ATLANTA — The Democratic Party on Saturday elected a new chairman but appeared no closer to healing painful divisions or figuring out a path back to power from an eight-year slide that culminated in President Trump.
Tom Perez, President Barack Obama’s former labor secretary and the preferred candidate of establishment insiders, became the chairman of the Democratic National Committee by defeating Sen. Bernie Sanders’, I-Vt., handpicked candidate: Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison.
To quell a rebellion of progressives angry at the results, Perez was forced to install Ellison as deputy DNC chairman immediately upon being handed the gavel. The two later appeared at a joint news conference, where Ellison pleaded with supporters to give Perez a chance and stick with the party.
“If you care about people who have their loved ones’ cemeteries being desecrated, as the Jewish community is facing that right now; if you care about people who have walls being built against them, being banned for their religion, having their healthcare taken away from them,” Ellison told reporters, when asked if he had a message for disappointed progressives.
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“If you care about those people,” he continued, “then you’ve got to stay in here and back Tom Perez.”
The Democratic Party is still suffering from divisions formed during the contentious 2016 presidential primary.
Sanders waged a spirited campaign against eventual nominee Hillary Clinton. Some of Sanders’ supporters are still upset with the party because they believe it rigged the primary to bail out Clinton.
For Perez, a major challenge is finding a way to unify the liberal left that is exploding with energy generated by opposition to Trump, but suspicious of the Democratic establishment and unsure that showing up to vote in 2018 will make a difference. Perez was supported by a raft of prominent insiders, most notably Joe Biden, the former vice president.
For Ellison’s supporters, who greeted Perez’s victory inside Atlanta’s convention center with booing and chants of “party for the people, not big money,” the jury is still out on the winner’s promises to listen to their concerns and incorporate their priorities in his running of the DNC.
“Perez is going to have to have to now build relationships with the grassroots, with the people we see protesting Trump,” said Kaitlin Sweeney, a spokeswoman for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “The ball is in Perez’s court.”
The other problem Perez doesn’t appear to have solved, yet, is how rebuild a party that was decimated during eight years of Obama.
Obama was a historic figure, the nation’s first African American president, and became the first Democrat to win two consecutive terms with more than 50 percent of the vote since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
But the rest of the party languished, including the DNC. The Democratic majorities in the House and Senate disappeared, as did several Democratic governor’s mansions and nearly 1,000 seats in state legislatures.
To recover, Perez must put political infrastructure in place in state and county parties so that the party can harness the anti-Trump energy on the left, and also to take advantage of winds that might blow its way in 2018.
But first, Perez has to build a DNC that can manufacture such an apparatus. Nothing close to it has existed since 2008, when Obama’s takeover of the party became complete and he re-focused resources inside his own campaign organization and aligned political nonprofit group.
It’s certainly possible to do. Following Obama’s 2012 re-election, the Republican National Committee redirected its efforts and invested hundreds of millions of dollars to assemble a permanent campaign infrastructure in the battleground states, along with a data analytics program.
The changes helped Republicans win back the Senate in 2014, and the presidency last year. Perez seems aware of what needs to be done; it’s just unclear that he has a strategy and plan to carry it out.
During his joint news conference with Ellison, Perez discussed his goal of building a party organization that elects Democrats “from the school board to the Senate.” Re-invigorating the state and county parties is a major priority of the 435 DNC members who participated in Saturday’s election.
But Perez didn’t appear to have a plan, when asked to detail his approach.
He and Ellison said they intend to commission some sort of autopsy report to examine what went wrong in 2016, although exactly how formal the review would be they didn’t say.
They also said they planned to enlist Democrats, including progressives, in the states, to find out what activists and local party officials want to be successful. Perez and Ellison talked of replicating what they believe, somewhat inaccurately, to be the seamless coordination among the GOP and conservative interest groups.
“We are putting together, now, a transition operation so that we can understand what the immediate opportunities are, what the immediate needs are. And, understanding those immediate needs, we will be moving forward,” Perez said. “I expect over the next week or 10 days, that we are going to get a pretty comprehensive email, or directive out to members, asking them a lot of questions.”
David M. Drucker