Progressives fear Democrats' choice of Perez means party hasn't learned lesson

New DNC chief preaches unity, but will that be enough?

ByABC News
February 26, 2017, 2:12 PM

ATLANTA — -- When the announcement came that party officials elected Tom Perez chairman of the Democratic National Committee over Rep. Keith Ellison, chants and protests broke out in the back of the room.

"Party of the people, not Big Money! Party of the people, not Big Money!" a small but loud group yelled, standing with their fists in the air. At the Atlanta Convention Center, where the election was held, they wore green T-shirts printed with Ellison's name and drowned out the speakers.

Ellison, a spirited African-American from Minnesota's 5th District, was the first Muslim elected to the House of Representatives and was an early backer of Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign.

In the immediate aftermath of the November election, when so many other Democrats remained silent, stunned and shell-shocked, Ellison raised his hand to run to chair the DNC, the governing body of the Democratic Party. Sanders, unions and major grass-roots groups were with him instantly and went to work.

For progressives, electing Ellison to this top post would have been a silver lining of the otherwise disastrous election. Yes, Donald Trump is president, but maybe then the party would finally listen to them. Folks who felt they played second fiddle to the powers in Washington and Hillary Clinton's headquarters in Brooklyn thought that would be their moment.

Even some of the biggest party insiders, like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, gave Ellison and the movement he represented a thumbs-up.

Perez's first move as chairman was a show of reconciliation: He made Ellison his deputy. The two stood side by side and asked Democrats to work together. They said in a joint press conference that only a unified party could take on Trump.

During an interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, Perez said he and Ellison have "identical values."

"We have been friends for a long time. We are united ... We want to make sure everyone has a fair shake," he said on ABC News' "This Week."

But is that enough? And how many people at home do those still reeling, angry and chanting protesters represent?

"There is this narrative that Ellison is the candidate of the people and Perez is the candidate of the establishment. That is actually the public opinion," Winnie Wong, the founder of People for Bernie, one of the most active grass-roots groups on the left, said after the vote. "And so the outcome in this moment is that the candidate of the establishment once again trumps the will of the people."

She takes pride in having helped create that narrative of outsider versus insider. Ellison's candidacy offered the party a choice, a chance to show that it was learning a lesson from the past and was ready to make a big change.

"You need to be party that truly understands how to engage people to participate in the process of democracy," she said. "They are not learning from the lessons. The establishment and Clintonism failed to beat Donald Trump."

Wong predicted that Perez's victory could disappoint activists and leave them further disengaged them from party politics.

"I just think people will have less optimism and less faith in the process of democracy and this will severely depress voter turnout in 2017 and certainly does not bode well for 2018. It is not actually about a Dem exit. It will be a Dem stagnation," she said.

The night before the vote, Bob Bland, a national co-chairwoman of the newly formed, groundbreaking Women's March organization, said she felt Ellison had the ability to transform the party in a way she, too, felt was desperately needed.

"This vote is going to indicate whether that transformation is possible and worthy of our time or not," she said at a reception for Ellison.

Jim Dean, the head of Democracy for America, called the election result disappointing and a missed opportunity for the party to "regain relevance."

"[It] proves, once again, how out of touch party insiders are with the grass-roots movement currently in the streets, on the phone and at town halls nationwide," he wrote in a statement.

Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said those activists in the streets and progressive organizations will "move on with our lives."

"The default is that things continue as they've been, which is the DNC operates in its lane and the progressive activist base operates and does what it does," he said.

He said that there was still a chance for change but that it was now up to Perez, whereas with Ellison progressives would have had an instant in.

"If Perez wants to reach out proactively and try to build bridges between the DNC and the grass-roots activist base, that would be listened to," Green added.

Speaking to ABC News in the hall after the vote, Jeff Weaver, Sanders' former campaign manager, seemed to agree with Green that the party could still make the changes they believe are needed but that it would take some work and some convincing.

"We're going to have to wait and see. You know, are they really going to create a grass-roots party? Are they really going to turn to small donors? Are they really going to articulate a bold progressive economic agenda? If they do those things, I think people will move toward the party. If they don't, a lot of people will walk away," he said in an interview.

But hours after the vote, Weaver took a different approach in an email to Our Revolution, a group of Sanders' former supporters, writing that it is still up to them to remake the party in the image they want.

"I'm sure this DNC election has stirred up similar feelings to the ones you felt during and after the primary. It did for me," his email read. "[Perez] made promises about building a grass-roots party. We are going to hold his feet to the fire."

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