The forum, the second in less than a week for the seven candidates seeking to lead the DNC, offered tougher questions than the candidates had often been asked in the slow-starting contest. Each candidate has resisted the early framing of the race as a re-fight of the 2016 primary; the fate of Sanders’s email list had become part of that story, with the senator telling The Washington Post last week that he would “cross that bridge” once the DNC race was settled.
There’s no clear front-runner in the race, which includes Ellison; Secretary of Labor Tom Perez; South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley; South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison; Idaho Democratic Party Executive Director Sally Boynton Brown; and media commentator Jehmu Greene. On Wednesday night, the candidates passed on several chances to accentuate their differences. Asked whether they considered themselves progressives, all seven candidates raised their hands; asked whether they thought the DNC had put “a thumb on the scale” in the Clinton-Sanders primary, all seven kept their hands down.
But it was Ellison and Perez, perceived by the news media and many DNC members as the race’s front-runners, who got the most hostile questions from moderators Ryan Grim and Lydia Polgreen. Perez, who repeatedly warned against Democrats “taking a spoon to a knife fight,” was asked whether a member of the Obama administration was in any position to rebuild the party.
“The Bush administration decimated the Department of Justice,” said Perez, who was widely seen as revolutionizing the department’s Civil Rights Division before he headed to Labor. “We needed a turnaround job, and that’s what I was able to do.”
Perez was also pressed about Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, a movement pressuring Israel to end its occupation of disputed Palestinian territories. “I don’t support the BDS movement,” Perez said. “You look at many of the things said by that movement, and they’ve been destructive.”
Ellison, who would be the party’s first Muslim chairman and who has been critical of Israel in the past, did not get that question. Instead, he got support when six candidates joined him in saying Haim Saban, a major donor who had called Ellison an anti-Semite, should apologize. (Ellison said he and Saban later had an “amicable” phone call.)
“Of the many issues that the next DNC chair is going to face, solving the Middle East crisis is not one of them,” Buttigieg said to applause. “This is not a policy job.”
Later, Ellison helped defuse another argument that had broken out in the race: a proposed ban on most donations from lobbyists. In Arizona, Perez had told the personal story of a friend who was blocked from a fitting job because he’d registered as a lobbyist. Earlier on Wednesday, Jane O’Meara Sanders, the senator’s wife, tweeted an article that highlighted that debate moment.
But at GWU, Perez joined a parade of candidates questioning whether a blanket lobbyist ban made sense for the party. “If anybody wants to get rid of any money we’re getting, I want to talk to you about how we replace it,” Ellison said.
“This is one of those things that sounds good, but when we had it, I didn’t see the Democratic Party become any more progressive,” Buttigieg said.
“To take away lobbyist money and lawyer money would be a hole of $18 million in the DNC,” Harrison said. “There are state parties that have less than $50,000 on hand.”
Harrison was also singled out for praise when Ellison said a Huffington Post piece, which had highlighted Harrison’s work as a registered coal lobbyist, had been unfair to “one of the best men I’ve ever met.”
Having little to disagree with, the candidates mostly criticized the way the Democratic Party had evolved in the Obama years. Buckley suggested that the state parties reject the political class, telling them, “I’m sick of you taking all the money; you don’t know what you’re doing.” Boynton Brown said the party’s brand had become toxic in rural areas.
But there was no discussion of shifting the party’s stances. Most of the debate was over strategy and messaging, with Harrison pointing out that the next chairman would inherit a party that had ended 2016 deeply in debt. Ellison suggested that Minnesota Democrats had already cracked the code with organizing.
“In 2012, we devoted our whole campaign to defeating voter ID,” Ellison said. “Let me tell ya, man — Democrats told us we can’t beat it, it’s polling too high. We went to work, and we got those numbers up.”
Perez, hitting a campaign theme, suggested that an enhanced, early-acting voter protection plan could win lawsuits with enough time to undo Republican-passed election changes. And he tried to demonstrate in real time how and when the Democrats should attack Donald Trump instead of fighting him “tweet for tweet.”
“We can hit him between the eyes with a 2-by-4 and treat him like Mitch McConnell treated Barack Obama,” Perez said.