On Saturday, members of the Democratic National Committee will gather in Atlanta, Georgia, to choose their leader. With the party in shambles in statehouses across the country, and with Republicans firmly entrenched in the White House and Congress, the DNC race has been a highly charged and closely observed affair, drawing the attention of everyone from grassroots activists to former President Barack Obama. At stake is whether Democrats, humbled by their recent losses, are prepared to relinquish some control to the newly empowered progressive wing of the party—and underneath a veneer of unity, it looks like that’s the last thing they want to do.
The two frontrunners, Keith Ellison and Tom Perez, have been plunged into a primary-like showdown, whether they like it or not (they don’t). Ellison, a congressman from Minnesota, has been endorsed by leaders across the Democratic spectrum, including Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Representative John Lewis, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. He has captured the support of young progressives, with over 200 millennial leaders signing a letter backing his bid. He is a black Muslim with working class roots, seemingly an ideal combination for a party that champions diversity and economic equality. Perez, Obama’s former secretary of labor, reportedly entered the race after being prodded by Obama’s White House. He has been endorsed by former Vice President Joe Biden, former Attorney General Eric Holder, and the heads of DNC caucuses for women, Hispanics, and rural voters.
The narrative that has developed around the race—Ellison as Sanders-style progressive, Perez as party establishment—is a bit overblown. Both have strong progressive records, both have support from various unions, and both have broadly similar ideas on how they want to reform the DNC. Perez supporters are quick to emphasize that, as “the most liberal member of Obama’s cabinet,” he is just as progressive as his opponent. When Sanders stated in early February that Perez would represent the same “failed status-quo” approach, Democrats hit back. One Hillary Clinton ally told the Hill, “Perez and Ellison are cut from the same progressive cloth. Either one would be a strong leader.” Most Democrats, including voting members of the DNC, seem to feel good about both candidates—a Hill poll found that Ellison and Perez both lead in second-choice preferences. Advocating for Perez’s credentials, David Corn of Mother Jones asserted that the race “isn’t an establishment vs. progressive clash.”
This is all true. The differences between Perez and Ellison are minimal. Perez’s perceived qualities could easily be switched out for Ellison’s. In his endorsement, Holder said of Perez, “We need a DNC chair who is a proven fighter and a proven uniter. Tom Perez is that person.” Well, Ellison, who spent decades as an organizer before entering national politics, is running on a unity platform. Perez has also cast himself as a “progressive who gets things done.” Well, Ellison has a record of doing exactly what many in the Democratic Party want from their DNC chair—winning elections, increasing turnout, and raising small-dollar donations.
This is also why the case for Tom Perez makes no sense. If Perez is like Ellison—in both his politics and ideology—why bother fielding him in the first place?
There is one real difference between the two: Ellison has captured the support of the left wing. Ellison backed Sanders early in his primary race against Hillary Clinton, and was one of the first candidates to announce his bid for DNC chair. His election would generate goodwill from Sanders supporters—or, to put it another way, would avoid the enmity that would surely result from a Perez win. In the Huffington Post, one Ellison supporter put it succinctly:
“Keith Ellison had incredible support from the quote-unquote establishment side of the party, the progressive side of the party, the grassroots and the elected officials. Nobody was clamoring for another entrance, and yet we got one foisted upon us. If Tom Perez were to win, the message that would send to the grassroots, to labor unions that endorsed Ellison before Tom Perez joined the race, [is] that their voices, their muscle, their enthusiasm and turnout doesn’t matter.”
As Jeff Stein points out at Vox, Sanders supporters are likely overstating the power of the DNC chair. But that is all the more reason to throw them a win. If an Ellison victory is a modest, symbolic concession, the upside is that Democrats will signal to progressive and younger voters, who Democrats will be desperate to turn out in 2018 and 2020, that they are on their side. It would be a choice of utmost pragmatism.
But members of the Democratic establishment don’t quite see it that way. The Hill reports, “Perez supporters have expressed concern about handing the party over to the Sanders wing of the party, arguing that Ellison would move the party too far to the left.” And the New York Times suggests that Democratic leaders pushed Perez to run because they viewed Ellison as too close to the Sanders wing.
It appears that the underlying reason some Democrats prefer Perez over Ellison has nothing to do with ideology, but rather his loyalty to the Obama wing. As the head of the DNC, Perez would allow that wing to retain more control, even if Obama-ites are loath to admit it. Sanders has been accused of re-litigating the primary in his criticisms of Perez, but the fact that Perez was pushed to run, while Ellison was quickly and easily unifying the left and center, seems like the move most predicated on primary scars. While Obama has stayed out of the race officially, Vinson Cunningham reports in the New Yorker that he is watching it closely:
“Several people I spoke to ... described an Obama acutely interested in its outcome. ... The former President feels an obligation to place the Party, which he’d expected to turn over to Hillary Clinton, in trusted hands. Ellison’s connection to Sanders is worrisome for many of those in Obama’s orbit, as well as Clinton’s, and Sanders hasn’t helped ease their concern during the D.N.C. race.”
And it’s not just Obama- and Clinton-ites that could see some power slip away with an Ellison-headed DNC. Paid DNC consultants also have a vested interest in maintaining the DNC status quo. Nomiki Konst, who has extensively covered the nuts and bolts of the DNC race, asked Perez how he felt about conflicts of interest within the committee—specifically, DNC members who also have contracts with the committee. Perez dodged the issue, advocating for a “big tent.” In contrast, in a forum last month, Ellison firmly stated, “We are battling the consultant-ocracy.”
These concerns about power, control, and money echo of the dismal failures of 2008, when top Democratic operatives decided to fold Obama’s online grassroots behemoth, Organizing for America, into the DNC. The story is infamous now: Party regulars wanted to ensure control of the group, rather than allowing it to flourish as an independent entity, one that could challenge the party itself. The muzzling of Obama’s grassroots support has been blamed for being partly responsible for the Democratic Party’s enormous losses in state and local seats over the past decade. Chris Edley, who pushed for OFA’s independence, told the New Republic recently about the choice, “If you’re not really that committed, as a matter of principle, to a bottom-up theory of change, then you will find it nonsensical to cede some control in order to gain more power.”
The same could be said of today’s battle over the DNC and the push to install a loyal technocrat like Perez. This reluctance to cede control comes despite the fact that Democrats have lost over 1,000 state legislature seats since 2009. There is no case for Perez that cannot be made for Ellison, while Ellison is able to energize progressives in ways that Perez cannot. The question that will be answered on Saturday is whether Democrats have more urgent priorities than denying power to the left.