The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Perez-Sanders tour kicks off amid progressive skepticism

Tom Perez speaks in Washington in January 2016. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

PORTLAND, Maine — When Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez arrived at the State Theatre on Monday night, David Bright would be there. Bright, an organic farmer who helped Sanders win the state’s Democratic caucuses, was one of Maine’s four voters in the electoral college. He’d used that role to cast a protest vote for Sanders, relenting and casting a futile vote for Hillary Clinton only after state law forced him to.

His opinion of the Democratic Party’s “establishment” has not improved much since then.

“The DNC has dropped the ball on one congressional campaign after another,” Bright said in an interview before driving from his farm to Portland. “The only way Perez would be safe to come to Maine is to have Bernie by his side. Otherwise, progressives in this state would tear him apart.”

Portland, the bluest dot in a state that has trended Republican in recent years, is the launchpad for a week-long Perez-Sanders campaign tour. The team-up came last month, but last week, when Democrats lost a closer-than-expected House race in Kansas, the reasons for doing it became clearer. While energy on the left has risen since November, the party’s base can still tumble into debates about whom to blame for its defeats, with the left doing most of the talking.

The Perez-Sanders tour will not go through any state holding a congressional election soon, though it will boost Heath Mello, the Democrat running for mayor of Omaha. In an interview Monday morning on NPR, Perez praised Mello and said that Democrats had contributed to the Kansas race in ways that perhaps had gone unseen.

“We invested in the following ways: When people were out there knocking on doors, they were using the DNC’s voter file,” he said. “We were monitoring the election very closely with the state party. We did robo-calls at their request.” Pointing to the 20-point swing toward Democrats, Perez said that “if we replicate that success everywhere, we will flip the House in 2018.”

James Thompson, the Kansas Democrat who lost last week, wrote on Twitter that disappointed progressives should focus on upcoming races instead of casting blame. Colin Curtis, Thompson’s campaign manager, said that “some people just want to be angry” and that while the Democratic Party support had been pro forma, it hadn’t been a surprise.

“Do I wish they would have come in earlier? Sure,” Curtis said. “But at the end of the day we didn’t plan on them doing it.”

Progressives were not just critical of the party’s spending — they were critical of its messaging. Brett Vars, a 23-year-old who works at a grocery store outside Maine’s largest city, showed up to the State Theatre seven hours before Sanders was set to speak. He liked Perez’s record as labor secretary but was disappointed with how he talked about the Democratic Party, with lines about “leading with our values” that did not get into policy. In 2016, he voted for the Green Party’s Jill Stein for president. He was hopeful about Democrats but also interested in Maine’s new ranked-choice voting law, which could benefit a left-wing third party.

“It would be interesting to see what the Green Party could do if it got some power,” Vars said.

Further down the line outside the theater — which stretched for blocks down Portland’s Congress Street — a 59-year old Mainer named Soni Biehl was encouraging the rally’s attendees to stay outside of the Democratic Party. She was one of several petitioners for a “Draft Bernie” campaign which would encourage the Vermont senator to seek the presidency in 2020 as an independent. The Democratic Party, she explained, was broken in ways its leaders did not know how to fix.

“What did they do with Debbie Wasserman Schultz? Nothing,” said Biehl, referring to the former chair of the DNC. When asked if the party had disciplined her by making her resign, in a minor crisis moment during the party’s convention, Biehl explained that Wasserman Schultz “should have been fired.”

As the rally’s hundreds of attendees waited for Sanders, the grumbling sometimes crashed into view. After the State’s stage filled with volunteers, mostly young, a heckler yelled “Why aren’t the Bernie delegates up there?” (Some of the senator’s 2016 delegates were in a special seating area, with VIP badges.) A local Democratic Party leader said that the “the new chair,” meaning Perez, would be arriving soon — there were a handful of boos. A state senator told the crowd that the political system was rigged; a heckler yelled, “like the primary!”

But those sentiments were largely drowned out by active Democrats, who cheered for local Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Me.) — a former president of the progressive Common Cause, and a supporter of single-payer health care. Pingree roused the crowd in boos for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the fight to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and a president who was “dropping bombs and making threats on Twitter” while blocking Syrian refugees from the country.

“He doesn’t seem to remember that the Constitution requires him to ask Congress for an authorization of military force,” said Pingree to cheers.

Michael Blake, a New York assemblyman and newly elected DNC vice chair, brought the crowd to a roar with a similar indictment of Trump.

“We can’t keep right-fighting the primary,” he said offstage.