DETROIT — Keith Ellison, the Minnesota congressman who could become the first Muslim chairman of a U.S. political party, stepped behind the Christian pulpit. Ellison’s brother Brian, a Baptist minister, offered up his Church of the New Covenant for a town hall about the future of the Democratic National Committee and the fight against President-elect Donald Trump.
“If you had a beef on Twitter with somebody, make peace, because you were probably arguing with a Russian or a bot,” Ellison said two days before Christmas, trying to rally Democrats to his side. “We need people who are really psyched up, and we need people who know where the bodies are buried. Do we, in the era of Trump, have somebody to waste?”
He looked around the room, at 150 nervous Democrats spilling from the pews into the hallway. “Not nobody!”Ellison said.
With Democrats shut out of power for the first time in a decade, the race to run the Democratic National Committee has taken on the feel of a real campaign, even though the group’s 437 members are the only ones who will decide on a new leader. Ellison and four rivals are campaigning across the country, appearing at forums and at a Huffington Post-hosted debate, while also issuing news releases on breaking stories. (All were silent about the fight over Israel’s settlements.)
There’s little ideological disagreement between Ellison and his four rivals — Labor Secretary Tom Perez; Ray Buckley, chairman of New Hampshire’s Democrats; South Carolina’s Jaime Harrison; and Idaho’s Sally Boynton Brown. None has challenged the left-wing rewrite of the Democratic Party platform, of which Ellison was a part.
Ellison, who is backed by Sens. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), is the central figure in the contest, although party leaders say the race is fairly wide open.
In the run-up to the Feb. 23-26 election, Ellison is taking an inside-and-outside approach. Conversations with DNC members are supplemented by rallies, designed to show how the DNC could become the hub of a resistance movement.
Unlike the divisive Clinton-Sanders primary contest — when progressives battled the more-centrist Hillary Clinton supporters — there are not the same ideological cleavages in the DNC battle. To the extent that candidates have shared their ideas, they generally agree on directing more money to state parties, boosting turnout (Ellison’s goal is an increase of 3 to 7 percent) and guarding against voter suppression efforts by Republicans.
Democrats instead are engaging in a gritted-teeth argument about who’s to blame for the devastating losses this year. Perez, who entered the DNC race two weeks ago, has institutional support at exactly the time Democratic activists have stopped trusting their institutions. Buckley has told audiences that he ignored the Clinton campaign to do his own voter persuasion — and gave Clinton a rare swing-state victory. Harrison and Boynton Brown, DNC candidates who’ve offered fewer specifics, are just as critical of the 2016 effort.
Their consensus: The national Democratic Party focused on new swing states and let state parties wither behind the Midwestern “blue wall,” which promptly cracked. Democratic voters in rural areas, rarely contacted by the Clinton campaign or by state parties, switched to Trump.
“We need to commit ourselves, once a week, to go to a new neighborhood and talk to everybody,” Ellison said in Detroit.
“You don’t win elections with an out-of-state organizer,” Perez told the Huffington Post last week. “It’s a long-term investment.”
In 2004, the last year the DNC rebuilt after an election loss, there was a real argument about whether to focus on long-term state party building or on fundraising. That argument doesn’t exist after 2016 losses at every level of government.
In every swing state, and in former strongholds, Democrats have lost ground in local races since 2008. In 2018, they face a once-in-a-decade chance to elect governors who can stop the next round of gerrymandering, after a devastating 2011 map drawn by Republicans.
The subtext, lost on no DNC member, is that Republicans conquered key territory on President Obama’s watch, hurting the ability of any Obama ally to lead the comeback. Several Democrats who support Ellison pointed to the long tenure of former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who presided over loss after loss with no real effort by the Obama political operation to intervene.
“The DNC has been worthless,” retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said last week in an interview with a radio station in Nevada.
In an interview last week, Ellison complimented the Obama campaign for its “Fight the Smears” project, which he credited with bypassing the media to defeat nasty rumors. That was the extent of his praise.
