Democrats consider their future and who to pick as party chair

Rep. Keith Ellison and former Labor Secretary Tom Perez are leading candidates.

ByMaryAlice Parks
February 12, 2017, 3:14 PM

— -- Supporters of Congressman Keith Ellison's bid to become the next Democratic National Committee chair held mismatched signs -- some from a nurses’ union, others from different labor groups and the Minnesota representative's formal campaign for the party office.

The hundred or so people who came to a Democratic Party meeting in Baltimore on Saturday backing Ellison's candidacy sang and marched around the building's lobby. But they weren't the only contingent there.

Ellison, who backed Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary, was the early favorite in the race to lead the party’s national political organization after the party took a surprise beating last fall. The congressman was one of the first to throw his hat in the ring and enjoyed quick endorsements from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and grassroots organizations like MoveOn and Democracy for America as well as Sanders.

But now with just two weeks before the party's election, there is a crowded field of candidates. Democratic National Committee members, who include state party officials and officeholders, are choosing from a group of top-tier candidates as they struggle to determine who would best diagnose and treat the party's ills.

Thomas Perez, who was President Obama's secretary of labor, entered the race late but came in with gusto and big-time backing. Almost every major player in the Obama administration apart from the former president himself has given Perez a thumbs up, including former Vice President Joe Biden.

Still, many organizers in the Ellison and Sanders camp view Perez as representative of the same old approach to politics that has recently failed Democrats and, even worse, a rejection of the populist energy and dynamism surging in the party's base.

In talks with reporters and his pitch to DNC members over the weekend, Perez responded to being labeled the “establishment” candidate by pointing to his record.

“I fought for established principles of anti-discrimination, access to opportunity for everyone, and making sure we value our nation’s diversity,” he said in an interview with ABC News, before running through a list of past accomplishments from challenging the right-wing Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio to fighting legal battles for marriage equality and against Wall Street.

“I’ve taken on those battles because I believe in those established values of opportunity and inclusion… I’m proud to have worked for Ted Kennedy, Barack Obama, and I want to bring those values and take those values into action here,” Perez said.

But he appeared somewhat defensive when asked about whether he can compete with Ellison’s progressive street-cred.

"There’s not one candidate here that has the monopoly on the grassroots support," Perez said. "We all have a lot of grassroots support because we’ve all worked in the grassroots.”

The meeting in Baltimore was one of a series of events the party has held around the country since November to allow Democratic leaders including local state chairs and elected officials the chance to ask questions of the candidates for DNC head.

Democrats are clearly concerned about how to unify different factions in the party and best support -- and ultimately utilize -- ground-up, local organizing taking place around the country in opposition to the policies of President Trump. There is also anxiety among some in the party that the competition between Ellison and Perez too closely resembles a proxy battle of the bitter 2016 primary. That in part is why lesser-known candidates are getting a close look too for the chairperson's role.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg's bid has gained some momentum the last few weeks. Saturday, he presented himself as an alternative to the two frontrunners.

“Why not go with somebody who isn’t a product of one faction or another faction, but somebody who is here to deliver the fresh start our party needs?” said Buttigieg.

He argued that even if the party had won the White House in November it would still be in trouble due to its atrophying local organizations. "If we recognize that the answers are going to come from our local communities, put in a local organizer, a local mayor who's been running and winning elections in one of the reddest states in America to deliver results to the Democratic Party."

Conventional wisdom among party members seems to be that none of the hopefuls have yet secured the majority of votes needed and so the election will likely take multiple rounds of ballots at the end of the month.

The longtime chair of the state party in New Hampshire, Raymond Buckley, went on the offensive against Buttiggieg on Saturday and chided the mayor for having backed Clinton. Buckley emphasized that after he stayed neutral in the 2016 primary race Sanders won his state by a landslide.

One reoccurring conversation at these Democratic meetings is about what exactly went wrong during the 2016 race, and there is no love lost in talk of the Clinton campaign or of recent former heads of the party.

Buckley had one of the more buzzy answers Saturday when he blamed the party for wasting money attacking President Trump and failing to devise it’s own message.

“When we are running hundreds of millions of dollars worth of commercials, telling the voters that our opponent is offensive, when you are worried about your damn paycheck, when you’re worried about your job and where your kids are going to do to school, you don’t really give a crap about whether the president is an insult to us,” Buckley said to big applause.

Traditionally, the Democratic Party chairperson's role is a mix of fundraiser, spokesperson and manager, and some candidates clearly have a background or advantage in one of these areas. But finding someone who will both personify the fight against Trump and lead the rebuilding of a massive, arguably atrophied party, may remain a tall order.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story said that Sen. Chuck Schumer is the Senate majority leader. He is the minority leader.

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