The race for the Democratic National Committee Chairperson is very important.
In case you haven’t been following it, there are many candidates running, but only two major contenders: Keith Ellison, Democratic Congressman from Minnesota’s 5th congressional district for 10 years straight, and Tom Perez, the Secretary of Labor from the Obama Administration. The winner of the race, who will be chosen during the weekend of February 24 by 447 party insiders, will run fundraising, outreach, and primary processes for the Democratic Party over the next several years.
Overall, Ellison has stronger social justice credentials than Perez – he’s been an active Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and has put forward some of the most progressive economic justice legislation in Congress during his time there. He’s been a staunch advocate for unions, was an early supporter of a $15 minimum wage, and was an early opponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other trade deals that are more about enriching multinational corporations than promoting the free exchange of goods and services. His voting record on women’s rights, LGBT rights, anti-racist policy – you name it – is excellent. And before coming to Congress, Ellison worked in civil rights and employment law.
But Perez deserves a fair bit of credit for his record, too. As the Labor Secretary, Perez went after companies that stole from their workers, embraced policies that would raise the pay of and increase opportunities for members of underserved groups to become federal employees and contractors, and pushed forward a rule that would reestablish the right to overtime pay for millions of workers. His active support for the TPP is a non-trivial stain on his résumé, but those who believe in social justice should generally like the policies he’s pursued, as others have also noted.
Yet if that’s the case, why is it so important that Ellison wins?
The answer to that question lies in the answer to another: why is Perez even running?
Ellison jumped into the DNC Chair race right after the election (on Monday, November 14). His candidacy made a ton of sense for the party for three main reasons:
– Ellison was one of the few Democrats calling for the party and media to take Donald Trump seriously from the beginning. The clip below, from a panel Ellison did back in July of 2015, is the most striking illustration of the contrast between Ellison’s prescience and the irresponsibility of the vast majority of Establishment media figures and politicians during the course of the 2016 election.
– Ellison was the second congressperson to endorse Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary, and one of only a small handful to have done so at all. Many other federal policymakers also had backgrounds more aligned with Sanders than with Hillary Clinton but backed Clinton anyway, possibly because of some combination of a misguided sense of political pragmatism and a legitimate fear of retribution.
Given that Sanders was much more popular than Clinton among Independents and the most popular primary candidate ever among young people, whose energy and enthusiasm Democrats desperately need in the future, it makes strategic sense for the party to put one of his early supporters in a leadership role. Doing so would suggest that the Democrats, after throwing a ton of institutional weight behind the less electable, less social-justice-oriented candidate (and failing to hold party leaders accountable for their clear violations of the DNC’s charter) en route to squandering the 2016 election, have learned something. It would give hope that the Democrats may run a fairer, more democratic primary process next time, and that those who opposed Clinton needn’t write the party off entirely.
– Once Sanders lost the primary, Ellison helped draft the DNC platform and became an outspoken proponent of voting for Clinton. He campaigned very hard for Clinton between July and November. He showed, in other words, that even though he thinks there is a better path than the one the Democratic Party is currently on, he believes in working within the Democratic Party structure for change.
I would have personally preferred Ellison to not campaign for Clinton, but I respected his choice to do so, and the fact that he did – vociferously – makes him an ideal candidate for party unification. So does the fact that, unlike Sanders, Ellison is Black and Muslim, and his ascendance would diversify Democratic Party leadership, a worthy objective that Clinton fans have long claimed to support. Ellison can potentially bridge the gap between good-faith Clinton and Sanders supporters and grow a bigger Democratic coalition.
Establishment Democrats and big-name donors began attacking Ellison as soon as he declared his interest in being DNC Chair, however. They first complained that chairmanship was a full-time job and that, as a sitting congressman, Ellison wouldn’t have the bandwidth to focus on it. They then inaccurately cast Ellison as an anti-Semite, misconstruing a 2010 speech he gave and condemnations of White supremacy and Israeli policy that he made twenty-five years ago. Ellison soon thereafter declared that he would resign from Congress and become DNC Chair full-time if he wins the race, and he has repeatedly proven allegations of anti-Semitism false, but no matter; the Clinton/Obama apparatus wanted a challenger, and when Howard Dean didn’t pan out, they pressured Perez to step in. He formally entered the race on December 15.
Perez has presented little that looks different from what Ellison has proposed, and nobody has offered a coherent explanation for why they think he’d do a better job leading the party than Ellison would. Endorsements of Perez, like the one Joe Biden just made, have just highlighted personal details about him and included vague statements that could at least as easily apply to Ellison. It’s thus hard to understand why Perez would have thrown his hat into the DNC Chair race (as opposed to the Maryland gubernatorial race) if not to maintain the Democratic Party’s current power structure. The message to those who supported Sanders and want the party to embrace full-scale social and economic justice – many of whom are already upset that Perez pushed some of the Clinton campaign’s disingenuous attacks on Sanders behind the scenes during the primary – seems to be that they’re still expected to fall in line and support whatever the party Establishment decides.
An Ellison victory wouldn’t by itself bring the change the party needs – not by a long shot – and even if he wins, social justice advocates will need to push him on several issues. Maybe in part to try to forestall attacks from Democrats who will be making the DNC Chair decision, he’s embraced some worrisome positions. Ellison has endorsed the corporate candidate over the Bernie supporter in a recent race for Florida Democratic Chair, criticized the peaceful Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against the oppressive policies of the Israeli government, softened on his previous commitment to banning lobbyist contributions to the DNC, and promoted some election postmortems that deserve considerably more skepticism. But Ellison has a strong record overall and would bring a real possibility for regime change, a commitment to grassroots activism, and a new kind of Democratic Party politics. As Sanders said following Biden’s endorsement of Perez (who Sanders likes and expressed respect for), the race for DNC Chair is about whether the Democratic Party “stay[s] with a failed status-quo approach or…go[es] forward with a fundamental restructuring.”
Some Democrats lashed out at Sanders after this statement. They were, according to The Hill, “frustrated by press reports characterizing the contest as a proxy battle between the party’s leftist Sanders wing, represented by Ellison, and a more moderate Barack Obama-Clinton wing, represented by Perez.” But to think otherwise is naïve – that’s precisely what it is. And as some politicians, union leaders, and media figures who backed Clinton have already recognized, the smart move for Democrats who want to see the party win in the future “would be…to embrace Keith Ellison as DNC Chair.” That would be the right move for those who believe in social and economic justice as well.