PHOENIX — The men and women who want to lead the Democratic National Committee agreed on a few things here Saturday. No one wanted to change the party’s progressive 2016 platform. No one wanted to enrich the consultant class. And please, please, please: With Donald Trump about to take power, no one wanted to re-fight the 2016 primary.
“This is a ‘where were you?’ moment,” said Thomas Perez, the outgoing labor secretary, kicking off the party’s “future forum,” and referring to the challenge posed by a Trump presidency.
“We need to unify, no matter who we supported in the primary,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), one of the highest-profile supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
“We don’t have time to re-litigate the 2016 primary,” said Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind.
The Phoenix forum, attended by 55 of the DNC’s 437 voting members, marked the official kickoff of a race that had already been roiling for two months. Ellison was endorsed right away by Sanders and by Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), with the implicit hope that he’d keep restive Sanders voters in the party. Perez, who entered the race in December, came with vocal support from swing-state governors and quiet support from the Obama administration.
What unfolded was neither a coronation nor an ideological feud. In addition to Buttigieg, who has pitched himself as the candidate of neither the “Berniecrats” or the party’s establishment, the Democratic race includes Idaho Democratic executive director Sally Boynton Brown; Ray Buckley, the chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party; Jaime Harrison, South Carolina’s chairman; and Jehmu Greene, a media strategist.
None has a commanding lead; all have heard DNC members tell them that they need to read their plans and have a few more conversations.
“The media wants to treat this like a horse race [between Ellison and Perez], but Sally has more DNC member endorsements than Tom,” said Buckley.
The Phoenix forum demonstrated just how much the rival candidates overlapped, with granular pitches to DNC members about how they would help the party rebuild. Every leading candidate proposed a new version of the “50-state strategy,” deployed by former chair Howard Dean to build back party organizations in red states.
Perez, who called states like Texas and Arizona “full-employment programs” for his attorneys in the Department of Labor, promised a more robust voter-protection program that would file suits long before elections to unwind Republican-passed laws. Buckley proposed a halt to candidate-focused joint fundraising agreements in contested primaries — as 2020’s primary will be — and start monthly “victory grants” to states.
Ellison, meanwhile leaned into his support from progressives, holding a Friday night rally where endorsers portrayed him as the race’s revolutionary. Members of National Nurses United, which spent millions on the Sanders campaign, cheered as Ellison denounced the “white supremacy” of Donald Trump and talked about spending more on young voter outreach.
“You know what our budget is for College Democats? Zip, nada,” said Ellison. “Young people say, ‘we’re gonna do it our way,’ and guess what? They might teach us something new.”
While Ellison spoke, just 14 of the 55 members were listening. More were winding through candidate meetings and happy hours, getting pitched one-on-one.
Ellison’s strong identification with Sanders is also no guarantee that he could bring all of the pro-Sanders“Berniecrats” inside the party. In an interview with The Washington Post this week, Sanders said that his campaign donor list, which raised $209 million from more than 2 million people, would not automatically go to the DNC if Ellison won.
“That’s a bridge we’ll have to cross, but I am strongly supporting Keith,” Sanders said. “Everybody obviously wants the list. The people who supported me want progressive candidates. The list becomes corrupted, in a sense, if you start supporting candidates who are not progressive and not willing to take on the establishment.”