The 2017 DNC Chair Election: A Cheat Sheet

Last update: Feb 22, 7:58 p.m.

November 9, 2016 revealed just how weak a Democratic Party without the White House is nationwide. Democrats are completely out of power in 24 states; the party fully controls only five states (Hawaii, Connecticut, California, Oregon, and Rhode Island). State legislatures not only pass impactful legislation—and make nationwide efforts like Obamacare possible or not—but also control redistricting (i.e. gerrymandering). The 2010 midterm “shellacking” gave the GOP control of state legislatures just in time to redraw district lines that have in turn provided a nearly indestructible (and totally unrepresentative) GOP majority in the House of Representatives. Congressional Democrats have barely enough seats to put up a fight against top-to-bottom GOP rule in the federal government.

The DNC is itself fragile. The current DNC Chairperson is Donna Brazile. She took over from Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who resigned after emails stolen from the DNC showed evidence of favoritism towards then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Brazile worked as an analyst for CNN until another batch of stolen emails showed she shared possible moderator questions with the Clinton campaign ahead of a CNN-sponsored primary debate. These revelations, and Clinton’s subsequent defeat against the most unpopular presidential candidate in American history, have made Bernie Sanders and his supporters eager to completely revamp the DNC.

Amid this bleak political landscape, the Democratic National Committee will meet in Atlanta Saturday to elect a new Chairperson. The 447 members of the DNC, mostly party leaders and operatives, will elect the chairperson in a simple majority vote. As of right now, no candidate has secured 224 pledged votes, which means there will likely be more than one round of voting. The new DNC Chairperson will be tasked with rebuilding state-level party apparatuses, preparing for the 2020 presidential election, and will be the face (or at least a face) of Democratic opposition to the Trump administration.

Yet, this DNC Chair election has taken on inflated significance. The Sanders wing of the party has rallied around Keith Ellison, the Minnesota congressman and progressive stalwart, who announced his candidacy within a week of Trump’s victory. He seemed on his way to a sure victory until Obama Labor Secretary Tom Perez announced his candidacy a month later. Perez himself has strong progressive credentials, but that hasn’t stopped some progressives from characterizing him as a status-quo establishment candidate, a charge that is probably unfair to Perez. Perez recently claimed to have 180 pledged votes, which Ellison and Pete Buttigieg, another DNC Char candidate, have publicly doubted. Nonetheless, it doesn’t appear Ellison and Perez are buying into a false dichotomy; the two were spotted talking over dinner in D.C. last week. Their respective campaigns told The Hill that the candidates “talked about cooperation no matter the outcome of the Feb. 25 vote in Atlanta.”

Tonight at 10 p.m. ET, CNN will host a debate in their Atlanta headquarters between “all eight” candidates. (Robert Vinson Brannon is not listed to participate, but there was no news of him dropping out.) Judging from past meetings, ‘forum‘ might prove to be more accurate than a ‘debate.’ Politico has called the race—in rather Trumpian fashion—low on energy, ideas, and imagination. Nonetheless, progressives looking for strong opposition to Republicans are watching closely.

Here’s a look at all the candidates before tonight’s debate:

The Front-Runners (alpha order)

Keith Ellison

Who is he?

Ellison is U.S. Representative for Minnesota’s 5th congressional district. He’s the co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. He’s also one of two Muslims serving in the House.

Big endorsements?

Bernie Sanders, Chuck Schumer, Elizabeth Warren, Representative John Lewis, Former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, and former DNC Chair candidate Ray BuckleyUNITE HERE, a union of culinary and hospitality workers, AFL-CIO, the United Steelworkers, AFSCME President Lee Saunders, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and several other unions. The Nation.

Donald Trump?

Tom Perez

Who is he?

Perez was U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Obama from 2013-2017. Before that, he was the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. Perez is a first-generation Latino; both his parents immigrated from the Dominican Republic.

Big endorsements?

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, former Vice President Joe Biden, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, former Secretary of Health and Human Services and Gov. of Kansas Kathleen Sebelius, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and Gov. of Iowa Tom Vilsack, Former Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.). BOLD PAC, the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf. United Farm Workers, International Association of Fire Fighters, and several other unions.

Dark Horses? (alpha order)

Pete Buttigieg

Who is he?

The 35-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana. He’s in the Navy Reserves and served in Afghanistan. He’s the emerging dark horse in the race.

How do you pronounce his last name?

BOOT-edge-edge.

Big endorsements?

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean endorsed Buttigieg on Wednesday, saying, “Our leadership is old and creaky, including me, and we’ve got to have this guy, 36 years old, running this party. I had dinner with him last night. He is really, really capable and smart.” Dean served as DNC Chair from 2005-2009. Former Maryland governor and 2016 presidential candidate Martin O’Malley endorsed Buttigieg earlier this month.

David Wilhelm, Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign manager and a former DNC Chair, and Joe Andrew, who led the party in the late 1990s, recently told NBC News they were endorsing Buttigieg. Additionally, former Massachusetts State Treasurer Steve Grossman, former Pennsylvania Governor and former DNC Chair Ed Rendell, and former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland have also endorsed him. And he just picked up endorsements from nine Democratic mayors.

Jaime Harrison

Who is he?

Harrison was the first African American elected as Chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, a position he currently holds.

Big endorsements?

Former South Carolina Gov. Don Fowler and former U.S. Secretary of Education and Governor of South Carolina Dick Riley. DNC Members Donald Fowler, Kaye Lingle Koonce, Carol Fowler, and Clay Middleton. Several members of Congress.

Everyone Else (alpha order)

Robert Vinson Brannum

Who is he?

Brannum is the Veterans Committee chair of the NAACP’s Washington, D.C. branch. He is an advocate of D.C. statehood and, apparently, funny bow ties

Big endorsements?

Nope.

Sally Boynton Brown

Who is she?

Brown has been the Executive Director of the Idaho Democratic Party since 2012. She is also the president of the Association of State Democratic Party Executive Directors. She recently made headlines after saying this at a forum last week:

My job is to listen and be a voice, and my job is to shut other white people down when they want to interrupt. My job is to shut other white people down when they want to say ‘Oh no I’m not prejudiced, I’m a Democrat, I’m accepting.’ My job is to make sure that they get that they have privilege and until we shut our mouths and we listen to those people who don’t and we lift our people up so that we all have equity in this country, so that we’re all fighting alongside each other, so that we’re all on the same page and we clearly get where we’re going, we’re not going to break through this.

Big endorsements?

Nope.

Jehmu Greene

Who is she?

She left her job as a Fox News political analyst to run for DNC Chair. She was the Executive Director of Texas Young Democrats and President of Rock The Vote. She is also the daughter of formerly undocumented Liberian immigrants. 

Big endorsements?

Nope—and definitely not from her former colleague Tucker Carlson.

Peter Peckarsky

Who is he?

Peckarsky is an attorney and a self-described “long-time Democratic progressive activist.”

Big endorsements?

Maybe if he were running when Nixon was president

Samuel “Sam” P. Ronan

Who is he?

A 27-year-old Air Force veteran. He ran in 2016 for the Ohio House of Representatives, District 62 General Election. He lost by 50 points.

Big endorsements?

Nope, but he does “love Ellison to death.”

Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post. His email is joshuaalvarezmail@gmail.com.