Ellison, too, had been countering attacks on his personal life, from his youthful praise of Louis Farrakhan to money problems revealed in his 2006 House race. These were the sort of distractions that a forceful party could confront, he said — live streams and social media could get strong Democrats past the “smears” in the media.
In his Huffington Post interview, asked whether Obama “undermined” the DNC by creating an outside political effort in Organizing for America, Perez pivoted to talk about the economic crisis he inherited and argued that Obama “won two elections and was able to win a historic election in 2008.”
In a follow-up question from The Washington Post, Perez said through a spokeswoman that the president had a role to play in rebuilding the party.
“I welcome his support to build an organization that reflects the big tent of the party and his input on how to develop a message of inclusion and opportunity that is at the core of who we are as Democrats,” Perez said. “No one does that better than President Obama, and we will need his support.”
But to some Democrats, who are leaving the Obama years weaker than they entered them, defending the party’s outgoing management means it will never get past the lessons of 2016. That was exposed in Michigan just a few weeks before Ellison arrived.
When the Michigan Democratic Party gathered to select new DNC delegates, supporters of Sanders showed up with leaflets and other campaign gear, and in force. When they tried to enter an in-progress meeting of labor organizers, a camera caught one organizer shoving Sam Pernick, the pro-Sanders chair of the Young Democrats of Michigan. It ended in a criminal complaint and several salt-in-the-wound news stories about a party in disarray.
“We came there to protest a lack of transparency and support Keith Ellison for DNC chair,” Pernick said in a statement. “The reaction from leaders within the party was to violently throw us out of the room.”
Perez, who endorsed Clinton, is viewed warmly by progressives because of his record inside the Labor and Justice departments. Despite that, he’s been viewed warily by Sanders’s supporters, who see him as the status quo candidate. After his first public speech as a candidate, in Texas, a citizen journalist taped Perez’s gauzy answer to a question about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the moldering trade deal he’d supported from inside the Obama administration. The video quickly zipped around pro-Ellison Twitter accounts.
According to Buckley, Democrats had not yet exorcised sore feelings in Michigan from the primaries, which some Sanders supporters viewed as rigged by a pro-Clinton DNC.
“I think that if you add up Jill Stein and Bernie write-in votes, you get to 10,000 in Michigan,” Buckley said. “If only 20 percent of the protest voters were people who couldn’t get over the nominating process, then it mattered. And it’s not just the neutrality issue — it’s joint fundraising, caucuses and superdelegates. There were a number of issues that were out there that caused great strife.
“I don’t think we ever properly addressed them.”
Ellison, who was urged to run by Sanders, has no problem winning the loyalty of those voters. But only a few of them hold the positions — DNC member or state party chair — that will select the next DNC leader. Brandon Dillon, the chair of Michigan’s party, attended Ellison’s town hall and complimented the crowd — but said he was still undecided and had yet to talk to Perez.
“There’s a certain number of people who may only get re-engaged if Keith is chair, but a larger group who want to be active no matter what happens,” Dillon said.
At the town hall, Ellison framed himself as a unity candidate who could get Clinton’s and Sanders’s supporters past the primaries — while adopting what had worked for Sanders. In a pamphlet distributed at his rallies, Ellison promised to change the DNC’s fundraising model so that “low-dollar contributions from everyday Americans account for 33 percent of revenue.”
Ellison raised that standard in his interview with The Post, saying a majority of the DNC’s money should probably come from small donations and the party needed to be ready to reject checks from “foreclosure kings” or other malevolent interests.
A lot of people said, “ ‘No one owns Bernie because he’s funded by the people. No one owns Trump because he funds his own campaign,’ ” Ellison said. “I’m telling you that the Democratic Party must be perceived as funded by the people.”
At his brother’s church, Ellison preached the same point: No matter who Democrats supported in the 2016 primaries, no matter if a voter had bailed on the party to back Trump, Democrats need to turn away from the big-money spigot. Without mentioning Clinton, he described the damage done when Democrats were perceived to be bending policy to curry donations from big banks and corporate interests.
“Once your grass roots is funding the party,” he said, “the lines of accountability run the right way.”