In Austin, DNC Candidates Pledge to Rebuild the Democratic Party from the Grassroots

Former state Representative Glen Maxey (left) speaks with Congressman Keith Ellison, a candidate for DNC chair.
Former state Representative Glen Maxey (left) speaks with Congressman Keith Ellison, a candidate for DNC chair. Chris Hooks

You’ve heard it a million times from Republican candidates — the powers-that-be in Washington, D.C., are out of touch, and the federal monstrosity they control is sucking energy from the states, where power should ultimately rest. But that, too, is the message of the five candidates vying to chair the Democratic National Committee, who gathered at a meeting of the Texas Democratic Party’s executive committee on Saturday in an Austin hotel.

The two frontrunners, Secretary of Labor Tom Perez and Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, and the three others state party leaders from Idaho, New Hampshire and South Carolina promised their Texas audience a complete rebuild and refocusing of what is, for the moment, a broken and beaten party. Since 2008, Democrats have lost more than 900 seats in state legislatures, and this year’s result was the Democrats’ worst drubbing since Reconstruction. As a group, they faulted the party leadership, though never by name, for losing touch with local Democrats outside of swing states, and they vowed to fix it.

The candidates each talked for about 10 minutes. Raymond Buckley, the chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said the DNC was opaque and inscrutable. He was pointed in his complaints about national Dems. New Hampshire flipped blue this year, Buckley said, only because “we’re the only battleground state that said ‘hell no’ to the Clinton campaign” running its own voter contact programs. Idaho Democratic Party Executive Director Sally Boynton Brown, who declared her candidacy just yesterday, had similar critiques, as did South Carolina’s Jaime Harrison. “It used to be that the Democratic Party was the party that fought for all of us,” Harrison said. “Now what they get from us is TV ads.”

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But the day’s headliners were Perez and Ellison, an outsider candidate tied to Bernie Sanders. Their competing bids have become a proxy war of sorts between two factions, reflecting the fact that the split exposed during this year’s Democratic presidential primary is here to stay. Those who still harbor deep resentment over Sanders’ candidacy can’t stand Ellison, and those who have a deep distaste for the party’s establishment see Perez as an agent of the status quo.

The differences between the two are overstated — Perez is a progressive, union-friendly figure who won plaudits from liberals for his actions as labor secretary, and Ellison has won support from many institutional figures. But Democrats are feeling a little touchy these days, so in Austin, both sought to make clear they would represent all Democrats.

Ellison, an early Sanders supporter, told the crowd he was proud to have campaigned for Clinton in seven states. He emphasized that the party needs to be more visible and more forceful in opposing Republican efforts on the federal and state levels — in recent days, he’s sought to direct national attention to North Carolina. “We’re all going to be unified and fighting together,” he said, adding that the party needs both “institutional memory” and “new energy and fresh ideas.”

“Somewhere in Texas right now, there’s a little girl wondering if the detention squad is gonna take her parents away. Somewhere in this country, there’s somebody in their 50s or 60s who’s got about three grand in the bank and doesn’t know how they’re going to make it on Social Security. Somewhere in the Midwest, there’s somebody wondering, is the plant gonna close? And if it does, what are we going to do? Somebody’s loved one is hooked on opioids, and dying. And somebody’s son or daughter might have been roughed up or shot by the police. Who’s gonna be the agent for them?” Ellison asked. “The Democratic Party must be that agent for them.”

Democrats have been presented with a false choice between “economic justice for everyone and everybody’s freedom and civil rights,” he said. “We don’t have to pick. We gotta do both.”

And the party had to compete everywhere, not just in swing states and districts, but also in solidly blue and red areas. “In my district, I used to have the lowest turnout in the state of Minnesota, and now we have the highest turnout,” Ellison said. He continued to organize in a safe seat, he said, because his efforts helped deliver votes for Minnesota’s Democratic governor and two Democratic senators. The future is in grassroots organizing, which the national folks had abandoned. “Some people think GOTV means ‘go on television,’” he said.

Ellis is a great speaker, and a favorite of the party’s left. One of the major knocks on him is the belief that, as a black Muslim, he’d be toxic in some portion of the country, echoing a major line of attack made against Barack Obama in 2008. That’s something Perez seemed to subtly highlight when he took the stage, declaring that party needs a leader who can “speak to the big tent,” in “all 50 states.” In his view, this race for chair is “the most important in the party’s history,” and Democrats have to get it right.

A Buffalo, New York, native of Dominican heritage, Perez talked at length about his family’s immigrant experience. He led the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in Obama’s first term — for which he said “Texas is a full employment act” — and he emphasized the role the party could have in securing legal protections for at-risk populations.

But Perez emphasized local organizing, too. “You’ve got districts in Texas right now that have 65 percent voting age Latinos where we still can’t elect people,” he told the crowd. “So we’ve not only got to sue, we’ve got to organize.”

The big knock on Perez is that he doesn’t have much experience in electoral politics; he was elected to a county government position in Maryland, and later made an abortive run for state Attorney General. But he tried to pitch his cabinet experience as the most relevant for the job. “The leader of the Democratic Party must have a significant amount of demonstrated success in leading complex organizations,” he said. “The Department of Labor has 16,000 employees and a $13 billion budget.”

The next DNC chair will be elected in late February. No matter who wins, it seems clear the party will be going in a different direction.

Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin.

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Published at 9:53 am CST
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