Features » March 13, 2017
How the Democratic Establishment Beat Back Keith Ellison’s DNC Bid
Despite the setback, progressives remain determined to democratize the party and empower the left wing.
New DNC Chair Tom Perez will need to confront the very forces that put him in charge.
Under normal circumstances, the accession of someone like former Labor Secretary Tom Perez to chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) might be cheered by the U.S. Left. But not in 2017—and not like this. In the aftermath of the catastrophic 2016 elections, progressives rallied behind the candidacy of Rep. Keith Ellison (Minn.), a Bernie Sanders ally and former civil rights lawyer who vowed to shake up the Democratic Party. The DNC balked: At its meeting in Atlanta in February, members opted for Perez over Ellison 235–200 in a second vote after neither secured a first-round majority.
In his victory speech, Perez named Ellison as his deputy chair, though the newly created position remains undefined. The outcome has progressives feeling uneasy at best and downright disgusted at worst. By all accounts, Perez appears both capable and politically palatable—and yet, the dynamics that propelled him to victory seems to reveal hostility from the Democratic Party establishment toward its growing leftwing faction. That tension looms large at the very moment the Democrats must reckon with the most dangerous GOP in history.
‘A very strong progressive’
DNC member Joshua Boschee, for one, is optimistic about Perez. “I think he’s gonna be great,” says Boschee, a state representative from North Dakota. He voted for Idaho Democratic Party Executive Director Sally Boynton Brown on the first ballot and Ellison on the second, after Boynton Brown withdrew.
“When we look at the specific things that Tom Perez has done, whether it was as labor secretary or in the office of civil rights in the Department of Justice, he is a very strong progressive.” Many share that assessment of Perez’s record. As labor secretary, for example, Perez oversaw the implementation of a rule extending overtime pay protections to 4 million workers (though a federal judge later blocked it) and crafted the fiduciary rule requiring investment advisors to prioritize their clients’ interests over their own profit (though Trump is trying to kill it).
The department also raised the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.20 and improved regulations to protect workers from cancer-causing silica dust. His new gig will be far more political. As DNC chair, Perez’s primary task is building the DNC’s war chest ($372 million in 2016 and $168 million in the 2014 midterms) and dispensing it to national campaigns and state party apparatuses. With that comes the power to dictate strategy, including how closely to coordinate with progressive groups and which candidates and races to invest in.
Going into the midterms, the Democrats face intimidating Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress and more than two-thirds of state legislatures, but Trump’s record-low approval ratings seem to offer a chance for Democratic gains. Perez supporters believe he’s up to the task. In pitches to DNC members, Perez framed himself as an adept manager with experience retooling complex bureaucracies and directing them toward progressive ends.
Given the stakes, Ellison has called on his supporters to embrace party unity. As he put it shortly after his defeat, “The very fate of our nation, I believe, is in the balance.” Joshua Boschee agrees. “We all need to stand together and move forward because we are not the enemy,” he tells In These Times. “Republicans are in charge.”
How the race went down
For all of Tom Perez’s progressive chops and the well-founded logic of pleas for unity, there is an uncomfortable story behind his victory. Perez was handpicked by forces within the Democratic Party that could not tolerate Keith Ellison as chair. Ellison announced his candidacy less than a week after Election Day and rapidly picked up endorsements from such progressives as Bernie Sanders and Rep. Rául Grijalva (Ariz.), as well as centrist Democrats like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
He also won nods from the heads of powerful unions that backed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary, including the American Federation of Teachers; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; and two major Service Employees International Union locals. With this broad support, Ellison emerged as the clear front-runner. Then, in December, after nudging from President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, Perez stepped in.
In the eyes of his critics, the former labor secretary has not yet provided a convincing explanation of his decision to run. As many have pointed out, his politics are similar to Ellison’s and he, too, campaigned on the need to improve the party’s state and local infrastructure. (He declined to be interviewed for this story.) If Ellison’s main advantage was enthusiastic support from the grassroots, Perez’s appears to have been his wellconnected backers: Obama, Biden and key party money-raisers. As CNN reported, in the final days of the campaign, while Sanders and New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio were calling undecided DNC electors to make the case for Ellison, Obama aides and Joe Biden himself were doing the same for Perez. (“I’ll let the president know you’re with Tom,” key Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett allegedly told DNC electors as she whipped votes.) Some in the congressman’s camp maintain it was this bunch of Perez allies—bigname politicians and lobbyists—who tipped the balance in favor of the former labor secretary.
