WASHINGTON ― Days after the November election, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party was ascendant. There was no greater sign of its rising stature than the momentum Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota was enjoying in his race to chair the Democratic National Committee.
Ellison, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during the 2016 presidential primary, was racking up endorsements not only from Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), but establishment figures as well, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers — both of whom backed Hillary Clinton in the primary.
But in December, former Labor Secretary Tom Perez jumped into the DNC race. Now, Ellison and Perez are neck-and-neck, with the election days away. The DNC’s 447 voting members will decide the party’s next chair in Atlanta on Saturday.
That has some Ellison supporters worried that their chance to reshape the party is in danger of disappearing. In an attempt to head off Perez, some prominent Ellison supporters argue that failing to elect him would squander a major opportunity to energize the progressive grassroots and heal the wounds of the 2016 presidential primary.
“Keith Ellison had incredible support from the quote-unquote establishment side of the party, the progressive side of the party, the grassroots and the elected officials. Nobody was clamoring for another entrance, and yet we got one foisted upon us,” said Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, an organization fighting to expand Social Security benefits.
“If Tom Perez were to win, the message that would send to the grassroots, to labor unions that endorsed Ellison before Tom Perez joined the race, [is] that their voices, their muscle, their enthusiasm and turnout doesn’t matter,” Lawson added.
Ellison backers acknowledge that the liberal protest movement that has taken shape since President Donald Trump’s inauguration ― not the DNC race ― has become the focus of grassroots energy. A loss for Ellison now could limit the party’s ability to tap into that enthusiasm, but it wouldn’t stop the movement.
“If Perez wins, we’re not gonna come out with pitchforks and say, ‘No, no, no,’” said Murshed Zaheed, political director of Credo Action, an online progressive heavyweight that has experienced record growth since Trump’s inauguration. “But people are going to roll their eyes and just keeping doing what they do. It’s going to keep the DNC what it is: an irrelevant, old, stale entity that hasn’t been re-serviced since the Howard Dean days.” (Zaheed noted that he spoke to HuffPost in his personal capacity, since Credo isn’t endorsing in the race.)
“If Ellison gets in and they don’t take labor and the working class for granted, we’re liable to go back to the party.”
The role of DNC chair is primarily to raise funds, recruit candidates for office and represent the party to the media. But in the wake of major electoral defeats, the contest to fill the post tends to reflect struggles for power within the party.
By encouraging Ellison’s candidacy in November, party leaders appeared to be affirming the post-election analysis of many bitter progressives: that Democrats’ failure to embrace economic populism and grassroots energy had hurt the party in turning out its base and appealing to white Rust Belt voters who voted for Barack Obama, but opted for Trump in 2016.
It also was an olive branch to Sanders supporters still reeling from a primary race in which they felt that the DNC favored Clinton.
Then, in December, aides to then-President Obama, dissatisfied with Ellison, encouraged then-Labor Secretary Perez to run. His candidacy has since taken off — with the blessing of top figures from the Obama White House. Obama himself praised Perez in comments widely interpreted as an endorsement. Former Vice President Joe Biden and former Attorney General Eric Holder threw their support behind Perez this month.
Perez is an unlikely target of progressive opposition, given his strong liberal credentials. He earned widespread praise from unions for turning the Department of Labor, once a minor federal agency, into a powerhouse advocate for workers’ rights. Prior to that, as head of the Department of Justice civil rights division, Perez led the Obama administration’s historic investigations into police abuses.
Indeed, many progressives now backing Ellison would have loved to see Hillary Clinton pick Perez as her running mate, and still hope he will run for governor in 2018 in his home state of Maryland.
An Unpopular Trade Agreement
Perez’s biggest policy difference with Ellison is that he supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the controversial 12-nation trade pact negotiated by Obama.
Unfortunately for Perez, TPP is divisive in Democratic circles. Labor unions, environmental organizations and other progressive groups reviled the now-defunct trade deal, and believe Obama’s promotion of it contributed to Democrats’ losses in 2016.
Perez has claimed that he supported TPP out of loyalty to the Obama administration. For some Democrats, that explanation is thin. One of them is Chuck Jones, president of United Steelworkers Local 1999 in Indianapolis, which represents workers at the Carrier air-conditioning factory. (Trump famously insulted Jones for publicly disputing estimates of jobs saved by Trump’s deal with Carrier.)
Jones voted for Clinton, but many of his union members went from backing Sanders to Trump, because they mistrusted Clinton’s record of support for international trade agreements.
Jones said he worries that Perez likewise lacks credibility on trade.
“If Ellison gets in and they don’t take labor and the working class for granted, we’re liable to go back to the party,” Jones said. “If they put somebody in like Perez that don’t see it that way, like the TPP — him being for it is a major issue — you’ll start seeing people vote Republican or not voting at all.”
Credo’s Zaheed, who was an aide to former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), argued that Perez’s election would dismay the party’s progressive base.
“If the Democratic Party ... puts one of the biggest promoters of TPP in charge of it, that would send a terrible message to the rank-and-file and the progressive base,” Zaheed said.
