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Ellison, Perez…Who?: The Democrats Vote on Their Future

The Democrats have a lot of rebuilding to do. But they need intra-party peace first. And there’s probably only one candidate whose elevation can ensure that.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

On Saturday, 447 members of the Democratic National Committee will gather to cast their votes for DNC chair. It’s the first act—by party insiders—in shaping the battle for both the soul and image of the party whose sole mission has become fighting Donald Trump tooth and nail on behalf of those vulnerable to his cruel, Bannonite program. The contestants for party leadership mostly agree on the issues. What they each offer matters mostly in terms of demography; and in what brand the party will carry into the war with Trump and the GOP.

The Democrats don’t have much time to adjust. Trumpism—what Foreign Affairs dubs “nostalgic nationalism” (or Bannonism, as darkly articulated by Trump’s Rasputin at CPAC on Thursday when he proposed “deconstructing” the liberal state)—is already under way. Pushed by the alt-right coven of Bannon, Stephen Miller, Michael “Publius” Anton, and Sebastian Gorka in the West Wing to a willing president, as they ply him with Rasmussen polls, printouts of “good coverage” in Infowars and rapturous rallies with his fans, it can be summed up as: persecuting Muslims and non-European migrants, mass expulsion of the latter or detention in newly revived private prisons, permissiveness toward environmental degradation, direct presidential pressure on CEOs and high tariffs as a means of forced re-industrialization (also called “economic nationalism”).

Also, the superimposition of Christian fundamentalism on public policy including in public schools, often at the expense of LGBT people, deep tax cuts and Wall Street deregulation as a sop to the rich and widespread disenfranchisement of non-white voters to seal it all in. For Democrats, it’s not a matter of if they should fight it all, but how. And they can’t count on the continued ineptitude and bumbling arrogance of the Trump White House to ensure it all falls apart.

Throw in the ongoing and metastasizing Russiagate scandal, and the escalating war to preserve healthcare access from the voucherizing impulses of Paul Ryan and his friends in Congress and the Democratic plate will be full indeed.

The odds inform against the party retaking either house of Congress barring a historic wave election that washes into reddish states. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing that can be done.

Democrats will have to win back state houses and governorships little by little, clawing back power inch by inch, in order to build the resistance from the ground up, and strengthen it with the power of federalism. States can and have fought Trump in ways congressional Democrats cannot. They could use more reinforcements. If Democrats can regain control of even the secretary of state offices in places like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, they can head off the voter suppression schemes already baking in GOP-led state capitols. If they can win state attorneys general offices, they can mount legal challenges to LGBT discrimination, immigrant seizures, police abuses and voter disenfranchisement without the need of a traditional Justice Department, or its likely soon-to-be-gutted civil rights division.

So who can message that fight, organize it, inspire the already widespread resistance to focus itself on electoral politics, and heal the still festering wounds of the 2016 primary?

Each of the would-be party chairs makes a compelling claim.

Tom Perez presents as a perfectly reasonable choice and one who most cheers the Obama and Clinton wings. He worked for the most popular Democratic president in generations as Barack Obama’s labor secretary. He has the endorsement of the equally beloved Joe Biden. He has a background as a civil rights lawyer and fighter on voting rights. And as a Latino, he represents a rising and crucial demographic in the nation’s lone multicultural party. Perez would enter the job blessed with the Obama mantle.

On the downside, Perez has no experience as a political leader. And what the party needs more than anything is some damned good political organizing. Beyond that, Perez, through no fault of his own, has been cast as the dreaded establishment figure in a party begging for insurgency. He is, in the end, a conventional choice, weighed down as much by Hillary Clinton’s shadow as bolstered by it.

Pete Buttigieg has emerged as the “Howard Dean” pick to lead the party, with all the fighting, restorative spirit that entails. He is young and white and gay; a war veteran and the progressive mayor of a blueish town in a red state (South Bend, Indiana). For Democrats worried that the party cannot survive, starved of working class white voter oxygen, he seems like the perfect choice: the guy who can bring back the swing states.

There’s an argument, of course, that the party isn’t anywhere near the stage where it can afford to spend human capital on persuasion. A party that failed to get out enough black and brown voters in Philly, Detroit (or Flint), Milwaukee, Miami and Cleveland doesn’t seem to have a persuasion problem—but rather an organizing problem and a passion problem. Trump is effectively taking care of the latter. And some party members have argued that a white guy whose staff and volunteer social media photos look approximately like Paul Ryan’s, may not be best positioned to do the work of mobilizing the multiracial Obama coalition in the midterms, when it’s the drop off among black and brown young voters that perennially dooms the party. Buttigieg will have to answer that charge.

