Progressives Slam Tom Perez's New DNC Transition Team

The Democratic Party's November wounds still haven't fully healed.

WASHINGTON ― Several prominent progressive activists are blasting Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez for shunning leaders of the party’s populist wing for his transition advisory committee.

The newly elected party leader named a large number of longtime party insiders to the committee, activists complained, and relatively few progressive leaders and supporters of Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, who was runner-up in the DNC chair race. The activists say the committee appointments show Perez’s DNC is not serious about addressing concerns of the party’s populist wing.

“After looking at that list, it has become abundantly clear that the controlling forces of the Democratic Party want to make the other half of the party suffer,” said Nomiki Konst, a convention delegate for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

“The DNC is not tone-deaf ― it is on a mission to crush the working side of our party,” added Konst, now an investigative reporter for the Young Turks who did not endorse a candidate in the DNC chair race. 

Kait Sweeney, a spokeswoman for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which backed Ellison’s bid, said in a statement that “the initial names on the DNC Transition Advisory Committee include zero leaders of progressive grassroots groups that engage in electoral work and very few movement progressives.” She said the group would recommend names for the DNC to add to the committee.

The DNC is not tone-deaf ― it is on a mission to crush the working side of our party. Nomiki Konst, former Bernie Sanders campaign surrogate

The DNC’s 29-person transition advisory committee, which Perez announced Wednesday, will be co-chaired by Leah Daughtry, a veteran Democratic operative who was CEO of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, and Chris Lu, a former deputy labor secretary who ran the 2008 Obama-Biden transition team.

Other members include former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, former Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, racial justice advocate DeRay McKesson and National Domestic Workers Alliances director Ai-Jen Poo. The group also includes defeated DNC chair candidates: South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Jehmu Greene, and Idaho Democratic Party Executive Director Sally Boynton Brown. (See the names of all 29 members here.)

Just two people on the committee endorsed Ellison in the DNC chair race: Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Brian Weeks, the political director of AFSCME. Of the two, only Jayapal supported Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the 2016 presidential primary.

“The real absence of Bernie grassroots leadership is unsurprising to me,” Winnie Wong, a founder of the People for Bernie Sanders, said in an email. “What the DNC doesn’t know is that we are both resourceful and well resourced, so we’ll be doing the work: organizing, RECRUITING, knocking on doors, building up our giant email lists and generally running the internet in a way that the Ds could only dream about.”

Perez spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa emphasized in a statement that “the transition advisory committee is just a start to the broader transition efforts.”

“Over the weeks to come, Tom Perez and DNC leadership will continue meeting with key stakeholders in our big tent party, including progressive leaders, labor, and experts in various fields to discuss priorities for the DNC, grassroots organizing, reaching key voters who were left behind this last election, and raising the resources needed to succeed,” Hinojosa said.

Perez selected committee members with input from other DNC officers, including Ellison, Hinojosa noted. The DNC is also seeking a meeting with the PCCC and other major progressive stakeholder groups, she added.

Ellison praised the transition advisory committee in a statement.

“I’m glad to see so many outstanding Democrats represented on the Transition Advisory Committee, including my friend and colleague Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, worker advocate Ai-Jen Poo, and labor leaders like Brian Weeks from the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees,” Ellison said. “In the weeks and months ahead, Tom and I will continue to work not just with this committee but with a broad coalition of Democrats, state parties, organizers and activists looking to increase the DNC’s engagement with rank-and-file members and progressive advocates across the country.”  

Zerlina Maxwell, an appointee to the transition committee and director of progressive programming at Sirius XM radio, rejected critics’ suggestion that the committee did not include enough figures from the progressive movement.

“I don’t think that my progressive credentials could be questioned,” said Maxwell, who was also director of progressive media for Clinton’s presidential campaign. “But I also think it’s important to note the diversity of the people on the committee as well, because I think when we’re talking about the progressive movement, the inclusion of people of color is very, very important, if not the most important aspect of it.”

DNC chair Tom Perez, left, and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) do an interview at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 28, 20
DNC chair Tom Perez, left, and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) do an interview at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 28, 2017. Perez now faces criticism for his transition team appointments.

Progressives’ public disagreement with Perez just weeks after the chair election suggests that the party divisions exposed by the contest remain at least partially unresolved.

