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What Saturday's Election for Chair of the Democratic National Committee Means for the Democratic Party

By Dustin Rowles | Politics | February 21, 2017 |

By Dustin Rowles | Politics | February 21, 2017 |

To be honest, I’ve never paid that much attention to who the chair of the DNC is, because I never really thought it mattered that much. I barely even knew who Debbie Wasserman Schultz was until the DNC hack revealed information that would eventually lead to her resignation. I know that Howard Dean was once the DNC Chair, as was Tim Kaine, and Terry McAuliffe.

I think, however, that who is selected as DNC Chair will probably mean a lot more this year than in most years, because the Democratic Party is at a weird crossroads. While we are seemingly united against a common enemy — Donald Trump — the direction of the party is still unclear. The two men running for DNC Chair essentially reflect the two sides of the progressive wing of party.

This is a really simplified analysis that fails to account for much nuance, but basically Tom Perez — the establishment candidate backed by President Obama (Perez was Secretary of Labor) — symbolically represents the continuation of the policies of Obama and Hillary Clinton, while Keith Ellison — who is endorsed by Bernie — more reflects the economic policies of Sanders.

The truth is: They’re both grass-roots progressives who represent an increasingly diverse party (Perez is Hispanic; Ellison is the nation’s first elected Muslim Congressman) and both have done exemplary work in the past, but the race isn’t really about the two men vying for the DNC Chair, it’s about whether we want to reshape the Democratic Party under Perez, or blow it up and rebuild it under Ellison.

Perez is the safe choice. With him, we think: Hillary won the election by 3 million votes; we picked up a few seats on Congress (and whole hell of a lot more votes than Republicans, but thanks to gerrymandering, didn’t pick up as many seats as we should have) and with the country growing ever-more diverse, it’s only a matter of time before the Democrats push ahead. We need to make some tweaks, but we also need to stay on course.

With Ellison, it’s more like: F*ck it. It hasn’t been working. Clinton got beat. The Dems are still the minority party despite having the numbers, and we need to shake things up. Ellison brings in a more progressive, outsider perspective, one trained on attacking Wall Street and better redistributing wealth.

Ellison was considered the favorite after the election — and he may still be — but since the election, other priorities have come to the fore, namely: Maintaining our civil rights, preventing the repeal of Obamacare, and stopping our President from becoming a dictator. In recent weeks, Bernie has been kind of tone deaf on those issues. ICE is picking up out-of-status immigrants and deporting them; Muslims have been prevented from coming into the country; and Trump has been cozying up to the Russians, and Bernie is still prattling on about Wall Street. Meanwhile, mostly by virtue of staying out of the limelight, Hillary has regained some popularity, and seems to better reflect the party’s attempts to cater to particular demographics, sometimes at the expense of the white working class, the very demographic that cost her the election. The white working class was more receptive to Bernie, but would they still be if that message was being delivered by a Muslim?

The truth is, I have no idea which is the best approach. After the election, I would have said Keith Ellison is a shoo-in, but Bernie’s message — and by extension, Ellison’s — has quieted. Meanwhile, Ellison himself has run into some controversy because of his past support of the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan, seen as anti-Semitic by many. In a few interviews I’ve heard with Ellison, he hasn’t actually helped his case in that regard — he doesn’t have a well articulated defense of those past associations, and for some goddamn reason, he won’t say the words antisemitic or Jew, and a lot of friends of mine in the Jewish community have taken notice. (His attempts to defend himself from those accusations in an NPR interview was kind of a disaster).

On the other hand, the more time we spend with Trump, the better President Obama — and Hillary Clinton — look by contrast, and I’m just not sure that Ellison and Bernie’s economic message resonates as much as Obama/Perez’s pro-Democracy message. However, Ellison still reflects the outsider perspective, one that I am craving. But will that perspective lead to more seats in Congress, or will it backfire?

Personally, I am leaning toward Perez, because he has the Obama endorsement, and while Obama had some issues — chief of which was an inability to rally supporters for down-ballot candidates — I still trust the man’s wisdom.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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