Friday, December 30, 2016

The Fight For DNC Chair

When they meet in late February, the 400-plus members of the Democratic National Committee will elect a new chair. They will signal whether or not the party will boldly begin to transform itself back into the party of New Deals and Great Societies sought by the new generation of Democrats. Those 400-plus voting members of the DNC must take stock of the need to strike a bold new direction to reverse the party's losses.

Democrats lost another net 43 seats in legislatures across the country in 2016, after previously losing 910 seats during Obama's administration. Republicans added to their historic 2014 gains in the nation’s state legislatures with the addition of five state House chambers and two state Senate chambers in 2016.

Republicans are now in control of a record 67 (68 percent) of the 98 partisan state legislative chambers in the nation, more than twice the number (31) in which Democrats have a majority, according to the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Republicans hold more total state legislative seats in the nation, well over 4,100 of the 7,383, than they have since 1920. Democrats now have total control of just 13 state legislatures.

Republicans gained 2 more states' governorships in 2016, after already gaining 12 over the last 8 years, increasing its total to 33, a record high last seen in 1922. Democrats had also lost 69 US House seats and 13 US Senate seats since 2009 and barely managed to stem further losses in 2016.

All that after Democrats had a 58-seat majority in the Senate, a 256 seat majority in the House, and held 28 governorships when Barack Obama took office in 2009. And Democrats face a more challenging election map in 2018 than they faced in 2016. Survival of the Democratic Party is literally on the line.

But the race for DNC chair has become a power struggle between Centrist and Progressive factions of the Democratic Party.

Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison hadn’t been campaigning for chair of the Democratic National Committee for more than a week before veteran party officials began publicly saying he wouldn’t have time to both hold the position and serve as a congressman.

Ellison, who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, then announced he’d step down from congress if he won the DNC race. But almost as soon as he did so, a new chorus of objections to his candidacy began. Among the objections top Democratic sources told reporters they were growing concerned about Ellison’s alleged ties to the Nation of Islam and radical black Muslim organizers in the 1990s.

Shortly after Ellison announced his DNC chair candidacy, Sanders quickly endorsed him. So did Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is typically seen as ideologically aligned with Sanders but who didn’t endorse in the primary. The presidents of the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees unions — two of the biggest and most politically influential Clinton-endorsing unions — also endorsed Ellison.

Ellison is also endorsed by Chuck Schumer, a Clinton endorser who typifies the kind of close ties to Wall Street criticized by Sanders, but who is trying to craft a unified Democratic caucus to do battle with Donald Trump.

Schumer's backing of Ellison is part of a larger strategy in which Sanders and many other congressional Democrats are seeking to welcome as many of Sanders’ grassroots supporters as possible into the Democratic Party tent. Polls show Sanders remains very popular with the public, and a dedicated following that includes the party's left-wing base, millennials, and independent-minded voters. The Party's congressional leaders know too well the party must court those groups of voters to have any hope of recovering the more than 1,000 state and federal legislative and executive branch seats lost to Republicans over the past 8 years.

On his DNC campaign website, Ellison has presented a 29-point platform for a 3,143-county strategy to “energize Democratic activists across the country and give them the tools to build the Party from the bottom up.” He writes:
We will never stop fighting at-tempts by the Trump White House, Republican-controlled states, and special interests to roll back afford-able health care, worker wages and protections, and a woman’s right to choose. We will stand up for people of all races, religions, genders and sexual orientations to foster a more inclusive, fair society and create an economy that works for all Americans. Our party is right. Our values are just. Our future depends on grassroots organizing. When Democrats champion the challenges of working families, voters will have a reason to show up at the polls in 2017, 2018 and beyond.
Ellison has called for the Democratic Party to devote itself to becoming the party of the working class. His steadfast commitment to racial justice proves that progressive leadership need not trap itself in the false dichotomy of standing up for working people or fighting race and gender oppression. How could Democrats ever do one without doing the other?

Beltway Democrats, skeptical of Ellison (apparently) because he backed Bernie Sanders for the Party's presidential nomination during the primaries, have rallied behind Labor Secretary Tom Perez, one of the more progressive members of President Obama's cabinet.

Perez doesn’t present much of an ideological difference from Ellison. Perez was an ardent foe of the Iraq War within weeks of it being declared; he has longstanding connections to the labor movement and the “Fight for $15” minimum wage campaign; he’s widely considered Obama’s more liberal Cabinet member; union leaders have loved his work. But Perez did voice strong support for the now-dead Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal as a member of the Obama cabinet. Ellison, like the vast majority of congressional Democrats, opposed TPP from the beginning. But in a practical consideration, Perez had no alternative to backing his boss on this question.

Even so, to many who support Ellison, who supported Sanders during the primary, personal attacks on Ellison by beltway establishment Democrats, combined with their backing for Perez, smacks of a smear campaign cynically deployed to derail their candidate because he supported Sanders for the Party's nominee. Ellison’s backers feel like his opponents are throwing up objections to Ellison in bad faith, rather than plainly identifying their problem with his beliefs or proposed platform for the party.

The stated agendas of Ellison and Perez are both geared toward more comprehensive and more granual organizing strategies. Perez calls for a DNC strategy in every zip code, while Ellison has called for one in every county. It is that very lack of any major strategic or ideological distinction of agendas that raises suspicion among Sanders’ supporters about motives behind the push for Perez by beltway establishment Democrats. If a big part of the case for Ellison is that installing a well-known Sanders ally at the DNC would help unify the party, then the essence of the case for Perez seems to be a desire to freeze Sanders’ circle out.

A Perez win now will likely fuel more bitterness. In almost any other context Perez’s ascension to the DNC chairmanship would be heralded as a major victory for the party’s progressive wing. Had Hillary Clinton won the election, for example, progressive groups were prepared to press her to tap Perez for Attorney-General or some other high-profile role.

But this race isn’t happening in a vacuum.

A Perez win now would be seen as a major insult to Sanders and his supporters. Precisely because there isn’t an overt policy void between the two leading contenders, the Perez candidacy looks to Sanders backers like an effort to punish Ellison for having supported Sanders in the primary — or, at the very least, to make sure that those connected to Sanders personally are shut out of power.

That, in turn, reignites old grievances from the primary about interest groups being pressured to endorse Clinton — even though Sanders’ record on their issues was solid — out of fear of reprisal. Many Bernie loyalists believe that this kind of hardball politics — paired perhaps with bias at the DNC — is the reason that Sanders lost the primary, and they also believe that Sanders would have won in November. In their view, this is exactly the kind of “rigged” establishment politics that put Trump in the White House. And now a shadowy cabal of insiders wants to do it again.

Clinton supporters find this chain of reasoning preposterous — often so preposterous that they don’t recognize many people believe it. But they do. Ellison as chair would go a long way toward redressing the grievances accumulated up over months of a long, bitterly-fought primary.


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