How the Democratic Establishment Beat Back Keith Ellison’s DNC Bid

Despite the setback, progressives remain determined to democratize the party and empower the left wing.

Cole Stangler March 13, 2017

Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a progressive Berniecrat, narrowly lost to Tom Perez in the battle for DNC chair. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Under nor­mal cir­cum­stances, the acces­sion of some­one like for­mer Labor Sec­re­tary Tom Perez to chair of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee (DNC) might be cheered by the U.S. Left. But not in 2017 — and not like this. In the after­math of the cat­a­stroph­ic 2016 elec­tions, pro­gres­sives ral­lied behind the can­di­da­cy of Rep. Kei­th Elli­son (Minn.), a Bernie Sanders ally and for­mer civ­il rights lawyer who vowed to shake up the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. The DNC balked: At its meet­ing in Atlanta in Feb­ru­ary, mem­bers opt­ed for Perez over Elli­son 235 – 200 in a sec­ond vote after nei­ther secured a first-round majority.

New DNC Chair Tom Perez will need to confront the very forces that put him in charge.

In his vic­to­ry speech, Perez named Elli­son as his deputy chair, though the new­ly cre­at­ed posi­tion remains unde­fined. The out­come has pro­gres­sives feel­ing uneasy at best and down­right dis­gust­ed at worst. By all accounts, Perez appears both capa­ble and polit­i­cal­ly palat­able — and yet, the dynam­ics that pro­pelled him to vic­to­ry seems to reveal hos­til­i­ty from the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty estab­lish­ment toward its grow­ing left­wing fac­tion. That ten­sion looms large at the very moment the Democ­rats must reck­on with the most dan­ger­ous GOP in history.

A very strong progressive’

DNC mem­ber Joshua Boschee, for one, is opti­mistic about Perez. I think he’s gonna be great,” says Boschee, a state rep­re­sen­ta­tive from North Dako­ta. He vot­ed for Ida­ho Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty Exec­u­tive Direc­tor Sal­ly Boyn­ton Brown on the first bal­lot and Elli­son on the sec­ond, after Boyn­ton Brown withdrew.

When we look at the spe­cif­ic things that Tom Perez has done, whether it was as labor sec­re­tary or in the office of civ­il rights in the Depart­ment of Jus­tice, he is a very strong pro­gres­sive.” Many share that assess­ment of Perez’s record. As labor sec­re­tary, for exam­ple, Perez over­saw the imple­men­ta­tion of a rule extend­ing over­time pay pro­tec­tions to 4 mil­lion work­ers (though a fed­er­al judge lat­er blocked it) and craft­ed the fidu­cia­ry rule requir­ing invest­ment advi­sors to pri­or­i­tize their clients’ inter­ests over their own prof­it (though Trump is try­ing to kill it).

The depart­ment also raised the min­i­mum wage for fed­er­al con­trac­tors to $10.20 and improved reg­u­la­tions to pro­tect work­ers from can­cer-caus­ing sil­i­ca dust. His new gig will be far more polit­i­cal. As DNC chair, Perez’s pri­ma­ry task is build­ing the DNC’s war chest ($372 mil­lion in 2016 and $168 mil­lion in the 2014 midterms) and dis­pens­ing it to nation­al cam­paigns and state par­ty appa­ra­tus­es. With that comes the pow­er to dic­tate strat­e­gy, includ­ing how close­ly to coor­di­nate with pro­gres­sive groups and which can­di­dates and races to invest in.

Going into the midterms, the Democ­rats face intim­i­dat­ing Repub­li­can majori­ties in both cham­bers of Con­gress and more than two-thirds of state leg­is­la­tures, but Trump’s record-low approval rat­ings seem to offer a chance for Demo­c­ra­t­ic gains. Perez sup­port­ers believe he’s up to the task. In pitch­es to DNC mem­bers, Perez framed him­self as an adept man­ag­er with expe­ri­ence retool­ing com­plex bureau­cra­cies and direct­ing them toward pro­gres­sive ends.

Giv­en the stakes, Elli­son has called on his sup­port­ers to embrace par­ty uni­ty. As he put it short­ly after his defeat, The very fate of our nation, I believe, is in the bal­ance.” Joshua Boschee agrees. We all need to stand togeth­er and move for­ward because we are not the ene­my,” he tells In These Times. Repub­li­cans are in charge.”

