The job of DNC chair is primarily functional—it deals with fundraising and building the Democratic Party at the state level. But following the 2016 election the race for the position has taken on another dimension. The candidates, especially the two frontrunners—Keith Ellison and Tom Perez—have tried their best to avoid rehashing the Bernie vs. Hillary dynamic of the primary.
But this is to no avail, because unlike the 2008 primary—which reflected mostly stylistic differences—the 2016 primary struck deeper. This time it was about ideological direction—between a corporatist party that caters to an elite, and a bold new movement that serves the interests of average Americans. Hillary Clinton was the very embodiment of a corporate Democrat: poll-tested, talking points-guided, and deeply tied to big donors and Wall Street. Bernie Sanders anti-establishment message electrified a large part of the electorate; many who were young and independent voters.
The Divisive Nature of the DNC
The DNC has become an easy target for critics on the left. The organization has done everything to reinforce the Democratic Party’s reputation as a centrist, incompetent, and corrupt institution. During the primary the DNC was led by Debbie Wasserman Schultz—a corporatist with right-wing positions who was clearly in the bag for Clinton. A series of emails published by WikiLeaks confirmed her critics’ suspicions—under Wasserman Schultz the DNC was essentially an arm of the Clinton campaign. The revelations led her to resign in disgrace (only to be hired by Clinton, and then return for a seventh term in Congress).
Things didn’t get much better for the DNC once Wasserman Schultz resigned. Her replacement—Donna Brazile, who was previously a contributor to CNN—shared questions with the Clinton campaign for a March CNN debate in Flint, Michigan. This was also exposed in emails published by WikiLeaks. Brazile is currently still chair of the DNC.
Following Clinton’s loss, many in the party finally realized it was time for change. Commentator and former advisor to President Obama, Van Jones, stated that the Clinton days are over and that it was time for the Democrats to move in a more progressive direction. He mentioned new stars in the party, which included Keith Ellison—the first Muslim elected to Congress who endorsed Bernie Sanders during the primary.
Ellison is currently running for DNC chair. He has received endorsements from both sides of the Bernie-Hillary divide: civil rights icon John Lewis, Jesse Jackson, Walter Mondale, Sanders himself, and even Chuck Schumer—an establishment Democrat who at least realizes the practical value in appealing to the progressive base.
But the Democratic old guard is not going away quietly—they desperately want to maintain control over the DNC. Smears of Ellison began appearing in the media, such as Clinton mega-donor Haim Saban calling him an anti-Semite. This accusation is rooted in opposition research from Ellison’s college days, which has been covered and evaluated by numerous outlets—Vox, The Intercept, New York Magazine, and The Huffington Post. All have come to the conclusion that Ellison is not an anti-Semite.
Enter Tom Perez
Although he’s tried to avoid the appearance of being the establishment candidate, Tom Perez was reportedly encouraged to enter the race by President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Early on Obama and his team were concerned with Ellison’s past and his duties as a congressmen (since then Ellison has stated he would step down from the Senate to run the DNC). But this was an empty argument anyway, as Obama and Biden backed Wasserman Schultz, who was a sitting congressmen during her tenure at the DNC.
It’s not difficult to decipher the real reason behind Perez’s entry into the race—politically Obama is closer to Clinton, and is hesitant to give power to the Ellison-Sanders progressives. But team Obama is hardly in a position to be arguing over who should lead the party—under the Obama administration Democrats have suffered tremendous losses on the state and local level. Obama’s personal political skill and charisma have not translated into a cohesive party strategy. Even with significant effort, it may take years for the party to get back to where it was for much of the 20th century.
And is Tom Perez the person who should lead this fight? Perez has a fairly competent record as Obama’s Labor Secretary, but he has very little experience in electoral politics, having just served four years on the Montgomery County Council in Maryland. In contrast, Ellison is a five term congressman from Minnesota, winning his elections by over 65%. He has also implemented impressive strategies for turning out low-income voters.Ellison has far more electoral experience than Perez, who only served 4 years on city council.Click To Tweet
But the problem runs deeper than just job qualifications—Perez is emblematic of the sort of Democrat praised as a ‘progressive’ by the party establishment, while not threatening the neoliberal status quo. He was a firm supporter of TPP—the controversial trade deal that led to further working class resentment against Democrats. Even when Hillary Clinton was pressured to oppose TPP, Perez was steadfast in his support of the deal. As co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Keith Ellison fought TPP and won (another reason Obama may have issues with him).
A part-time progressive like Tom Perez may have made a decent Vice Presidential pick for Hillary—within the context of her cautious campaign such a move would have been considered daring (which reveals a central weakness of her candidacy). But in the post-election aftermath, Perez’s appeal to the status quo is even more pronounced. The paradigm shift has given greater clarity as to who is a party-liner and who has taken bolder positions.
