BALTIMORE — On Saturday afternoon, Thomas Perez, the former secretary of labor running to chair the Democratic National Committee, told his supporters to be proud of the unifying race they had run.
“We have existential threats. We are a united Democratic Party,” Perez told organizers who had just finished their boxed lunches. “It’s so disappointing for some in the media, because there’s no chair-throwing. Nobody’s going to ask you about the size of your hands.”
Moments later, when Perez went outside to talk to DNC members, a supporter of Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) hounded him. As reporters watched, and staffers delicately blocked his path to Perez, the man shouted about an appearance in Kansas where Perez had accidentally called the 2016 primary “rigged,” accusing the candidate of “lying” to pander to supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Saturday’s “future forum” was the last DNC gathering before Feb. 25, when Democrats will gather in Atlanta to elect new leaders. Over six public debates and a stream of TV interviews, the leading candidates had found themselves in combative agreement, arguing for a party that invests more in every state, disagreeing only about who should get them there.
The meeting here did not resolve that and showcased how the elongated race has delayed the final reckoning over the party’s 2016 primary result and the test of whether Democrats can channel the protests against President Trump breaking out every weekend.
“We cannot move forward if we continue to swim in this quicksand of anger,” said Yvette Lewis, a former Maryland Democratic Party chair and current DNC member. “That anger needs to be directed at Donald Trump.”
Perez, who is seen to have built a small lead in the race, had hit a tripwire while trying to calm nerves. In his speeches to local Democrats, and listening sessions in places where the party had lost badly, he had taken to saying that the 2015-era DNC unfairly scheduled late debates to benefit Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, but that the primary itself was fair. At one appearance, in Kansas, he had been unclear about what was “rigged,” but he had cleaned it up on Twitter.
That nonetheless started a round of commentary and angry social media, behavior that has worn down DNC members. One reason that relatively few of them have made public endorsements is angst about being hounded by calls and emails from supporters of Ellison, Sanders’s choice for the job — an echo of the long summer of 2016, when Sanders supporters badgered the DNC members whose superdelegate status theoretically gave them the right to deny Clinton the nomination.
The long-lasting bitterness has exhausted some Democrats, who simply want a chair in place. “In some sense, having 17 people run for president in 2016 was better than having two people,” said Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy (D), who like most elected Democrats endorsed Clinton. “What we ended up having was this long, drawn-out race that — unintentionally — ended up isolating people.”
But for some DNC members, the intensity of the post-election progressive movement has cooled off fears that rejecting Ellison would lead to Sanders supporters staying outside of the party. Winnie Wong, an Occupy Wall Street veteran and Sanders organizer who helped write the principles for the Women’s March on Washington and its sister marches, said at a Baltimore rally for Ellison that the DNC race’s outcome mattered less than some people thought, as Democrats were scrambling to get behind the movement.
“It doesn’t matter who is elected,” Wong said. “The movement’s really the thing that’s going to transform our democracy. Even [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer is whipped — in the best way. That happened because of the grass roots.”
At his rally, and at the debate itself, Ellison commanded larger crowds of supporters than Perez but repeatedly refused to portray him as a threat to the grass roots.
“We are all friends up here,” he said. “When Tom was secretary of labor, I had no better friend. There was no better advocate.”
That attitude allowed the final “future forum” to tackle a more universally disliked opponent: the old, defeated Democratic Party. Each candidate, and many outspoken DNC members, trashed the national party under former President Barack Obama for relying too heavily on data and creating overlapping campaign groups.
“I love and adore everything about President Obama except for OFA,” said South Carolina Democratic chairman Jaime Harrison, criticizing Organizing for America, which has rebooted to drive turnout at congressional town halls.
“I’ve been a vice chair, and I don’t know what the hell is going on in this party any more than you,” said New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman Ray Buckley.
At the final gathering of the DNC’s leadership candidates before their election, there was no discussion of whether the party’s progressive platform needed to change or had alienated voters. The party’s wipeout in states was blamed on farming out to consultants, and a Clinton campaign that had pivoted from economic messaging to a character attack on Trump.
Perez himself got one more chance to tackle whether the 2016 primary had been slanted, and what the party needed to do to prevent another, embittering contest. There was no confusion this time.
“We need to set the primary debate schedule long in advance,” Perez said, “so there can be no doubt that someone is trying to put their thumb on the scales of justice.”