The Democratic National Committee’s new finance chair, Chris Korge, affirmed his commitment to neutrality in the presidential primary in response to scrutiny of past comments criticizing Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and a donation to the campaign of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).
At issue are comments Korge has made about Sanders prior to accepting the job at the DNC. He retweeted a message in December calling Sanders “dangerous to the future of the Democratic Party.”
“I have worked tirelessly to help the Democratic Party, and have been proud to support a wide array of Democratic candidates,” Korge said in a statement. “I’m fully committed to the DNC’s neutrality policy and I look forward to raising the funds necessary to help whoever our Democratic nominee is.”
DNC Chairman Tom Perez tapped Korge, a South Florida attorney, former Miami-Dade County lobbyist and longtime Democratic donor, to serve in the top fundraising post after Henry Muñoz stepped down earlier this month. The DNC’s voting membership will have the chance to vote on confirming Korge at the party’s August meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In interviews with HuffPost this week, Jeff Weaver, a senior adviser to Sanders’ 2020 presidential bid, Nebraska Democratic Party Chairwoman Jane Kleeb, DNC member James Zogby and DNC member Larry Cohen all called on Korge to clarify that he would leave past antipathy to Sanders behind in his new role. (Kleeb, Zogby and Cohen all endorsed Sanders in 2016 and serve on the board of Our Revolution, the nonprofit that came out of his 2016 bid; as a state party chair, Kleeb will remain neutral during the 2020 primary.)
“The DNC, in my conversations with Chairman Perez, has committed to neutrality,” Weaver said hours before Korge released the statement. “Any statement that would commit to it on his part would be an appropriate gesture.”
“I hope that when he gets to the DNC he has some of those young people help him find the delete button on his Twitter account,” he added.
During the 2016 primary, Korge was a major donor and bundler for Hillary Clinton, and he repeatedly blasted Sanders on social media.
For example, in March 2016, Korge tweeted, “The only Bern the middle class will feel from Bernie is the pain from all the tax increases.”
Korge also contributed $2,700 to Sen. Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign in late January.
“The nomination of Chris to be finance chair is concerning. Before the election, I’m sure that we will profess total neutrality in terms of the nominating process and in some ways walk back the comments he’s made about Bernie Sanders,” said Cohen, who emphasized that he was speaking in his capacity as chair of Our Revolution and a member of the DNC representing Washington.
An affirmation of neutrality from Korge would be a “start,” Cohen added, but he did not commit to supporting his confirmation at the DNC meeting in August.
Ensuring the DNC’s impartiality in the presidential nominating process is a top priority for Sanders allies and other reform-minded Democrats.
The DNC is only now emerging from a cloud of suspicion that divided the party for years after the 2016 election. Sanders supporters were furious about both the perceived bias of the presidential nominating process toward Hillary Clinton and the favor the former DNC leadership and staff showed toward Clinton.
In particular, Sanders partisans lamented the role of “super-delegates” ― delegates at the presidential nominating convention free to support a candidate of their choosing, regardless of how primary or caucus voters cast ballots in their state. Even if that group of powerful convention delegates, most of whom are members of Congress and other elected officials, would never explicitly thwart the will of primary voters, their early support of Clinton created a sense of inevitability behind her candidacy, critics charged.
After a cool reception from many progressives early in his tenure, Perez elicited praise from the Sanders wing of the party for spearheading the passage of reforms in August that stripped super-delegates of much of their power. The new rules bar super-delegates from voting on the first ballot of the convention unless a Democratic candidate has already locked up the nomination with ordinary delegates.
It’s leaps and bounds from where it was in 2015 and ’16. Jane Kleeb, Nebraska Democratic Party Chairwoman
Perez followed that up in December by announcing a strict policy of neutrality in the 2020 primary for DNC staff and officers.
“It’s leaps and bounds from where it was in 2015 and ’16,” said Kleeb, referring to the DNC’s improved commitment to impartiality.
But the method in which the DNC announced Korge’s nomination for finance chair, as much as the selection of the man himself, struck a blow to the confidence that Perez had earned with progressive DNC members. Kleeb and Zogby both said they were dismayed to learn about the pick from a report in the press.
“It would have taken nothing to call some of the Bernie people on the DNC to say, ‘Here’s what I’m doing, but don’t be worried because the process is in place that it’s not going to happen again,’” Zogby said.
HuffPost obtained a May 5 email from Perez to DNC members informing them of Muñoz’s departure. It did not mention the decision to nominate Korge.
Then, there are the questions about Korge’s history as a former South Florida lobbyist and power broker. In 2004, he attracted the attention of federal prosecutors for allegedly setting up sham minority-owned firms to help clients of his lobbying business win concessions contracts at Miami International Airport. He denied any wrongdoing and was never convicted of a crime.
In addition, in 2000, a former law partner of Korge’s sued him for cheating him on his share of the firm’s profits. The former partner also accused Korge of using funds from their firm to cover personal expenses, including the costs of a DNC fundraiser. Korge denied wrongdoing and settled with the former partner out of court.
Although Korge is no longer a lobbyist, his history accentuates an ongoing debate among DNC members about the role of high-dollar donors and lobbyists in financing the organization.
Former President Barack Obama barred donations to the DNC from federal lobbyists and PACs of any kind in 2008. Former DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz quietly reversed the policy ahead of the 2016 election, and reform-minded DNC members have thus far failed at reinstating the restrictions. Even efforts to tailor the ban to cover corporate PAC donations, or donations from fossil fuel industry PACs, have faltered.
“I don’t believe the purpose of the party is to promote people who do well by doing well for themselves,” Cohen said. “And for many of us at the DNC and in the party across the country, that will continue to be a cause of concern.”