The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

DNC leaders call for rules reform after 2016 primary revelations

Sen. Bernie Sanders, accompanied by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, speaks during a rally in Portsmouth, N.H., on July 12, 2016, where Sanders endorsed Clinton for president. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

The top two officials in the Democratic National Committee have pledged to reform the party in the wake of revelations that Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign got a special joint fundraising agreement before she won the 2016 nomination. Yet even as they tried to get past the story, kicked off by former DNC chair Donna Brazile’s upcoming memoir, DNC Chairman Tom Perez and Deputy Chairman Keith Ellison took slightly different views as to what needed to change.

In an email to DNC members last night, Perez said that the party had already begun reforming its primary rules to ensure “that 2020 will be a transparent process,” and that “even a perception of impropriety — whether real or not — is detrimental to the DNC as an institution.” The DNC’s charter, he pointed out, required total neutrality in primaries.

But Perez sidestepped the growing criticism of the 2016 JFA for Clinton’s campaign — which, according to Brazile, allowed the Democratic front-runner’s campaign veto power over some party decisions.

Here is what you need to know about the political storm sparked by Donna Brazile’s allegations against the Clinton campaign. (Video: Amber Ferguson, Melissa Macaya/The Washington Post)

“The joint fundraising agreements were the same for each campaign except for the treasurer, and our understanding was that the DNC offered all of the presidential campaigns the opportunity to set up a JFA and work with the DNC to coordinate on how those funds were used to best prepare for the general election,” Perez said. “Since then, both of those joint fundraising committees have been shut down.”

Perez did not respond to the criticism of former staff and supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who argued yesterday that the JFA was slanted toward Clinton, and that the party gave her special treatment. In an interview, former Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver said that the JFA, by its nature, benefited the candidate who could set up high-dollar fundraisers, and that the DNC did not help Sanders organize large donors.

“Who are the wealthy people Bernie was going to bring to a fundraiser?” Weaver asked. “They never set up a single event.”

In his statement, released separately from Perez’s, Ellison did not get into the weeds of the 2015 arrangement. But he did call specifically for the DNC to change its rules to specify that no future campaign could get a favorable JFA.

“We must heed the call for our party to enact real reforms that ensure a fair, open and impartial nominating process in elections to come,” Ellison said. “I’m committed to working with Chairman Perez to make the DNC more transparent and accountable to the American people, whether that’s by ensuring that debates are scheduled far ahead of time or by guaranteeing that the terms of joint fundraising agreements give no candidate undue control or influence over the party.”

The DNC will meet next month to hear recommendations from a “unity commission” that has met four times, in four cities, to research problems with the primary process and debate reforms. Multiple state Democratic chairs are lobbying specifically for new language in the party bylaws about JFAs, an issue that might be forced at a later meeting.