The fight for chair of the Democratic National Committee is supposed to be a titanic proxy battle between the mainstream party forces of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and the troops of the great left insurgency behind the 2016 presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. It’s allegedly personified in the face-off between Labor Secretary Tom Perez, an accomplished, admired progressive allied with Obama and Clinton, vs. Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, a respected Progressive Caucus chair who backed Sanders early, then became a conciliatory force pulling the Clinton and Sanders wings together once Clinton won the primary.
But at a debate sponsored by The Huffington Post in Washington, DC, Wednesday night, 36 hours before Donald Trump’s inauguration, all seven candidates rejected that polarizing premise. It’s a diverse and well-qualified group. There are two red-state party leaders, Idaho Democratic Party Executive Director Sally Boynton-Brown and South Carolina party chair Jaime Harrison, plus a red-state mayor, Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana (that’s pronounced “Buddha-judge,” not “booty-gig,” as I’d been enjoying saying it). Respected New Hampshire party chair Ray Buckley touts his state’s solid performance for both Clinton and Obama, and in electing all Democratic women to their congressional delegation. Latecomer to the field Jehmu Greene, a longtime party activist who once ran Rock the Vote, told the story of being trained and mentored by the DNC, then disillusioned when it lost its grassroots organizing focus, she said.
All seven came out swinging—against Donald Trump. Perez got the biggest hand of the evening when he said Democrats should “hit him between the eyes with a two-by-four and treat him like [Senate majority leader] Mitch McConnell treated Barack Obama.” Asked whether Democrats could, and should, work with Trump, Ellison said he saw no grounds. “He’s already shown us where he stands. He put Steve Bannon in the White House, who is a renowned white supremacist and a misogynist. He has already started to institute a right-wing program. So we have to fight.”
But the seven rivals didn’t fight with one another, even on issues that could have been divisive. Ryan Grim asked how many thought Democratic megadonor (and Israel backer) Haim Saban should apologize for calling Ellison—whose youthful but long-severed ties with the Nation of Islam have been an issue to some moderates—”an anti-Semite” and saying he wouldn’t donate to the DNC if he becomes chair. All but Greene raised their hands. “Keith is a great guy,” Harrison said. “I don’t believe that there’s an anti-Semitic bone in his body.” (Later Ellison would return the favor, defending Harrison against attacks based on his work as a lobbyist, calling him “one of the best men I’ve ever met.”) Greene said she didn’t raise her hand on the Saban issue because she thought it was a “gotcha question” designed to “divide our funders from our leaders.”
Funding was a big topic in the debate, but again the candidates sought to elide, not accentuate, their differences. Ellison made a little news when he agreed, for the first time, to ask Sanders to make available his colossal fundraising list to the DNC. “We’re gonna call on everybody to give all the resources they have,” he told the crowd. “We’re in an emergency situation.” Of course Ellison can ask; that’s not the same as Sanders, who’s endorsed the Minnesota congressman’s bid to be chair, agreeing to do so.