LAS VEGAS — The Democratic National Committee kicked off its annual meeting with a now-familiar drama — a public spat between the party’s leadership and its frustrated left-wing activists.
The latest argument began after DNC Chairman Tom Perez nominated a new slate of members for little-known but influential party committees. That slate, slightly younger and more diverse than the last one, did not include some of the highest-profile supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential bid and Rep. Keith Ellison’s failed bid to run the DNC, which had been backed by Sanders (I-Vt.).
“It’s a lot of really good people who deserved better,” said James Zogby, a longtime DNC member who is being replaced on the executive committee. “I’d say they’re making way for new blood, but it’s not that at all. We were Keith Ellison supporters. The optics of it are bad.”
Ellison (D-Minn.), who was made deputy chair of the party after his defeat, was among the new nominees to replace Zogby, and through a spokesman he noted that he’d given Perez a list of contenders for the jobs. One of the highest-profile Democrats removed from the new list was Barbra Casbar Siperstein, the first transgender member of the DNC. The new list — which, according to DNC spokesman Michael Tyler, was based on recommendations from state parties — included a different transgender member, Marisa Richmond.
Nonetheless, a meeting that Democrats hoped would close the door on the bitter 2016 primary produced yet another activists-vs.-establishment fight. What was reported as a “shake-up” by NBC News became, in Vanity Fair, “DNC chair purges dissenters.” At Splinter, it became “The DNC Cuts High-Profile Trans, POC Members From Party’s Left Wing in the Name of ‘Diversity.’”
Some Sanders supporters attacked the DNC for making former chair Donna Brazile an at-large member, pointing to a 2016 scandal in which Brazile passed the Clinton campaign rough drafts of two questions at CNN candidate events. Brazile, then a CNN contributor, left the network after WikiLeaks published her emails to the campaign.
“Honored to serve,” Brazile wrote in an email. “As for those who might have some disagreement with me, I ask that they call me.”
On the left, the DNC had been viewed cynically for years, with angst peaking during the 2016 campaign. Ellison’s bid to run the DNC had been endorsed by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and some of Hillary Clinton’s closest allies in the labor movement, in the hope that some bitterness would fade if the party’s “Bernie wing” won a key party position.
Perez’s victory dashed those plans. Sanders, who had floated the possibility of sharing his fundraising email list with an Ellison-run DNC, has not done so under Perez. The Democrats’ Senate and House campaign committees have begun outpacing the Republicans’ on fundraising, and dozens of Democratic House candidates have raised more money than incumbent Republicans. But the DNC has been outraised 2-to-1 by the Republican National Committee and outraised 3-to-2 with small donors.
Some DNC members, weary of the 2016 feud, said that some backbiting was inevitable. Perez, who had not held any role in the DNC before being urged to run last year by some Democratic leaders, had made hard calls that his still-fresh relationships were not making easier.
“He’s a real gritty guy, very progressive,” said Ken Martin, who is chairman of Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer-Labor Party and backed Ellison for chair. “He’s not an operative in a traditional sense. That’s a good thing and a bad thing. He’s not wedded to the way we’ve done things. But it’s bad in that there’s things he’s still learning.”
New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley, who endorsed Ellison for chair after his own bid fizzled, paused for nearly 10 seconds when asked about Perez’s leadership. When he began speaking, he was careful about how he praised the chairman.
“I think that running the DNC is an enormous challenge and bringing in an entirely new team who didn’t actually have a history within the party itself made it a little harder, because there wasn’t that natural understanding,” Buckley said. “What we’re hoping is that things will get better. We’re believing that the sun will come out tomorrow.”
The Las Vegas meeting was supposed to bring a resolution closer. On Wednesday, the party’s Unity Reform Commission, created by a 2016 deal between Clinton and Sanders, held its final public meeting before the December session, when it will present its ideas to overhaul the Democratic primaries.
Like three previous sessions, the commission’s meeting was amicable. Sanders-backed members dominated the conversation, pitching ways that state parties could open the primaries to voters who were not registered Democrats. There was little pushback on the idea that “superdelegates,” party officials with free votes on presidential nominees, needed to be limited or bound to primaries.
“We all agree here in our group that the role of unpledged delegates should be revised and reduced,” said Lucy Flores, a Sanders supporter who co-chairs the commission’s working group on superdelegates.
But this week’s changes sparked fresh worry about the fate of the commission and its recommendations. In December, its recommendations will be presented to the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee. Five of the Clinton-appointed members of the Unity Commission are on that committee; none of the Sanders-appointed members are.
Larry Cohen, the Sanders-backed co-chair of the commission, said that it would end up producing a list of measures that the whole party could support, regardless of who voted.
“Unlike prior commissions, anything that’s in our report can go directly to the DNC, regardless of what the [Rules and Bylaws Committee] does,” Cohen said.
Zogby, the longtime DNC insider who has been most vocal about the recent shake-up, was more pessimistic about the commission’s chances.
“I won’t be there to see it,” he said in an interview near the DNC meeting. Then, Zogby walked back to the meeting, stopping occasionally for hugs from people who told him they were sad to see him go.
“It feels like a wake,” he said.