Representative of Minnesota's Keith Ellison (above) squares off against Tom Perez, who served as Labor Secretary under President Obama, in the upcoming election for DNC party chair.
Editor's Update, February 25: Keith Ellison lost his bid for the DNC chair in the second round of voting to Tom Perez. It was met by protest Ellison supporters chanting "Not big money, party for the people." In an effort to create unity, Perez lost no time in naming Ellison deputy chair.
As the Democratic National Committee converges in Atlanta on Saturday, February 25, to elect a new party chair, progressive activists are hoping for a major shakeup.
The outcome will shape how Democrats position themselves as the opposition party at a time of unprecedented mass resistance to the Trump-rightwing agenda. Years of losses in Congress, statehouses and governor's mansions have given Republicans the upper hand at all levels of governance, and left the Democratic party suffering a crisis of credibility and influence.
But will this crisis force the party to rethink how it operates?
Saturday’s election will be a battle between the progressive and centrist wings of the party, embodied respectively by frontrunners Keith Ellison, Representative of Minnesota, and Tom Perez, who served as Labor Secretary under President Obama.
In a letter posted at Medium.com on Tuesday, a multiracial coalition of activist leaders from groups including Black Lives Matter and 350.org championed Ellison, an early Bernie Sanders supporter and the first Muslim elected to Congress.
“Representative Ellison has discussed how important it is to create a candidate pipeline that will actually reflect our communities. He is committed to building a Democratic Party that undeniably represents everyday American voters, not billionaire big donors,” the letter reads.
Since Trump took power, Democratic lawmakers have been scrambling to harness the energy of the backlash against draconian policies like the “Muslim ban.” Many constituents are demanding a “no-compromises” response from Democratic lawmakers as they contend with Republican initiatives, from Cabinet and Supreme Court nominees to a planned Obamacare repeal.
Even Democratic lawmakers beloved by the left have come under fire: Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren was lambasted for her vote to confirm Ben Carson as Housing and Urban Development Secretary.
Fearful that the same outcry that’s faced Republican lawmakers in town halls might dog Democrats at their own events, senior Democrats lawmakers convened a meeting to ask Bernie Sanders to help redirect activist anger towards the GOP.
Shannon Jackson, executive director of Our Revolution and one of the signatories to the Medium.com letter, told The Progressive that Ellison is the better choice to tap into the rising mass movements.
“Ellison has harnessed that [activist] energy and came from the grassroots,” Jackson said. “He embodies what we hope the future of the Democratic Party will embrace: A party of the people of the working class.”
Ellison’s defeat could alienate the party’s progressive wing, some say.
“A lot of people are concerned that if Keith [Ellison] is not elected, there could be a backlash," Michelle Deatrick, a former Sanders campaign staffer from Michigan who last year won a seat on the DNC, told the Wall Street Journal.
Both Ellison and Perez say they support a fifty-state approach to recruit grassroots candidates and build up local and statewide party organizations, and would focus on a pro-labor, pro-civil rights, and pro-immigration agenda. Each has received support from a host of Democratic Leaders and liberal luminaries.
Ellison, who pledged to leave his Congressional seat if he wins to dedicate himself to the DNC full-time, has the backing of Sanders, Warren, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and filmmaker Michael Moore.
Perez, meanwhile, counts on the tacit approval of President Obama, the backing of Joe Biden, former attorney general Eric Holder, and disability rights pioneer and former Congressman Tony Coelho, among others.
Ellison has snagged endorsements from the AFL-CIO, the SEIU, and the CWA. But Perez is favored by leaders of unions including the International Longshoremen Workers Association and the United Farm Workers.
ILWU International President Robert McEllrath told The Progressive,“Tom Perez helped the ILWU at a critical time in our negotiations, and working with him gave me the opportunity to see firsthand that he is hardworking, trustworthy, and a straight shooter.”
As Secretary of Labor, Perez implemented an important conflict-of-interest rule ensuring financial advisors put their clients’ interests ahead of their own, and expanded the minimum wage and overtime protection for an estimated 2 million home healthcare workers, among other policy victories. An attempt to extend overtime pay for millions of workers was blocked last year by a federal court.
But Perez has been criticized on other fronts. Over the protestations of some Democrats, Perez granted waivers to large financial institutions accused of market manipulation—including Citigroup, JPMorgan, and Barclays—allowing them to manage pension funds.
In contrast, Ellison co-sponsored a bill in 2010 to break up the banks in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
For many on the left, the DNC is an institutional boogeyman, a symbol of the party’s coziness with big donors and increasing distance from the working class. While establishment Democrats pointed fingers at Russia, James Comey, and third party candidates to explain Trump’s victory, others blamed the Debbie Wasserman Schultz-led DNC for undermining the candidacy of Sanders, who polled significantly ahead of Trump and appealed to many of the same white, working-class voters who proved decisive to the real estate mogul’s win.
For many on the left, the DNC is an institutional boogeyman, a symbol of the party’s coziness with big donors and increasing distance from the working class.
Emails released by Wikileaks around the time of the party’s convention in July confirmed that the DNC had colluded against the Independent Senator from Vermont, and resulted in Schultz’s resignation.
Whoever becomes chair will have a big role in determining the future practices of the party, including in the use of superdelegates,a contentious issue during the primary. (The vast majority of superdelegates went for Clinton, many defying the popular will of their state’s voters.)
These and other issues will be decided by a Unity Reform Commission to be established after the DNC election. The commission was a compromise reached in exchange for the promise that Bernie backers wouldn’t hold a floor fight over party reforms.
The hope is that Ellison’s ascension could make the DNC more democratic and responsive to supporters. Whoever comes out on top Saturday will impact how Democrats resist Trump and their plan for how to win elections and take back power.