Tension in DNC Chair Race Comes From Outside – Not Inside – The Party

Image: Supporters of Rep. Keith Ellison and former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, candidates for Democratic National Committee Chairman, speak to each other during a Democratic National Committee forum in Baltimore, Maryland
Supporters (L) of Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) and former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, candidates for Democratic National Committee Chairman, speak to each other during a Democratic National Committee forum in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S. February 11, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua RobertsJOSHUA ROBERTS / Reuters

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By Mark Murray and Alex Seitz-Wald

BALTIMORE – A largely unspoken truth about the race to be the Democratic National Committee’s next chairman is that the major candidates agree on almost all the issues –at least the ones relevant to the job they’re pursuing.

After all, the job of DNC chair is operational, not ideological. And while everything from Israel policy to the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal have sparked debates in this race, the prescriptions the candidates have offered for actually running the machinery of the Democratic Party are largely interchangeable.

They want to reinstate a 50-state strategy, focus more on organizing, establish greater transparency at the DNC and heal the wounds from the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries.

Another truth: Many of the 447 DNC members who get to cast a vote for chairman later this month will be pleased if any of the frontrunners, especially Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) or former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, ends up winning.

"At the end of the day, we will all be satisfied," says DNC member Jason Rae of Wisconsin, who is running to be the party’s secretary and who is undecided in the DNC chair race. "We just have to pick one.”

Instead, most of the tension in the race is coming from Democrats and progressives outside the candidate field and DNC party membership, whoview the contest as another proxy fight between Bernie Sandersand the so-called Democratic establishment, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

This contrast was evident here on Saturday as the candidates gathered to participate in yet another forum ahead of the upcoming February 25 vote in Atlanta: As the candidates stressed unity from the stage — "Everybody else is awesome. We're going to hang together after this,” Ellison said of his rivals – their supporters in the audience did not.

"If they put in Tom Perez, it will splinter the party… It will drain the energy right out of the party," said Ellison backer George Ripley, who drove up from Washington, D.C. to speak out against Perez.

“It is the establishment that got us into this mess,” Ripley added. “I am fighting for Bernie Sanders.”

Sanders himself even criticized the party’s “failed status-quo approach” after former Vice President Joe Biden endorsed Perez for DNC chairman. “Do we stay with a failed status-quo approach or do we go forward with a fundamental restructuring of the Democratic Party?” Sanders said in a statement earlier this month. “I say we go forward and create a grassroots party which speaks for working people and is prepared to stand up to the top 1 percent. That’s why we have to support Keith Ellison."

On the other side, pastor Traci Blackmon of Missouri exhorted the DNC audience in Baltimore to come together as a party. “We must not put our personal preferences and hurts in front of the cause,” she said of the DNC chair race. “We must not allow our hurt feelings to get in the way of the movement.”

And during the candidate forum, a few audible voices – ostensibly Ellison supporters – heckled Perez when he took a nuanced position on "superdelegates,” the Democratic officials who can vote however they please on the party’s presidential nominees.

That outburst sparked a question from DNC member Yvette Lewis of Maryland: “How do we get past that?” she asked the candidates. “That anger needs to be directed at Donald Trump, not anyone [on] that stage.”

Perez responded with open arms to any detractors. “The way we move forward as a party is to remind ourselves what our values are,” he said, observing that all of the candidates on the stage want the Democratic Party to be the party of inclusion and opportunity.

Ellison agreed. “We are all friends up here,” he said. “This is a family meeting.”

Indeed, the answers from the 10 candidates on the stage – whether major ones or minor ones – rarely differed.

“Everything we do must be transparent,” Perez said, talking about any rule changes the party makes to its presidential-selection process.

“It is time to step up,” Ellison added. “We need all of this energy.”

“We’ve got to recognize that we’ve got to show up everywhere,” said South Bend, Ind.,Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

“We need someone who is a builder … someone who is an organizer,” said South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison.

“We did not offer a positive message [in 2016],” said New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Raymond Buckley. “We did not offer a message to my neighbors.”

“How do we strengthen our home to be a welcoming place for the resistance?” added Fox News commentatorJehmu Greene, another candidate for DNC chair.

Despite those similar messages from the candidates, the division among supporters in the audience was real.

Robert Vinson Brannum, a lesser-known DNC chair candidate from Washington, D.C., stated on the stage that Democrats lost in 2016 because too many of their voters booed – but didn’t vote. And he said some of those people were in the room.

Candidates like Buttigieg, the 35-old mayor, have been trying to cast themselves as a compromise between the Ellison and Perez factions – to move beyond last year’s Clinton/Obama-vs.-Sanders fights.

“I didn’t love living through the 2016 primary the first time, and I don’t want to live it a second time,” Buttigieg told the DNC audience.