ATLANTA ― When the final results of the Democratic National Committee chair race were announced, the throngs of activists in the hall to support Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison were livid. There were boos and at least one cry of “bullshit!”
For several minutes afterward, as the DNC officials were making procedural announcements, several dozen Ellison supporters in green “Keith for DNC” T-shirts drowned them out with the cheer: “Party for the people, not big money!”
But a moment later, Tom Perez, the former labor secretary who won the top post on Saturday, stunned the audience by nominating Ellison to the new position of deputy DNC chair. Ellison immediately accepted and encouraged his supporters to unify behind Perez’s chairmanship.
“We don’t have the luxury to walk out of this room divided,” Ellison told the crowd.
The two men had been plotting contingency plans for weeks, according to sources from the Ellison and Perez campaigns. When the votes came in on the second ballot, Perez offered Ellison the deputy chair slot.
Ahead of Saturday’s vote, prominent Ellison backers warned that his defeat would encourage progressive activists to take their energy outside of the party. By offering Ellison the new post, Perez may have prevented immediate, irreparable damage to the party’s activist base. But he will have to demonstrate that this new partnership is more than titular if he hopes to stave off intraparty carnage.
“I appreciate that Perez recognized that there was a big bridge that he had to start building,” Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb said, referring to the deputy chair appointment.
“It’s meaningful if Keith is able to make it meaningful and if that vote means that it’s a full-voting officer, and if the full-voting officers are going to mean something. They haven’t meant something in years before,” said Larry Cohen, a DNC member and former president of the Communications Workers of America.
Progressive activists who backed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the last presidential primary saw Ellison’s candidacy for DNC chair as a chance to secure a foothold in the party that they had been denied in 2016. In the days immediately following the general election, Democratic establishment figures like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) endorsed Ellison with an eye toward welcoming Sanders activists into the fold.
But then, other forces in the establishment converged to counter Ellison’s bid. Aides to then-President Barack Obama reportedly encouraged Perez to enter the race. Several top Obama administration figures continued to call DNC voting members on Perez’s behalf until the very end, according to a DNC member with knowledge of the matter.
While most Perez backers denied that their support for him reflected a particular policy or ideological preference in advance of the vote, those considerations clearly played a role in the last-minute vote wrangling on Saturday.
“We had a sense ― and I think this is what a lot of folks had a sense ― that this would shift the party too far to the left,” said Jay Jacobs, a New York DNC member who whipped votes for Perez in the second round.
Democratic Senate leaders, meanwhile, are pleading with Sanders to direct grass-roots protest energy toward Republicans, rather than Democrats deemed insufficiently progressive. That could prove complicated now that the party rejected those same activists’ preferred candidate in the DNC race.
Cohen, board chair of Our Revolution, the political action committee Sanders set up to continue the work of his presidential campaign, said he was not sure yet how the army of independent-minded Sanders and Ellison supporters would interpret Ellison’s defeat.
“The issue is: Are activists going to feel like this is their party? The proof of that will be in the days ahead. I’m hopeful that it will,” Cohen said.
If the grass-roots activists present in Atlanta were any indication, however, there is still much work to be done to earn their trust. Justin Smith, a digital organizer with Democracy Spring, which seeks to end the influence of big money in politics, was among the Ellison activists chanting after his loss.
“The DNC chose a candidate that is not calling to break with big money, that is not backed by the grass-roots of the party, and we wanted to make that known,” Smith said of the chants. “It’s important for folks in certain positions to make sure that they bring folks together and talk about unity and I think it’s important for the grass-roots to continue to raise their voices.”
He didn’t make much of Perez naming Ellison deputy DNC chair. But rather than walk away from the party, Smith simply plans to keep the pressure on it to become more accountable to activists like him.
“The next fight is making sure that Perez does continue to devolve authority to the grass-roots and to the states, to make sure that he does what Keith promised to do,” he said.
Martese Chism, a board member of the National Nurses United ― one of the most progressive American labor unions ― traveled from Chicago to support Ellison with her union. She was furious.
“The DNC voting members crushed us again like they did with Bernie. They didn’t listen to the people, they didn’t even listen to the applause in the room,” Chism said.
Chism said she will remain active in efforts to resist Trump’s agenda, but she is more likely to focus her energy on groups like Our Revolution than the Democratic Party.
“They want to keep the status quo and they want the left to follow them ― I don’t know what we’re going to do,” she said.
Chism was unimpressed with Ellison’s appointment as deputy chair.
“It’s just a made-up title,” she said. “You think giving him a little title is going to please us? It’s not. It’s a slap in the face.”
For some DNC members, the crowds of boisterous Ellison supporters were a turnoff.
“I don’t think that Keith was helped by the people in the back of the room. I heard from numbers of people, particularly after it was over, that the nastiness, just the over-the-top ― was turning off a number of people,” Jacobs said.
Ellison’s defeat was not the only humiliation for progressives on Saturday. The DNC members rejected a resolution introduced by California DNC member Christine Pelosi that would have reinstated Obama’s ban on lobbyist donations to the DNC. Worse still, Democrats arguing against the measure made it sound like the party could not survive without corporate patronage.
The resolution will now go to the DNC’s executive committee, where Perez will have the opportunity to put it up for a vote.
As a candidate, Ellison promised to make sure a measure reinstating the ban was seconded and debated by the DNC’s executive committee. Perez did not make a comparable commitment.
“Perez has to commit to that,” said Kleeb, the Nebraska Democratic Party chair.
Kleeb, a longtime environmental leader who assembled a coalition of progressives and ranchers to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline in Nebraska, also wants Perez to take a firm stance against the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. Perez had failed to answer her persistent inquiries on whether he would oppose the pipeline projects, according to Kleeb.
“That is a big issue with the progressive base. And I think he needs to say that he was wrong on TPP,” she said, referring to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. “So there are a lot of things that Perez has to do to show that he stands with the progressive base of the party who are the most motivated and out on the streets right now.”