The normally sleepy contest to run the party’s main body became a brawl for control of the Democratic Party after the November election defeat left partisans scrambling for answers. Many progressive activists who blamed the Democratic establishment for falling out of touch with party’s populist, working-class roots rallied behind Ellison’s candidacy.

Ellison had a virtual lock on prominent liberals and Sanders supporters, but he was also endorsed by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and leading labor unions that backed Hillary Clinton.

Many DNC members who voted for Perez said they liked his experience running large organizations, rather than any policy or ideological considerations. Perez earned stellar marks from progressives for his work in the Obama administration as head of the Department of Justice civil rights division and the Department of Labor.

But some Ellison supporters could not shake the feeling that elements of the establishment had conspired to stifle the grassroots once again, arguing that the party had been uniting around Ellison until then-President Barack Obama encouraged Perez to run. Senior Obama aides phoned DNC members on the day of the election to lobby them to vote for Perez.

Perez grasped the importance of reconciling with Ellison supporters immediately after he was elected chair by a close margin in late February, using his victory speech to appoint Ellison as his deputy.

The gesture was welcomed by many Ellison supporters. Later, Perez drew further accolades from Ellison supporters for speaking at a White House rally against Trump’s travel ban.

But some progressives remain unconvinced. 

“You can’t just brand something unity and not have unity. It is unity in name only,” Konst said.

That goes to the crux of my frustration with the DNC ― that traditionally they have ignored the grassroots members, which is half the membership. Yasmine Taeb, Virginia DNC member

Yasmine Taeb, a Virginia Democratic national committeewoman who invited Perez to the White House rally, took issue with only four elected DNC members on the transition team: Rion Ramirez of Washington; Bel Leong-Hong of Maryland; Luis Heredia of Arizona; and Jenny Wilson of Utah. 

“That goes to the crux of my frustration with the DNC ― that traditionally they have ignored the grassroots members, which is half the membership,” she said.

Taeb also lamented that a committee so racially diverse did not include a Muslim or person of Middle Eastern heritage, when people from those groups “are under attack by this administration.”

Konst singled out the transition committee co-chair Leah Daughtry as an example of the type of entrenched DNC official from whom the party needs to distance itself. As CEO of the Democratic National Convention, Daughtry oversaw the expulsion of restive Sanders supporters from the convention hall, according to Konst. 

Even Perez’s selection of DeRay McKesson, a former Baltimore school district worker known for his antiracism and police accountability work, has drawn criticism. Activists have derided McKesson’s ties to controversial causes and corporations, including his participation in a panel discussion sponsored by Wells Fargo.

It’s solely a personal list for Tom’s advice so he obviously named people who he was close to. Larry Cohen, Our Revolution

Some Ellison backers acknowledged Perez has discretion to name the committee picks and said there were more substantive fights for activists.

“It’s solely a personal list for Tom’s advice so he obviously named people who he was close to,” said Larry Cohen, a DNC member from Washington, D.C., and chairman of Our Revolution, the successor organization to Sanders’ campaign.

Nebraska Democratic Party chair Jane Kleeb, who serves on the Our Revolution board with Cohen, took a similar view. She added: “If I was in Perez’s shoes, I probably would have appointed a couple more obvious Bernie people just for the sake of keeping the peace.”

Another major test of the party’s commitment to reform will be in the power it gives to the forthcoming Unity Reform Commission, according to Kleeb and Cohen. The 21-member panel ― the product of a last-minute compromise to mollify Sanders supporters prior to the Democratic National Convention ― is charged with studying ways to increase party accountability and reform the presidential nominating process through measures like abolishing the super-delegates. 

Kleeb and Konst are among the seven commissioners appointed by Sanders, who also named Cohen a co-chair. Clinton gets to name nine members of the panel, plus a co-chair. Perez will name the remaining three. Aside from Clinton’s appointment of the commission chair, Jen O’Malley Dillon, neither Clinton nor Perez has announced their nominees. 

“The unity reform commission is the statutory body of the party to look at structural reform. Having met with Tom about that, I’m confident that he fully supports his role,” Cohen said.

This article has been updated with comment from Keith Ellison and Zerlina Maxwell.

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