Tight Race For DNC Chair Narrows Ahead Of Weekend Vote

Feb 24, 2017
Originally published on February 24, 2017 9:32 am

On the eve of the vote for the next chair of the Democratic National Committee, the crowded field is thinning out.

South Carolina Democratic Chair Jaime Harrison dropped out of the race Thursday and endorsed former Labor Secretary Tom Perez. The move comes days after another candidate, New Hampshire Democratic Chair Ray Buckley, exited the race and threw his support to Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota.

The two withdrawals surely add to Perez and Ellison's vote totals and solidify the two as the front-runners to be the next head of the Democratic Party. Both claim substantial support among the 447 DNC members who will vote for the position on Saturday morning in Atlanta, though neither is predicting a first-ballot majority.

There are still seven candidates, though South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is the long shot with the best chance. He's made some waves during the race's final days, getting endorsements from former DNC chairs like Howard Dean and Ed Rendell.

Even with all the last-minute jockeying, the race has a cordial and complimentary vibe, with candidates all but falling over themselves to agree with each other at its many public forums and debates.

"We're all friends up here," Ellison said during a recent candidate forum. "We like each other. We respect each other."

"This is a conversation among siblings as to who should lead the party," Perez recently told Politico.

But if the contest seems breezy, its backdrop does not. Democrats are still reeling from a presidential loss that hardly any party officials saw coming. The party has shed hundreds of statehouse seats over the previous decade, and it is in the minority in both the House and Senate.

On top of that, the DNC has effectively been in a holding pattern since mid-2016, when WikiLeaks published internal emails that led to the ouster of DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The emails were likely stolen and provided to WikiLeaks by Russian hackers, according to the CIA and other federal intelligence agencies.

Most of the candidates are vowing to borrow a page from former DNC Chair Howard Dean and spend time and money organizing the party across the country — not just in coastal states where Democrats have solidified their support in recent years.

Many agree the party needs to improve its messaging, especially when it comes to economic issues. "When Donald Trump says, 'I'm going to bring those coal jobs back,' we know that's a lie, but people understand that he feels their pain," Perez said at a recent forum. "And our response was, vote for us because he's crazy. I'll stipulate to that, but that's not a message."

While the candidates are taking pains to appear united — Perez and Ellison were recently photographed having dinner together — many are viewing the DNC race as a proxy for last year's divided presidential primary season.

Much of the party's establishment wing is backing Perez. While former President Barack Obama has stayed out of the race, Perez has been endorsed by close Obama allies like former Vice President Joe Biden and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Ellison, on the other hand, touted an early endorsement by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and he has attracted support from the more liberal, grass-roots activists in the Democratic Party.

This has been the main narrative of the unusually drawn-out race, but it's not quite that simple. For one thing, Ellison has also been endorsed by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, an establishment figure.

The eventual winner will have a lot on his or her plate. In addition to fundraising and reorganizing the DNC, the chair will likely function as one of the party's top surrogates in the media. Howard Dean views something else as the winner's most important job: "coordinating the tremendous rush of young people who are interested in the process, and really weren't much before."

Democrats in all levels of office are processing how to respond to the surge of motivated — and often angry — liberals who have taken to the streets and filled Republican congressional town halls. Engaging those folks in the political process and steering them to the polls in future elections will likely be the key to success for Saturday's winner.

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The Democratic Party is in search of a leader. Now, often, that means finding the next inspirational figure to run as a presidential nominee. But in their current state, Democrats are beginning with electing someone to chair the Democratic National Committee, which has seen a fair amount of upheaval over the past year. Party officials vote in Atlanta. And NPR's Scott Detrow is there right now. Scott, good morning.


GREENE: So a whole lot of candidates have been running for this job. We've heard from many of them on this program. What are the differences between them?

DETROW: Well, you know, it's hard to tell at times because many of the candidates are just agreeing with each other so much. Still, a lot of people are viewing this race as a proxy for last year's primary. You have the grassroots, more liberal and activist wing of the party that backed Bernie Sanders. Then you have the establishment wing that was with Hillary Clinton and, before that, Barack Obama.

And if you take that view, Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison is the grassroots candidate. He did get really early support from Bernie Sanders. And former Labor Secretary Tom Perez has the backing of Obama allies like Joe Biden and Eric Holder. So those guys are the two main contenders right now in a seven-person field.

And I think another candidate to keep an eye on who could be a dark horse tomorrow is South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. He's seen as a future leader of the party. And he's gotten some big endorsements, too - especially Howard Dean, who endorsed him a few days ago.

GREENE: Yeah. We heard from him on the show. He was talking about his strength being the fact that he is an outsider and the fact that he doesn't have much Washington experience. This race, Scott, has been going on for a long time now. We were talking to some of these people, you know, just after the election about how the party can reconnect with working-class voters. Has much changed since then?

DETROW: Yeah, and the race feels especially long because so much has changed politically since November...

GREENE: Yeah, really.

DETROW: ...A lot. It was pretty static until the last week or so, when it's changed a lot. Yesterday, you had one of the candidates drop out. That was South Carolina party chair Jaime Harrison. He now says he's endorsing Tom Perez. And that happened a few days after another candidate and another party chair, Ray Buckley from New Hampshire, left the race. And Buckley endorsed Ellison.

So those two moves really solidify Perez and Ellison as the top contenders here. Their camps are both claiming - and most observers watching this agree - that, going into Saturday, they have way more votes than anybody else running.

GREENE: Let's meet some of them. Let's hear from some of what they've told us on the program. And it has been remarkable that they've been pushing basically the same message.


TOM PEREZ: When Donald Trump says, I'm going to bring those coal jobs back, we know that's a lie. But people understand that he feels their pain.


KEITH ELLISON: We've got to build a durable relationship of trust with voters around the things that they are most concerned about.


PETE BUTTIGIEG: We've got to be talking about what our values actually are and what the policies are that flow from them.


SALLY BOYNTON BROWN: And we need to make sure that everything that we're doing then promotes our values. And I think we've been out of alignment for a while.

GREENE: That was Sally Boynton Brown there - also Pete Buttigieg, Keith Ellison and Tom Perez. Scott, I mean, they all seem to be saying the challenge is the same for the party here.

DETROW: Yeah. And, I mean, when you think about it, the Democrats - they are in the minority at all levels of government, state government, the House, the Senate, the White House. So there's a lot of work for this DNC chair to do. A lot of that is messaging, also raising a lot of money for the party and serving as a key face for Democrats going forward. Whoever wins this will have a lot of work on their plate.

GREENE: OK. And, briefly, how does this vote actually work tomorrow, Scott?

DETROW: A lot of rounds of voting in a hotel room in Atlanta. You have to get a majority of 447 votes. And they keep voting until somebody clears that majority. So it could take a while.

GREENE: And you're in Atlanta, and you will be covering this tomorrow. That is NPR's Scott Detrow, covering the race for chair of the Democratic National Committee. Thanks, Scott.

DETROW: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.