Ties To Clinton, Obama
The focus on Perez’s support for TPP is as much about his proximity to Obama and to Clinton — who backed TPP for years before coming out against it as a presidential candidate — as it is about the candidate himself.
Perez was an early and outspoken Clinton proponent during the primary. In his DNC pitch, he has even adopted a version of Clinton’s campaign slogan, declaring himself a “progressive who gets things done.”
Progressives wary of the Clinton campaign’s failures and its coziness with the party’s donor class view these connections as burdens, not benefits.
But Perez’s ties to Obama have proven even more radioactive. Ellison backers like Zaheed and Lawson resent that those in Obama’s inner circle injected themselves into the DNC race by backing Perez. Obama advisers set up the separate fundraising and organizing arm Organizing for Action, which Zaheed and Lawson blame for undermining the DNC.
“The total degradation and deterioration of the party — they are responsible for it,” Zaheed said of Obama and his advisers. “For them to trot out one of their former hands is kind of unseemly, to be honest, and it is not helpful at this point.”
Perez has distanced himself from this aspect of Obama’s legacy, repeatedly criticizing OFA.
OFA “ended up hurting the party. That was the impact,” he told NBC News’ Chuck Todd earlier this month.
Some Perez supporters argue that Ellison would take the party too far to the left for swing voters that Democrats need to win back. Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chair Marcel Groen, for example, told HuffPost in January he wanted a “moderate” DNC chair. Groen endorsed Perez this month.
Lawson argued that on the bread-and-butter economic policy issues like opposing trade agreements, protecting Social Security and taking on pharmaceutical companies, Ellison’s record is a strength among voters attracted to Trump’s populism.
“There is this elite Democratic-bubble mentality that thinks that you get these centrist-type voters by going with a half loaf — that they want kind of Democratic, kind of Republican,” Lawson said. “That is a complete misreading and always has been a complete misreading.”
Likewise, some of Ellison’s critics have implied that his identity as a black Muslim will make it hard for the party to compete among the white working-class swing voters who backed Trump.
United Steelworkers local president Jones rejected that notion, noting that he and his members have had no problem voting for Rep. Andre Carson, an Indianapolis Democrat who also is African American and Muslim.
“I don’t think Democratic people would not vote for a Democrat because the head of the Democratic Party is black and Muslim,” Jones added. “We’ve got some prejudice-ass people, but I think they would look beyond that.”
The Howard Dean Precedent
After Democrats got trounced in the 2004 elections, party officials welcomed an outsider. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the progressive favorite in the Democratic primary, won the DNC chairmanship in 2005, despite the opposition of Sen. Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Dean’s tenure from 2005 to 2009, marked by the winning 50-state strategy, is now regarded as one of the most successful in the party’s history. Nearly every candidate in this year’s DNC race has held Dean up as a model, promising to revive his focus on state and local party infrastructure.
But Zaheed and other progressives see Ellison as the only candidate providing the party an opportunity to do something similar.
“Tim Kaine, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and now Tom Perez? It’s going to be more of the same,” Zaheed said. “It is really the mindset that has made that whole infrastructure stale, old and irrelevant.”
Bringing The Party Together
If neither Perez nor Ellison wins an outright majority in the first round of voting, there will be additional ballots until someone gets a majority. That could provide an opening to a dark-horse candidate like South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, or South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison.
Idaho Democratic Party executive director Sally Boynton Brown; media strategist Jehmu Greene; Milwaukee attorney Peter Peckarsky and Ohio activist Sam Ronan also are vying for the post.
Perez is clearly aware of the challenges he would face if he wins. And he pledges to court skeptical Sanders supporters.
“Tom is committed to unifying the party and rebuilding it from the ground up. That is why he has met with Keith Ellison and other candidates over the last few weeks, because he understands that it will take all of us to unify the party no matter who wins,” Perez campaign spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said in a statement.
“As we speak, Tom is traveling the country to talk to Democrats who both do and don’t support him to hear and address directly how we can best unify the party,” Hinojosa added. “He’s also met with activists and millennials who tell him they are on the verge of leaving the party because it doesn’t represent them.”
“This is just one battle in the long war.”
Jessica Pierce, an Ellison supporter and activist with All of Us, a progressive group that has threatened to back primary election opponents of Democratic incumbents who cooperate with Trump, said activists would be able to work with Perez.
“People will still be prepared to push on Tom,” Pierce said. “And he should be prepared to hear that what people need from Democratic leadership are people who are actually willing to fight and stand up for us.”
“We’re in this for the long term,” she added. “We’re not interested in one tactic or one strategy, or one leader. This is just one battle in the long war.”
And if Ellison wins, he would have fences to mend, too, according to Symone Sanders, a former press secretary for Sanders’ presidential campaign who now works for the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, and has not endorsed a DNC candidate.
“If Keith wins, he is going to have some real work to do to bring the party together, to cast his vision and to really get down to work,” Sanders said. “And the same thing for Tom Perez.”
Sanders warned against viewing Ellison’s election as a cure for bringing unaffiliated progressive activists into the Democratic fold.
“They are not just gonna come because he’s the chair,” Sanders said. “Because then, he’s not some progressive outsider any more — he’s the chair of the Democratic National Committee. He’s now an insider.”
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