates to maintain focus.