Recent incidents reveal that Perez hesitates to wander too far from party-sanctioned discourse. Zaid Jilani of the Intercept questioned Perez about Israeli human rights abuses, which was relevant in light of recent demolitions by the IDF of Palestinian homes. Perez dodged the question:
Tom Perez condemned BDS at the DNC Chair Debate so I asked him what he thought about Israeli home demolitions.. pic.twitter.com/8QI8FRVhHl
— Zaid Jilani (@ZaidJilani) January 21, 2017
There was also the recent case of Perez saying something bold, and then going back on it. While campaigning in Kansas, he said this:
We heard loudly and clearly yesterday from Bernie supporters that the process was rigged and it was. And you’ve got to be honest about it. That’s why we need a chair who is transparent.
How much this was conscious decision to win over support from Bernie supporters is questionable, but no doubt many would agree with this assessment. But it wasn’t long before Perez backtracked on this statement. Clinton loyalists were angry over his comments, and so he tweeted this:
I have been asked by friends about a quote and want to be clear about what I said and that I misspoke.
— Tom Perez (@TomPerez) February 9, 2017
Perez’s apparent refusal to take any controversial stance represents the overly cautious, talking-point scripted Clinton wing of the party. Such an approach is wearing thin on the American public, which is why Trump was able to steamroll over every polished politician that stood in his path.
Another example of Perez’s establishment style is his interview with the Young Turk’s Nomiki Konst. Konst spent days interviewing every candidate for DNC chair, and Perez appeared to be avoiding her and his staffers accused her of being biased and dividing the party. He finally granted Konst an interview:
Perez dodged questions about ad consultants and conflict of interests, deflecting with vague platitudes about culture change and a “big tent” Democratic Party. How he handled the last question—Do you have any notable Bernie Sanders supporters?— was revealing: “I think you’re asking the wrong questions.” Perez pretends to be a unity candidate, but unlike Ellison, he is unable to name a major figure from the other camp supporting him.
He closes with an even more frustrating response. He states the future of the party is about making sure “we are focused on what we have to do together to take on our existential threat which is Donald Trump.”
By deflecting to Trump instead of appealing to the progressive base and electorate, Perez reveals the larger problem in the party’s post-election strategy. As I wrote in a recent post, both the Democratic Party and American Left need to pose more than just a resistance to Trump—they need to wage a political revolution.
Another DNC candidate, Raymond Buckley, made a good point during the recent DNC Future Forum. He said that the party needs to “grow up” and have a strong message beyond calling Trump offensive—that voters are worried about their economic future and don’t really “give a crap if the president is an insult dog.” He added:
We did not offer a positive message to anyone that I’m related to. We did not offer a message to my neighbors… What we did is say ‘How offensive.’ Grow up. That’s not reality for most of America.
If the Democratic Party wants to succeed, it needs to take this advice. Judging from Perez’s answers, he’s more about focusing on Trump than winning over the left. Ellison has also put out a strong anti-Trump message, but balances it with appeals to labor and the grassroots.
While Not Perfect, Ellison is Exactly What the Democrats Need Right Now
To be fair, Ellison has also received a fair share of criticism from the left. Ralph Nader accused him of toning down his criticism of Israeli government policy—this is probably a shrewd political move on Ellison’s part to neutralize the accusations of anti-Semitism. Bernie supporters were upset over Ellison tweeting this:
If You're Liberal, You Think Clinton Is Corrupt, You're Rewarding 25 Years of GOP Smears https://t.co/rVeNsWaerC
— Rep. Keith Ellison (@keithellison) December 22, 2016
This was Ellison’s effort to placate Hillary loyalists (though I would argue it’s a misguided strategy—partisans are rarely appeased by such displays). Many on the left also make a valid argument that Ellison has not come out forcefully enough against the dysfunction within the DNC. In the DNC forums he’s given inconclusive answers on whether or not the DNC should take lobbyist money. Like several other candidates, he defers to the unity commission on eliminating the party’s controversial superdelegate system (the unity commission is made up of former Sanders and Clinton supporters). He’s met with those in the lobbyist class, including Clinton operative David Brock.
Ellison does have his flaws, and may not be quite the firebrand that Bernie Sanders is. But he is a quantum leap ahead of Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the ossified centrist establishment. Ellison himself is firmly in the tradition of the party that fought for economic and social justice. His dedication to the grassroots may allow those even further left to have a greater voice within the party.
Tom Perez may be a good guy, and may even hold positions that are considered progressive. But he represents a quarter-step, when the party needs to take a full step ahead. Ellison is unequivocal in his commitment to the progressive wing of his party, and he’s also more qualified for the job. An added bonus is that as the first Muslim congressman, he allows the Democrats to present a bold contrast to the xenophobia that Donald Trump represents.
This all makes him a particularly timely candidate—that is, if those who run the Democratic Party want to get with the times. If not, maybe it’s time to leave them behind.