The Fake Factional War Over the DNC Chair

Back in March 2013, when rumors first emerged that the newly reelected President Obama might nominate Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez to be his second term Secretary of Labor, he wasn’t a household name. But a lot of labor leaders knew who he was and they energetically endorsed him. The main reason for this was that he had served under Governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland as the head of that state’s Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation.

As Adam Serwer reported for Mother Jones at the time, Perez had pleased labor leaders by going after “employers who were dodging overtime pay, benefits, and taxes by classifying employees as independent contractors.” His efforts resulted in a new law in 2009 that set down new rules and stiff fines. Maryland AFL-CIO chief Fred Mason said, “This is someone who understands the relationship between worker rights and human rights.” The headline of Serwer’s piece was: A Labor Secretary Pick Progressives Will Love—and Republicans Will Hate.

Republican Senator Chuck Grassley hated him more for the work he’d done at the Justice Department.

But Perez has made political enemies, too. Chief among them is Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Senate judiciary committee, who has been harshly critical of the civil rights division’s aggressive approach. The politicization of the civil rights division in the Bush era has been well documented, but Grassley accused Perez and the current division of similar behavior. Grassley signed a 2010 letter to Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) accusing the division of “widespread politicization and possible corruption” related to the discredited allegations regarding the New Black Panther Party. In 2011, Grassley complained that too many new hires at the civil rights division had previously worked for “liberal advocacy groups,” by which he meant civil rights organizations.

Our own Nancy LeTourneau has written on more than one occasion about the amazing turnaround at the DOJ’s Civil Rights division under Tom Perez. For example, back in March 2015, she noted that:

Some people might remember how that division was corrupted during the Bush/Cheney administration. Everything about the division became politicized – including hirings, firings and prosecutions…

…What we see is that on at least two issues that are of primary importance in maintaining civil rights in this country – voting rights and investigating police misconduct – the Executive branch of our government purposefully dropped the ball.

All of that changed with the Obama administration…

…[Perez’s] talk was backed up by plenty of walk. It all began with the Civil Rights Division hiring attorneys with actual civil rights experience. The Division has been aggressive in defending voting rights and investigating police misconduct…the Civil Rights Division of DOJ started an investigation of the Cleveland Police Department more than a year before Tamir Rice was killed.

Progressives, therefore, were largely enthusiastic about the idea of Tom Perez heading the Labor Department. I include myself in that group. You can see me celebrating here Tom Perez’s successful effort to pry money out of SunTrust for the “racial surtax” they charged blacks who sought home loans.

Somewhere along the line, though, a segment of the progressive community decided that Tom Perez is not their ally. And now a narrative has developed that he’s an actual enemy of progressives and his election over the weekend as the new head of the Democratic National Committee is some kind of defeat for progressives. Prominent in pushing this narrative is Matt Bruenig who wrote an essay after the vote declaring that “The establishment wing has made it very clear that they will do anything and everything to hold down the left faction.”

Now, I could spend a lot of time trashing Matt Bruenig rather than his argument, but I’ll simply note the basic biographical information about him that you need to know. He was fired last year from the lefty think tank Demos for being a jerk on Twitter. Specifically, he attacked Hillary Clinton supporters Joan Walsh and Neera Tanden in very personal terms, calling them “geriatric.” He’s been described as an “incisive poverty analyst” as well as “widely admired for his work on poverty.” After his firing, Glenn Greenwald took up his cause, and accused Demos of showing undue deference to Neera Tanden because they expected her to become chief of staff to President Hillary Clinton.

Bruenig’s clear preference was that Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison would become the new chair of the DNC, and he wants you to believe that his defeat is your defeat. But he makes a very curious argument in support of this idea.

It begins with Rep. Ellison leaping out of the gate a mere week after the November presidential election and declaring himself a candidate for the DNC chair. At the outset, all appeared normal. Ellison won praise and/or endorsements from major party players like Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer and Bernie Sanders.

Yet, before long the New York Times reported that the Obama administration wanted some alternative to Ellison and were looking around to find a champion.

The way Bruenig characterizes this is “that point of this recruitment was to beat back the left faction that Ellison represented.”

Two immediate questions should come to your mind about this. The first is why the Obama administration would see Ellison as a much greater threat than Harry Reid or Chuck Schumer. Are the former and current Senate Democratic leaders not equally the embodiment of the Democratic establishment? And, secondly, if the object was to beat back the left, why did the Obama folks select a member of their cabinet who was so respected by labor unions and civil rights advocates?

Bruenig doesn’t attempt to answer these questions. Instead, he tells us:

On December 15, Tom Perez came into the DNC race. Around the same time, the establishment forces mounted a brutal smear campaign against Ellison, placing stories all over the place about how he was (or still is) an anti-semitic, Farrakhan-loving, Nation of Islam guy.

This effort ultimately paid off with Perez narrowly winning the DNC chair election over Ellison.

This in inaccurate in some basic ways. For example, I wrote about the opposition dump on Rep. Keith Ellison on December 1st, which was two weeks before Tom Perez declared himself a candidate. In fact, I didn’t even mention Perez in that piece and instead focused on Howard Dean (opposed by Schumer) and NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue (endorsed by Daily Kos‘s Markos Moulitsas). My focus at the time was my desire that whoever took over the DNC treat it as as full-time job, unlike Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

The timing is important because it’s unfair to taint Tom Perez by associating him with a smear campaign against Keith Ellison by misrepresenting when that campaign was initiated.

For Bruenig, once Perez entered the race, it became a fight “between left and right factions of the Democratic party,” and this constitutes the core of his narrative. But there isn’t a single sentence in his entire essay dedicated to explaining why and how Perez represents the faction on the right. Bruenig says that those who worked to elect Tom Perez as DNC chairman were “trying to beat [their] ideological opponents,” but there’s not one word on why Perez is an ideological opponent of anyone.

And, of course, the first thing that Perez did after he won the election was to announce that he was selecting Keith Ellison to be his deputy which, if the point was really to “beat back the left faction that Ellison represented,” could only be considered a squandering of the spoils of war.

Perez’s deputizing of Ellison was an obvious nod towards party unity that ought to undermine the argument Bruenig has been pursuing.  But what’s really missing here is any clear idea of what was won by the faction of the right and what was lost by the faction of the left.

Other than the fact that Ellison endorsed Bernie Sanders and Tom Perez endorsed Hillary Clinton, it’s hard to understand why this ever became a fight between factions in the Democratic Party. If there were a substantive case that Ellison would have pursued strategies as chairman more pleasing to progressives than Perez, Bruenig surely would have mentioned them, but he didn’t.

I believe he didn’t because he couldn’t find any compelling differences between them on substance.

Yet, he says that this defeat is so insulting that “the left should not care” about the Democratic Party anymore except insofar as it can “focus its energies on organizing under alternative institutions” that will “attempt hostile takeovers of various power positions.”

It should go without saying that Matt Bruenig has no right to speak for progressives or for any left faction within the Democratic Party. Perez had an impressive roster of endorsements from progressive organizations, including the United Food and Commercial Workers, the United Farm Workers, and the International Association of Fire Fighters. And it shouldn’t go without mentioning that Bruenig’s faction used emails purloined by the Russians to smear Perez, so it probably behooves everyone to forgive and forget a little bit about the uglier aspects of this campaign.

Perez and Ellison are a team now, and that seems to have ruined the Pout Party some of Ellison’s more unhinged supporters had planned for this week.

As a progressive, I’m happy with the outcome and I don’t have any more patience left for folks who are more interested in fake fights than real ones.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.