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Friday, February 24, 2017


Can yellow dogs learn new tricks?

by Tom Sullivan

Midtown Atlanta from Georgia Tech. Photo by Isawooty via Creative Commons.

Saturday, Democrats meeting in Atlanta choose a new chair for the Democratic National Committee. Handicapping seems to make it a tossup between Rep. Keith Ellison (the early favorite) and former labor secretary Tom Perez who entered the race a month after Ellison at the behest of the Obama White House. At the New Republic, Clio Chang quotes a Clinton ally who told The Hill, “Perez and Ellison are cut from the same progressive cloth. Either one would be a strong leader.” That sounds about right. So why urge him to run at all?

Because the difference that makes a difference is over who stands to lose influence inside party ranks:

As Jeff Stein points out at Vox, Sanders supporters are likely overstating the power of the DNC chair. But that is all the more reason to throw them a win. If an Ellison victory is a modest, symbolic concession, the upside is that Democrats will signal to progressive and younger voters, who Democrats will be desperate to turn out in 2018 and 2020, that they are on their side. It would be a choice of utmost pragmatism.

But members of the Democratic establishment don’t quite see it that way. The Hill reports, “Perez supporters have expressed concern about handing the party over to the Sanders wing of the party, arguing that Ellison would move the party too far to the left.” And the New York Times suggests that Democratic leaders pushed Perez to run because they viewed Ellison as too close to the Sanders wing.


And it’s not just Obama- and Clinton-ites that could see some power slip away with an Ellison-headed DNC. Paid DNC consultants also have a vested interest in maintaining the DNC status quo. Nomiki Konst, who has extensively covered the nuts and bolts of the DNC race, asked Perez how he felt about conflicts of interest within the committee—specifically, DNC members who also have contracts with the committee. Perez dodged the issue, advocating for a “big tent.” In contrast, in a forum last month, Ellison firmly stated, “We are battling the consultant-ocracy.”

These concerns about power, control, and money echo of the dismal failures of 2008, when top Democratic operatives decided to fold Obama’s online grassroots behemoth, Organizing for America, into the DNC. The story is infamous now: Party regulars wanted to ensure control of the group, rather than allowing it to flourish as an independent entity, one that could challenge the party itself. The muzzling of Obama’s grassroots support has been blamed for being partly responsible for the Democratic Party’s enormous losses in state and local seats over the past decade. Chris Edley, who pushed for OFA’s independence, told the New Republic recently about the choice, “If you’re not really that committed, as a matter of principle, to a bottom-up theory of change, then you will find it nonsensical to cede some control in order to gain more power.”
At issue now is whether party leaders who squandered the opportunity Obama's army of volunteers represented are the ones to fill in the hole they helped dig. A Republican operative quoted in "Crashing the Gate" said, "I don't get it. When a consultant on the Republican side loses, we take them out and shoot them. You guys -- keep hiring them." Killing off OFA, Micha Sifry wrote at New Republic, was "a sin of imagination, one that helped decimate the Democratic Party at the state and local level and turn over every branch of the federal government to the far right." Is it time to turn the page?

Fear of an emergent grassroots movement is a familiar story in North Carolina. This one goes back a dozen years, but could have been written yesterday.

Jerry Meek, a tall, unmarried attorney in his early thirties, won his race for state chair over the opposition of virtually the entire state party establishment. He told Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong what he did in "Crashing the Gate" (2006):
Meek had won an upset victory in early 2005 over Ed Turlington, the former state cochairman of local-boy John Edwards' presidential campaign with John Kerry. Turlington not only had Edwards' and the state's entire congressional delegation's blessing to become state party chairman, but also the governor's, the state legislative leaders', and all but one statewide elected official. "Pretty much every single elected Democrat in North Carolina supported my opponent," Meek told us. Yet he won by bringing together a coalition of party activists that had been ignored.

"It was a weird mixture. It was part conservative, rural, and part very liberal urban progressive, and both of them felt the state party had excluded them," Meek said. "The rural people felt like the state party was the party that just invested in the urban areas and had an interest in the urban areas. The urban progressives felt like the state party they ignored them because of their philosophical perspective on politics."

And echoing the same sentiment we find in most components of the new movement, Meek was more interested in building a big tent party than in ideology. "I put together really two coalitions that ordinarily could not coexist in the same room, which made it tricky because during the campaign I never talked about issues-I never talked about whether I'm liberal or moderate or conservative. I just talked about the insiders versus the outsiders. I talked about the need to have a party that embraced everybody and that included people in the decision-making process. And that's what both sides were looking for. And they came together and created a majority."
Meek mobilized the marginalized and out-organized the "power" players. Although he had served as a state party officer, party stalwarts were horrified at Meek's effrontery. How dare he run against the governor's choice? Why, he was too young. He was too liberal. It would be the end the Democratic Party in North Carolina. "And you know," one party doyen whispered to me, "he's gay." (Which today might make his wife and kids roll their eyes.) As candidate and as chair, the "too liberal" Meek worked the state in his pickup, delivering grassroots support and training to state counties. In 2008 with Meek at the helm, North Carolina went blue for the first time since 1976.

In 2016, as in 2008, the fate of another grassroots army hangs in the balance. Indivisible, Our Revolution, and other groups are looking beyond mere engagement. The DNC chair contest Saturday is about more than just control. It is about direction, conviction, and about courage. A skittish party establishment reflexively clutches ever harder at what control it thinks it still has rather than embrace new energy at a time when it has little left to lose. Since I've been involved, "savvy," centrist Democrats have perpetually second guessed themselves, asking, "But if we fight for [fill in your progressive policy here], what will the Republicans do (to hurt us) at election time?" As if Republicans would leave them alone if they don't stick their necks out. As if they would run out of lies to deploy and hit Democrats over the head with facts instead.

No guts is not a good look for a party asking to lead the last superpower. People aren't going to vote for the abused spouse party. Democrats need to be showing voters, including millions taking to the streets, that they have the courage of their convictions and will fight for them. Let Republicans worry about themselves.

I used to love when the small liberal arts school I attended played football against bigger teams like Clemson. They had nothing to prove. They were expected to lose. Yet they would play their hearts out, use their heads, rise to the challenge, and play above their usual level. Sometimes against opponents a full head taller. It was as glorious as cheering for Rocky that very first time. That's what American voters want to see. That's who they want to vote for. Recklessness is a fault, but always playing it safe is not what leadership and heart looks like. And it is not what the times call for now. Legacy Democrats who call themselves "yellow dogs" risk being seen as just yellow. The question tomorrow and going forward is whether they capitalize on and not squander the opportunity before them. Can their party still learn new tricks?