How the race went down

For all of Tom Perez’s pro­gres­sive chops and the well-found­ed log­ic of pleas for uni­ty, there is an uncom­fort­able sto­ry behind his vic­to­ry. Perez was hand­picked by forces with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty that could not tol­er­ate Kei­th Elli­son as chair. Elli­son announced his can­di­da­cy less than a week after Elec­tion Day and rapid­ly picked up endorse­ments from such pro­gres­sives as Bernie Sanders and Rep. Rául Gri­jal­va (Ariz.), as well as cen­trist Democ­rats like Sen­ate Minor­i­ty Leader Chuck Schumer.

He also won nods from the heads of pow­er­ful unions that backed Hillary Clin­ton in the 2016 pri­ma­ry, includ­ing the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers; the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of State, Coun­ty and Munic­i­pal Employ­ees; and two major Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union locals. With this broad sup­port, Elli­son emerged as the clear front-run­ner. Then, in Decem­ber, after nudg­ing from Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma and Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Biden, Perez stepped in.

In the eyes of his crit­ics, the for­mer labor sec­re­tary has not yet pro­vid­ed a con­vinc­ing expla­na­tion of his deci­sion to run. As many have point­ed out, his pol­i­tics are sim­i­lar to Ellison’s and he, too, cam­paigned on the need to improve the party’s state and local infra­struc­ture. (He declined to be inter­viewed for this sto­ry.) If Ellison’s main advan­tage was enthu­si­as­tic sup­port from the grass­roots, Perez’s appears to have been his well­con­nect­ed back­ers: Oba­ma, Biden and key par­ty mon­ey-rais­ers. As CNN report­ed, in the final days of the cam­paign, while Sanders and New York May­or Bill DeBla­sio were call­ing unde­cid­ed DNC elec­tors to make the case for Elli­son, Oba­ma aides and Joe Biden him­self were doing the same for Perez. (“I’ll let the pres­i­dent know you’re with Tom,” key Oba­ma advis­er Valerie Jar­rett alleged­ly told DNC elec­tors as she whipped votes.) Some in the congressman’s camp main­tain it was this bunch of Perez allies — big­name politi­cians and lob­by­ists — who tipped the bal­ance in favor of the for­mer labor secretary.

When elect­ed offi­cials are reliant on fel­low DNC mem­bers that help raise mon­ey for them, and [the mon­ey-rais­ers] are on one side of the cam­paign, [the elect­ed offi­cials] will be very respon­sive to that,” says DNC mem­ber Héc­tor Figueroa, pres­i­dent of the 163,000-member SEIU Local 32BJ and an Elli­son sup­port­er. Figueroa believes that pow­er­ful DNC mem­bers were incred­i­bly wor­ried about the pro­gres­sive wing of the par­ty hav­ing access through the chair.”

It was a very reac­tionary, very reac­tive oppo­si­tion,” Figueroa says. And I feel that the role Oba­ma, Bill Clin­ton and Biden played was very heavy­hand­ed. It seemed to us that there was an effort to block Kei­th and deny him the lead­er­ship of the party.”

Elli­son, who is Mus­lim, also faced a smear cam­paign from both the Right and pro-Israel lib­er­als, each of which dredged up columns from the 1990s in which he defend­ed anti-Semit­ic Nation of Islam leader Louis Far­rakhan. (Elli­son renounced the Nation of Islam in 2006.) Israeli-Amer­i­can bil­lion­aire Haim Saban, the top donor to the Hillary Clin­ton super PAC, pub­licly attacked Elli­son as anti-Semit­ic.” The day before the vote, the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Con­gress lob­by­ing group instruct­ed mem­bers to call the DNC and voice oppo­si­tion to Elli­son, say­ing he would threat­en the rela­tion­ship” between the U.S. and Israel. Figueroa says the nature of the elec­tion has made the result more dif­fi­cult to accept, although he prais­es Perez as a pro­gres­sive” with an incred­i­ble track record.”

