The new party rules undo decades-old reforms that empowered hundreds of party activists and elected officials, often referred to as “superdelegates,” whose presidential convention votes were not bound to the results of primaries or caucuses. They also affirm the decision of six states to move from caucuses, which have favored insurgent candidates, to primaries, which tend to have higher turnout.
The Democrats’ journey to that decision lasted more than two years, and divided party leaders even as activists who had supported both Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) organized behind them. Anger at the results of that primary campaign, and at Clinton’s defeat, has dogged the DNC under Perez’s leadership; despite a run of election wins, it has raised $116.5 million since the start of the cycle, compared with $227.2 million for the RNC.
To mollify supporters of Sanders, Democrats in July 2016 created a Unity Reform Commission that met four times through 2017. It originally proposed a cut to the total number of superdelegates, a move that was changed when the reform package got to the Rules and Bylaws Committee, which met four more times to debate amendments. The eventual compromise — to prevent all superdelegates from voting unless a convention went to a second ballot — was proposed by Ken Martin, the chairman of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL).
“This is a way for us to heal the wounds of the 2016 election,” Martin said in an interview before the vote. “Minnesota was a 62 percent Bernie state. People cared about this. We were dealing with a perception problem more than a reality problem, but that perception problem mattered. People believed so passionately that this issue cost their candidate the nomination, that we had to fix it.”
The debate rested on an inaccuracy — Clinton won more regular delegates than Sanders, as well as more superdelegates, so the latter did not give her the nomination. But the desire to cure what Martin called the 2016 “hangover” pervaded the four-day meeting.
There was other business at hand as well: At night, DNC members and guests caroused at receptions put on by the lobbyists for potential 2020 convention host cities.
As a final Rules and Bylaws meeting dismissed four amendments that would have scuttled the superdelegate reform, other DNC members sipped cocktails on a yacht rented by the Miami committee or devoured brisket at a reception for the Houston committee. After a nearly three-hour closed session, where DNC members vented about the rules changes, they were feted by a Milwaukee delegation with plenty of beer and cheese.
The party will make a decision on its host city in the next six months, and may begin announcing televised debates before that; the decision to hold just a handful of debates ahead of the 2016 primaries had been another source of outrage for Sanders supporters.
The years-long reform process, longer than America’s involvement in World War I, burned out many of the critics. A Thursday strategy session against the reforms attracted just 15 DNC members; a Friday morning news conference by superdelegate opponents unfolded before one lonely TV camera.
“It is really kind of bizarre to be on the same side of Tom Perez on some of these issues,” said Selina Vickers, a West Virginia activist who began a hunger strike at the start of the convention and did not break it until the reforms were passed.
Perez and other delegate reform supporters succeeded in weakening the establishment opposition by giving it more time to protest. But the opposition made one final push, picking up on a theme that the Congressional Black Caucus had aired last month — that to take away the votes of black superdelegates was to effectively suppress them. The unofficial leaders of that faction, former party chair Don Fowler and California DNC member Bob Mulholland, are white. But Mulholland, a gruff Vietnam veteran, invoked the legacy of the civil rights movement to argue that his party risked alienating its most loyal voters to appease a faction of elite Sanders fans.
“There’s an awful lot of white males pushing this [reform] idea, and they have no idea of the message this is sending to the Latino community and the African American community,” Mulholland said Friday. “If I was Trump, and the DNC decided it’s not going to let black members of Congress on the floor to vote, I’d exploit the hell out of that. ‘The Democrats just threw out your vote!’ ”
But that message did not unify the DNC’s black members, some of whom pointed out that the 2016 pool of superdelegates skewed whiter than the delegates elected through primaries. While former party chair Donna Brazile gave a 10-minute speech decrying the reform, Nina Turner, president of the Sanders-founded group Our Revolution, whipped votes in favor of it.
“Real voter disenfranchisement is living in a state where you forfeit your rights if you’re a felon,” Turner said. “Real disenfranchisement is officials closing down polling places that disproportionately affect black voters. This is a false equivalency, to talk about something that happens in the DNC and compare it to the hard, bloody fight to secure the franchise in the real world.”
Brazile continued opposing the rules changes Saturday, joking with reporters that she would make sure a “Chicago-style” vote count didn’t switch the result.
“The party will have to deal with another perception issue, that people who had seats were removed from the room,” Brazile said. “I’ve sat in rooms where I’ve been overruled, and I haven’t left that room. I’ve come back to fight the next battle.”
While opponents of the change eventually gave up their push, allowing the vote by acclamation, the DNC’s image problems on the left persist in other ways.
Two weeks before the Chicago meeting, the DNC bowed to pressure from labor unions and unraveled a rule that barred any donations from fossil-fuel industry political action committees. That led to a brief protest Thursday afternoon by the Sunrise Movement, an environmentalist group, whose members stood up and sung an anti-fossil-fuel song at the beginning of one DNC committee meeting.
“Sometimes, social media is not an accurate communicator of facts,” Perez said. “The fact is, under my leadership, we’ve taken zero dollars from the fossil-fuel industry. That’s a fact. That’s not an alternative fact.”
The DNC has also faced questions about Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the party’s deputy chairman since his close-run 2017 bid for the chair. Ellison, now his party’s nominee for attorney general in Minnesota, has been accused by a former girlfriend of emotional abuse and of once pulling her off a bed during a dispute. Perez said that the DNC was monitoring an internal DFL probe of the Ellison allegations, and that Ellison remained the deputy chairman of the party as he campaigned in Minnesota.