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If the universe were fair, Jehmu Greene would stand a chance of being DNC chair. The former Rock the Vote chief has done time as a Fox News talker, and specialized in mobilizing the young electorate. She could handle the TV give and take that will inevitably be a big part of the chairman’s job as they become the de facto face of the party. And as a black woman, she represents the party’s most loyal base. She could build out from there better than any of the guys. And she has a penchant for speaking truth to power that is as refreshing as it is needed in a party that has been too staid, too cautious and too stodgy for too long. But the universe isn’t fair, and Greene doesn’t appear to have the votes.

That brings us to Keith Ellison, who has become the fulcrum around which the lingering Bernie versus Hillary agonistes turns. Hillary Dems sneer at the idea of pandering to the self-righteous and self-centered Sandernistas, who assert an entitlement to rule a party that many, like their leader, refuse to formally join. And indeed, a chairman Ellison has been presented in some quarters as the price of future loyalty (or short of that: mere acquiescence) by those who believe Sanders was robbed of the Democratic nomination by the intransigence of DNC staff and leadership.

The argument for Ellison centers around the idea that the party would be well advised to swallow hard and pay that price.

As this argument goes, it isn’t even much of a price. Ellison is no one’s man, his supporters say. He endorsed Sanders to be sure, but is a staunch Democrat who also stumped hard for Hillary Clinton (she won his district). He is a politician, so he is conversant with the ways of fundraising, and winning elections, including in a district populated by white and black working- and middle-class voters.

Furthermore, as a Muslim, and a person of color, Ellison represents, bodily, a core community the party is fighting for. Of course Perez, Greene and Buttigieg can make that same claim, since the communities they represent are just as much in the Bannon/Trump crosshairs. Still, one could argue that there is symbolic power in placing an American Muslim at the head of the opposition; a formal embrace by the party of the group that today stands as the most demonized and feared of all of Trumpism’s would-be victims.

Ellison is also in a unique position to deliver something the party must have in order to defeat Trumpism at the ballot box: peace among themselves. Millennial Democrats are, in the end, demanding nothing more than a seat at the head table and a say in how a party they stand to inherit one day will be run. Their numbers and passion suggest the party should perhaps give it to them, if for no other reason than to acknowledge the very real anger felt by those who felt rejected by a party that had decided in advance who should be president.

No, the DNC didn’t somehow maniacally deliver the nomination to Hilary Clinton. There is no mechanism for it to have done so. Sanders’s own failure to attract sufficient votes from African-Americans and registered Democrats doomed his chances. But only the truly disingenuous deny that DNC members viewed Sanders as an unwanted interloper, and they were not shy about treating him, and thus his supporters, as such.

Healing that breach has to happen for the party to move on. Whether or not Ellison is chosen, Democrats will need to get that done. The party’s decision this weekend could either help the party heal or usher it toward civil war.

On the downside, Ellison’s faith would likely become a battering ram against him for the far right, which may yet blink with a Hispanic, gay or black woman chair. That doesn’t go for his attendance at the Million Man March, unless Republicans want to fight virtually every black member of Generation X. But it’s a factor that can’t be ignored.

With Ellison, the party would also burn precious time and capitol battling specious claims of anti-Semitism on Ellison’s part (including from some Democrats), in part because he shares Sanders’s view on compassion for the Palestinian cause. Such accusations would require an extra lift from party leaders like Chuck Schumer (who has already endorsed Ellison). It’s an unpleasant reality, but one the party would have to face, particularly with an administration that’s fighting its own charges of harboring anti-Semites in their midst. The Trump team would be eager to make a pin cushion of Ellison as chair, and he and the party would need to be ready with an answer.

On the bright side, whoever Democrats choose this weekend (including the diverse candidates for support positions in the DNC) they stand in good stead to make a powerful case for the Western values Democrats, by dint of the compulsion of history, are sworn to defend against the creeping Putinism and ethnonationalism on the other side. If the party can emerge from the chairman’s vote united—and make no mistake, they must if they are to succeed—they can present a picture of the America that so many fear was lost last November: One that is tolerant and multiracial and pluralistic and compassionate, and most important, unafraid to fight until they win.