Over the weekend the Democratic Party elected Tom Perez, a Latino civil rights attorney and former Labor Secretary under President Barack Obama, a man whose only successful campaign was as a county official 15 years ago, to lead the party out of its lowest position in 75 years.
Democrats lost 64 house seats in the 2010 midterms and have gone downhill since, losing governor’s mansions, the majority of state assemblies and now the White House.
The Democratic Party is dependent on African-American voters to be successful—locally, nationally, and even functionally. So it made sense that the elections for the next DNC chair, the first in the post-Obama era, would take place in Atlanta, a city that has recently snatched the “Chocolate City” crown from D.C.
Given the stakes at play, basically electing the leader of one of only two political parties that may run the United States, the DNC gathering was a rather low-key affair until the actual elections on Saturday afternoon. The downtown Westin Hotel in Atlanta’s convention district was sparsely populated, and for most of the day, the energy wasn’t dissimilar to a Dunder Mifflin shareholder meeting.
The hallways were covered in campaign signs for the various DNC positions, chair, vice-chair, and secretary and campaign teams lured you to their tables with candy, flashy buttons and Democratic swag. Walking from table to table grabbing Snickers, T-shirts and pens made it seem more like the most expensive high school student council election ever rather than the selection of the leader of a multi-million dollar political operation.
“All of these endorsements, they may work for some of the voting members, but not everyone,” said Symone Sanders, former national Press Secretary for Bernie Sanders. “These are the people who are working, going to [Democratic] meetings every week, when some of these folks [endorsers] only show up at the big events.”
Everyone in the room believed the election would be close with Perez having the backing of “establishment” Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and Ellison having the backing of the Bernie Sanders wing of the party. While many in the Congressional Black Caucus backed Perez, there was a sense right before the vote that everyone had pretty good choices.
Jaime Harrison, chair of the Democratic Party in South Carolina, dropped out of the DNC chair race and endorsed Perez over Ellison. When I asked him why, he had praise for both leaders.
“I love Keith (Ellison) like a brother. Over the last year I’ve come to love Tom like a brother. But it comes down to who has a better Southern strategy. Who’s got a red state strategy for the Democratic Party? Tom has it.”
According to Rep. Maxine “Trump Doesn’t Want Any of This” Waters, either Ellison or Perez has the ability to lead the Democratic party out of the political wilderness.
“It doesn’t matter who wins, they’re both gonna be great for the party. And this is a great great time for organizing against Trump. He keeps giving us fuel everyday!”
That kind of attitude especially from African American leadership in the party seemed pretty well founded.
Keith Ellison was re-elected multiple times in Minnesota and has strong ties to the African-American community, labor, millennials and the party’s new vibrant left. Ellison lost to Perez in a close 235 to 200 vote in the second round, and soon after Perez created the position of Deputy Democratic Party Chair and appointed Ellison to the spot.
Some Democrats, particularly African Americans on the left, are less than satisfied with this. It looks like the Democratic Party is sticking with the same old conventional leadership where it relies heavily on black votes but refuses to elect substantive black party leadership. The DNC already has a vice chair position so “deputy chair” may be superfluous. However the party has enough work to go around and there is more than enough for Perez and Ellison.
Democrats need to fight voter suppression in the mid-west, continue gains in Arizona and Texas and pay more attention to the South where because of gerrymandering the Democratic Party has become the default “Black Party.”
Tom Perez knew that he needed to cut a deal with not just the Sanders wing of the party but put African Americans into at least a vocal leadership role in the Democratic Party. Ellison for his part will make sure that his “deputy chair” position is more than ceremonial. It seems like the Democratic Party has finally realized that they must unify ideas and wings of the party and not just rely on the hatred of Trump to bring voters together for Democratic policy.