DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A former Iowa Democratic Party official is facing criticism for jumping to Beto O'Rourke's campaign — and bringing with him inside information that O'Rourke's rivals for the White House say could give the former Texas congressman an advantage on caucus night.
Before joining O'Rourke's campaign this month as a senior Iowa strategist, Norm Sterzenbach worked for the state Democratic Party to develop and implement some of the biggest changes to the nation's leadoff caucus in 50 years. Those changes include a mandate from the Democratic National Committee to hold a "virtual caucus" that, for the first time, would allow people to participate by telephone.
Party officials were blindsided by his decision to join the O'Rourke campaign, and some Iowa Democrats are arguing that Sterzenbach is conflicted. Former Rep. David Nagle, who led a team of more than two dozen Democratic activists and operatives in reviewing the caucuses after the 2016 election, said Sterzenbach had been involved in that process from start to finish. He said he and other party operatives were "very uncomfortable" that Sterzenbach joined a campaign.
"We almost feel like it's an act of betrayal," he said. "To design a system, and then the week you're giving your final advice to the party you go and join a presidential campaign and don't tell anybody?"
Party officials plan to hire a new caucus director and emphasize that the party's current leadership — Chairman Troy Price and Executive Director Kevin Geiken — have plenty of caucus experience. The campaigns still have a full year to get their questions answered.
Sterzenbach says he was not thinking about joining O'Rourke's team or any other campaign while crafting the caucus rules. He says he signed a nondisclosure agreement with the state party that bars him from discussing certain caucus details with the campaign — an agreement he plans to maintain.
"I have actually not had a single conversation with anyone on the Beto O'Rourke campaign about the caucus changes," he said. "Some of that is just a matter of, we haven't gotten to that point yet, as we're still setting up the structure of the campaign, but they haven't asked — nor have I ever shared anything. And from this point forward, the conversations will only revolve around things that have been publicly disclosed."
The O'Rourke campaign stood by Sterzenbach in an email to the Associated Press.
"We are building the largest grassroots campaign in history and are excited to have Norm's on-the-ground expertise leading the way in Iowa as we work to meet with, listen to, learn from and serve everyone in the state," spokesman Chris Evans said.
Sterzenbach is not the only Iowa Democratic Party official who has moved to a campaign, nor is he the only campaign staffer in the state with an intimate knowledge of the caucuses.
Still, operatives on at least three rival campaigns have privately expressed concerns over Sterzenbach's move. They note that, as a party official, he was available to campaigns to answer questions as the caucus changes were rolled out. Some campaigns had frank conversations with Sterzenbach — or with other party officials that they believe Sterzenbach was privy to — that they worry could tip their hand on their caucus strategy.
The people spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal campaign conversations.
The issue is especially fraught in Iowa where supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have argued that an unfair nominating process in 2016 inappropriately favored Hillary Clinton. Iowa Democratic Party officials are feeling added pressure to ensure that all candidates are treated the same this time.
Sue Dvorsky, a former party chairwoman who was also involved in rewriting the caucus rules, said because of those complaints, Iowa Democratic Party officials are on high alert to make things fair.
"I think people are being very, very careful, all the way along, to document what information is going out and that it's going to everybody, and that there literally is just no favoritism being shown," she said.
Dvorsky said she "understands the concerns" from the rival campaigns over Sterzenbach's hiring, but expressed confidence in Price, the state party chairman.
For now, Sanders' camp isn't raising concerns about fairness. Pete D'Alessandro, a top adviser on Sanders' Iowa campaign, acknowledged Sterzenbach's departure was a significant loss for the party.
"It is not in Norm Sterzenbach's DNA to cheat. It is not how this person who I've known for 20 years conducts himself," he said.
The state party now lacks a key staffer as they implement major changes to the caucus process. In addition to the virtual caucus, the party is changing key aspects gatherings that will affect candidates' strategies on caucus night and the party's reporting practices.