The Stakes in the Race for Democratic National Committee Chair

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The Stakes in the Race for Democratic National Committee Chair

If the Democratic Party hopes to have a future it can believe in, it needs to choose Rep. Keith Ellison as its next chair. (Photo: CAP/flickr/cc)

One leading candidate for Democratic National Committee Chair recently said, "We heard loudly and clearly yesterday from Bernie supporters that the process was rigged and it was. And you've got to be honest about it. That's why we need a chair who is transparent."

In a contest as hotly contested as the race for DNC Chair currently is, you expect this sort of talk. Only thing is, the statement didn’t come from Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, the DNC candidate who supported Sanders in the presidential nomination race. This was actually Thomas Perez talking—who supported Hillary Clinton, served as Secretary of Labor in Barack Obama’s cabinet and has been endorsed by former Vice President Joe Biden. So you figure when he says the DNC needs shaking up, he knows what he’s talking about—although he would not seem to be the obvious choice to do the shaking.

And Perez wasn’t just no bystander in all of this, by the way. An active Clinton campaigner himself, he told Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, in a WikiLeaks-published email, of warning audiences that "people don’t (sic) have the time to wait for Senator Sanders to complete his quest for the perfect health care system."

And he further offered spin advice, suggesting to Podesta that if Clinton did well among minority voters in the Nevada caucuses, "the narrative changes from Bernie kicks ass among young voters to Bernie does well only among young white liberals." And hey, let’s give credit where credit is due here—the job Perez and other spin-meisters did on divorcing Sanders’s image from a fifty year plus history of civil rights support—dating back to a 1963 arrest at a pro-Chicago school integration demonstration—was a major contributor to denying him the nomination.

But in the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you that the opening quote in this story is contested. Not that there’s any dispute as to whether Perez actually spoke the words in a public forum. It’s apparently more a question of whether he was in his right mind when he did, as the very next day he was tweeting that "I mispoke" and that "Hillary became our nominee fair and square." Hmm. Does this sound like a straight-talking independent leader for the future to you? Me neither. But unfortunately this could well be the leader the Democratic Party is going to get. If Perez is to be believed (I know, I know!), he’s got commitments for 180 of the 224 DNC votes needed to win the election for Chair this last weekend of February. And credibility questions aside, the claim does seem plausible, the DNC, after all, being the source of most of the super delegates who gave Clinton her huge lead before the first voter entered a polling place.

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Now to be fair, from everything I hear Tom Perez is a fine fellow who's liked by a lot of the people you might hope someone in public life would be liked by—he was a Secretary of Labor that labor liked. At the same time, there’s no getting away from the fact that a Perez DNC chairmanship would be a victory for the status quo, which is to say a Democratic Party that thinks it can be the party both of the unions and of the hedge funds. And you can see how that view might still play well in this little corner of the world. After all, Clinton did win the election by nearly three million votes and were it not for our bizarre Electoral College system that allowed fewer then 100,000 voters in three states to tip it the other way, there wouldn’t even be a DNC election, since these elections only happen when the Democrat doesn’t win the White House, as Democrats who are elected president get to install their personal choice for DNC chair.

So is there any hope, then, that Ellison could actually win this uphill fight to convince this small group of voters to change their ways? Actually there is. And the fact that some main stream Democrats like Senator Minority Leader Chuck Schumer see the logic in supporting him shows why. They understand that a Perez win in this race will make a lot of people conclude that the Democratic Party just can’t change its stripes. It will take the wind out of the sails of a lot of people the Democratic Party can’t afford to lose—the 70 percent of the under-30 voters who went with Sanders in the primaries. This may not be exactly the future that lot of people in the DNC might have preferred. It may not be one they even understand. But the Democratic Party absolutely must engage that bloc.

Tom Perez may do some very useful things in his future political career. But he is not man for this race. If the Democratic Party hopes to have a future it can believe in, it needs to choose Keith Ellison as its next chair.

Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher is a former Massachusetts State Representative and the author of 'The Primary Route: How the 99% Take On the Military Industrial Complex.' He lives in San Francisco.

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