Pres­i­dent Oba­ma, in all the eight years that he was in the White House, did not show this lev­el of inter­est in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee chair,” Figueroa con­tin­ues. Bernie Sanders has been crit­i­cized for being an out­sider try­ing to [influ­ence] the DNC. Well, Oba­ma had eight years. We lost 1,000 local and state posi­tions in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty [between 2009 and 2017] and he showed very lit­tle inter­est in build­ing the orga­ni­za­tion­al struc­ture that could have per­haps led to dif­fer­ent results.”

For pro­gres­sives hop­ing to wrest con­trol of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, Ellison’s defeat is a sober­ing reminder: There is a long way to go.

Mov­ing forward

Lar­ry Cohen, chair of Our Rev­o­lu­tion, a polit­i­cal action orga­ni­za­tion spun out of the Sanders pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, was a major backer of Ellison’s bid. Though dis­ap­point­ed by the out­come, Cohen, the for­mer pres­i­dent of the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca union, says the close vote demon­strat­ed the grow­ing clout of pro­gres­sives with­in the par­ty. As some­one who sits on the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s uni­ty reform cau­cus — a group formed by a res­o­lu­tion at the 2016 con­ven­tion to democ­ra­tize par­ty struc­tures — Cohen is com­mit­ted to mak­ing the par­ty less depen­dent on big money.

The most sig­nif­i­cant out­come of the actu­al elec­tion was Tom Perez rec­og­niz­ing the grass­roots and the all-buttied vote and [appoint­ing Kei­th Elli­son] deputy chair of the par­ty,” Cohen says. And now the ques­tion is — not just for Tom Perez, but for all of us— what will that mean? Can there be a gen­uine part­ner­ship with the grass­roots rather than a sym­bol­ic ges­ture?” A more defin­i­tive answer may emerge in the run-up to the 2018 and 2020 elections.

Par­ty author­i­ties could, for instance, pour efforts into seats pre­vi­ous­ly aban­doned to Repub­li­cans and favor can­di­dates out­side the tra­di­tion­al mold — or they could remain riska­verse and pri­or­i­tize cen­trist Democ­rats and winnable” seats. In the mean­time, local 2017 races offer pro­gres­sives and Berniecrats oppor­tu­ni­ties to win office, with or with­out the sup­port of the DNC. Indeed, for David Duhalde, deputy direc­tor of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA), Ellison’s bid under­lined that the party’s cen­trist forces are on the defensive.

It took Pres­i­dent Oba­ma and many incum­bent par­ty oper­a­tives a lot of effort just to bare­ly squeak by against Elli­son,” says Duhalde, whose orga­ni­za­tion has more than dou­bled in mem­ber­ship since the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, to 18,000 mem­bers — and received an uptick in online sign-ups after Elli­son lost.

They’re not always going to have Pres­i­dent Oba­ma mak­ing calls, nor will they be as inter­est­ed in some of these more local and state appa­ra­tus­es,” he says. I think with some ear­li­er orga­niz­ing and build­ing coali­tions, it’s going to be very pos­si­ble for [pro­gres­sives to win]. Peo­ple should feel heart­ened that Elli­son gave them a real run for their mon­ey.” Duhalde points to the exam­ple of Mike Sylvester, a DSA mem­ber and for­mer union orga­niz­er elect­ed to the Maine State House as a Demo­c­rat last Novem­ber. He also ref­er­enced the case of Khalid Kamau, a Black Lives Mat­ter and DSA activist run­ning for city coun­cil in South Ful­ton, Ga., with an endorse­ment from Our Revolution.

What’s clear, in any case, is that the bat­tle over the future of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty is far from over. Suc­cess­ful­ly tak­ing on Trump will require the DNC to strength­en ties with pro­gres­sive groups and ener­gize young vot­ers, says Figueroa of Local 32BJ. But many Demo­c­ra­t­ic loy­al­ists don’t believe the par­ty is in need of a major strate­gic over­haul. In oth­er words, Perez will need to con­front the very forces that put him in charge.

Tom is going to need to seek alliances with the peo­ple who sup­port­ed Kei­th to over­come some of the forces that elect­ed him,” Figueroa says. He could do it. But when you arrive in a posi­tion in that way, it’s very chal­leng­ing to con­vince your side to change.” 

Cole Stan­gler writes about labor and the envi­ron­ment. His report­ing has also appeared in The Nation, VICE, The New Repub­lic and Inter­na­tion­al Busi­ness Times. He lives in Paris, France. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Fol­low him @colestangler.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH