The Wrong (and Right) Conversation to Have About DNC Chair

Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman suggest that they have the inside scoop on a battle taking place within Democratic circles over the election of the next chair of the DNC. With unnamed sources providing most of the content they rely on, it’s hard to judge whether or not their characterization of the disagreement is correct. I usually take these sorts of gossipy insider stories with a grain of salt.

With that said, what Martin and Haberman suggest is a leadership fight is underway that pits the west wing against the left wing. From the former they describe members of the Obama administration backing someone like Labor Secretary Tom Perez and the latter has the Warren-Sanders wing of the party promoting Rep. Keith Ellison (R-MN). They cast that as a proxy for the differences that arose in the Democratic presidential primary between Clinton and Sanders.

That is the wrong conversation to be having about who to elect as the next DNC chair, if for no other reason than it creates a divide at the exact moment when unity should be the primary concern.

I’m not suggesting that a robust discussion of who should lead the party is something that should be avoided. But simply making it about the difference of a few degrees on a political continuum is not the point. Both Ellison and Perez are progressives with strong records to demonstrate their commitment to the issues that Democrats care about.

The discussion should instead be about the skills various candidates bring to the table on instituting the kinds of reforms that are necessary within the organization and, even more importantly, that promote the ability of the Party to do its job – which is to organize support at the local, state and national level for Democratic candidates.

On that front, one of the people I admire and respect, DNC vice-chair R.T. Rybak, wrote this is support of Rep. Keith Ellison:

More a community organizer than a politician, Keith has used every campaign to protect every voter’s rights, expand our party’s base, include those left behind and elevate new leaders…

Keith is a hands-on, grassroots leader who I have seen first-hand many times actively working with, and fighting for, those most in need. While he represents an urban-suburban district, he has actively worked in communities around our state.

What is lacking in this endorsement is any reference to Ellison’s skills at managing an organization that is in need of reform. That is something that should require further exploration.

Regular readers here might remember that I have always been impressed with Labor Secretary Tom Perez. During President Obama’s first term, he served as the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Division. In that capacity, he took on the challenging task of reforming a division that had been decimated and politicized during the Bush presidency. As Secretary of Labor, Perez has received many accolades as well.

His ability to promulgate a clearinghouse of policy proposals that have been on union and labor advocate wish lists since as far back as the Carter administration has led some of his allies in the labor movement to call him the most important U.S. labor secretary since Frances Perkins, who, under Franklin Roosevelt, implemented the trailblazing federal labor laws of the 1930s that still make up much of our framework to this day…

An institutional ball of energy, Perez comes to meetings armed with data, facts, and ideas, but he aims to listen more than speak. He is a quick study; a wonk able to quickly grasp the granular details of an issue and their potential consequences, but also zoom out and see the big picture. “He has a real curiosity, which is very good in a leader. In all my interactions with him, I’ve never felt like he’s come in to just make a speech and leave. He’s really wanted to engage people and ask a lot of questions,” says Sarita Gupta, head of the worker advocacy organization Jobs With Justice. “It’s never the Tom Perez show.”

It is these kinds of skills that members of the committee should consider as they make their choice.

The one issue raised by Martin and Haberman that deserves consideration is the nature of the time commitment a candidate can make to the job. Not only is it preferable to have someone working as party chair full-time, there are potential pitfalls to having someone serve in the position who is currently a member of Congress where they are also representing the constituency that elected them. That might not be determinative, but it is something to consider.

I’m very well aware of the fact that these kinds of elections often hinge more on power plays and politics. But at this point in time, it is especially important that the Democrats pick someone who can not only do the job, but do it well. If it comes down to a choice between Ellison and Perez, there is a lot of evidence that both of them have the capacity to do that.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.