“When elected officials are reliant on fellow DNC members that help raise money for them, and [the money-raisers] are on one side of the campaign, [the elected officials] will be very responsive to that,” says DNC member Héctor Figueroa, president of the 163,000-member SEIU Local 32BJ and an Ellison supporter. Figueroa believes that powerful DNC members were “incredibly worried about the progressive wing of the party having access through the chair.”
“It was a very reactionary, very reactive opposition,” Figueroa says. “And I feel that the role Obama, Bill Clinton and Biden played was very heavyhanded. It seemed to us that there was an effort to block Keith and deny him the leadership of the party.”
Ellison, who is Muslim, also faced a smear campaign from both the Right and pro-Israel liberals, each of which dredged up columns from the 1990s in which he defended anti-Semitic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. (Ellison renounced the Nation of Islam in 2006.) Israeli-American billionaire Haim Saban, the top donor to the Hillary Clinton super PAC, publicly attacked Ellison as “anti-Semitic.” The day before the vote, the American Jewish Congress lobbying group instructed members to call the DNC and voice opposition to Ellison, saying he would “threaten the relationship” between the U.S. and Israel. Figueroa says the nature of the election has made the result more difficult to accept, although he praises Perez as a “progressive” with an “incredible track record.”
“President Obama, in all the eight years that he was in the White House, did not show this level of interest in the Democratic National Committee chair,” Figueroa continues. “Bernie Sanders has been criticized for being an outsider trying to [influence] the DNC. Well, Obama had eight years. We lost 1,000 local and state positions in the Democratic Party [between 2009 and 2017] and he showed very little interest in building the organizational structure that could have perhaps led to different results.”
For progressives hoping to wrest control of the Democratic Party, Ellison’s defeat is a sobering reminder: There is a long way to go.
Larry Cohen, chair of Our Revolution, a political action organization spun out of the Sanders presidential campaign, was a major backer of Ellison’s bid. Though disappointed by the outcome, Cohen, the former president of the Communications Workers of America union, says the close vote demonstrated the growing clout of progressives within the party. As someone who sits on the Democratic Party’s unity reform caucus—a group formed by a resolution at the 2016 convention to democratize party structures—Cohen is committed to making the party less dependent on big money.
“The most significant outcome of the actual election was Tom Perez recognizing the grassroots and the all-buttied vote and [appointing Keith Ellison] deputy chair of the party,” Cohen says. “And now the question is—not just for Tom Perez, but for all of us— what will that mean? Can there be a genuine partnership with the grassroots rather than a symbolic gesture?” A more definitive answer may emerge in the run-up to the 2018 and 2020 elections.
Party authorities could, for instance, pour efforts into seats previously abandoned to Republicans and favor candidates outside the traditional mold—or they could remain riskaverse and prioritize centrist Democrats and “winnable” seats. In the meantime, local 2017 races offer progressives and Berniecrats opportunities to win office, with or without the support of the DNC. Indeed, for David Duhalde, deputy director of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Ellison’s bid underlined that the party’s centrist forces are on the defensive.
“It took President Obama and many incumbent party operatives a lot of effort just to barely squeak by against Ellison,” says Duhalde, whose organization has more than doubled in membership since the presidential election, to 18,000 members—and received an uptick in online sign-ups after Ellison lost.
“They’re not always going to have President Obama making calls, nor will they be as interested in some of these more local and state apparatuses,” he says. “I think with some earlier organizing and building coalitions, it’s going to be very possible for [progressives to win]. People should feel heartened that Ellison gave them a real run for their money.” Duhalde points to the example of Mike Sylvester, a DSA member and former union organizer elected to the Maine State House as a Democrat last November. He also referenced the case of Khalid Kamau, a Black Lives Matter and DSA activist running for city council in South Fulton, Ga., with an endorsement from Our Revolution.
What’s clear, in any case, is that the battle over the future of the Democratic Party is far from over. Successfully taking on Trump will require the DNC to strengthen ties with progressive groups and energize young voters, says Figueroa of Local 32BJ. But many Democratic loyalists don’t believe the party is in need of a major strategic overhaul. In other words, Perez will need to confront the very forces that put him in charge.
“Tom is going to need to seek alliances with the people who supported Keith to overcome some of the forces that elected him,” Figueroa says. “He could do it. But when you arrive in a position in that way, it’s very challenging to convince your side to change.”
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Cole Stangler writes about labor and the environment. His reporting has also appeared in The Nation, VICE, The New Republic and International Business Times. He lives in Paris, France. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Follow him @colestangler.
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