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Democrats reject climate debate push from activists

The move drew rebukes from the Sunrise Movement and other activists who say the party leadership is ignoring young voters' priorities.
Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, speaks on stage Friday during the group's summer meeting in San Francisco, where it voted Saturday against a 2020 Democratic presidential primary debate devoted to climate.JOSH EDELSON / AFP - Getty Images

SAN FRANCISCO — The Democratic National Committee on Saturday quashed a push from climate activists and some national party members who want a 2020 presidential primary debate devoted exclusively to the climate crisis.

The national party committee voted 222-137 at its summer meeting in San Francisco against a resolution that effectively would have rolled back debate rules set by Chairman Tom Perez and freed presidential candidates to participate in a climate-only debate.

The move drew rebukes from the Sunrise Movement and other activists who say the party leadership is ignoring young voters' priorities.

"The Democratic Party needs the energy and motivation of young people to win in 2020," said Evan Weber, Sunrise Movement political director. "The energy around this issue has been incredibly clear, yet Tom Perez keeps shooting the party in the foot by rejecting that energy and turning it away."

Perez has said throughout the primary campaign that he opposes making any of the party's official debates revolve around a single issue. Perez said this week in San Francisco that he wants the widest possible audiences for primetime debates, with voters getting to see candidates address a full range of issues.

And he'd barred candidates from participating in any non-party event where candidates would appear on the same stage at the same time. An influential party committee had voted Thursday effectively to "encourage" candidates to ignore that rule. The vote Saturday by the full party committee struck down that language.

Perez has encouraged candidates to participate in issue-specific forums that don't involve multiple candidates being on the same stage together. CNN, for example, has planned a climate forum in September, with at least 10 candidates expected to appear individually and discuss climate policy in-depth. Powerful organizations such as the National Education Association and the AFL-CIO already have hosted such events focused on their policy priorities.

Perez aides also noted this week that he's gotten requests from different interest groups requesting full-fledged debates on civil rights, guns, poverty and issues affecting older Americans.

The wrangling this week came in the wake of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee ending his presidential bid that he'd hinged on a pledge to make climate action the nation's top priority. Inslee was able to attract more than 130,000 individual donors — the mark the DNC set as one qualifying metric for the September debate stage. But Inslee was well shy of an additional requirement to hit 2% support in at least four national or early nominating state polls from reputable pollsters.

Inslee had repeatedly called on Perez to dedicate a DNC-sponsored debate to climate action.