An Inside Look At The DNC Election
By Tai Ragan
Watching democracy in action is a lot like watching baseball. Hours of boredom that build to moments of massive excitement where everyone in the arena is on their feet. Such was the case at the Democratic National Committee elections in Atlanta, GA, this year. Democrats from all over the world congregated to meet, discuss, and elect the next leadership of the Democratic Party. It was a rather strange party, reminiscent of slightly awkward times at my aunt’s house. I had some graying guy tell me that he too was a millennial when he was younger.
Like any good combination of bureaucracy and democracy the DNC elections overflowed their designated time-slot. Planned to run from 10:00AM to 3:00PM, the last vote of the night finished well after 9:00PM, a truly marathon endeavor, especially when you consider that the election most people came to watch, for Chair, was over first and long before the rest.
The two front-runners for the DNC Chair position were Keith Ellison and Tom Perez. Keith Ellison is the US Congressman from Minnesota’s 5th district while Tom Perez was Barack Obama’s Secretary of Labor. Ellison and Perez shared very similar visions and plans for how to begin rebuilding the DNC, but the election for the Chair was not actually about policy for many of the people present. Instead, thanks in part to media support for this narrative, the election for was turned into a referendum on the lingering animosity over the Democratic Presidential primary.
While the presidential campaign may have been about policy differences between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, the election of the DNC Chair was more about the emotions of the moderate and progressive wings of the party. Sanders and his supporters have stated repeatedly that the Democratic primary, and now this race for the DNC Chair, were rigged. The actions of previous Chair, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and her interference in the primary had a lot to do with creating this schism. According to the Bernie Bros the party belongs to Big Money and those whom desire to keep the status quo, not return power to the people. From the Clinton/establishment point of view, Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat. He does not fundraise for other Democrats in his state and has refused multiple times to share his email list developed during the campaign. In addition Sanders and his supporters have now twice attempted an external takeover of the party similar to what Donald Trump did to the Republicans.
Emotions and excitement were running high as we waited for the return of the first round of ballots. Originally planned to be electronic, the ballots were paper that day due to issues with the technology. There is nothing better to build suspense than waiting 40 minutes between votes to find out what happened. Given the amount of delegates present, 214.5 was the magic number needed to win the election. Finally the first tally came in; Perez had 213.5, Ellison 200, and Sally Brown 12. The hall was in an uproar. None of the pundits had predicted anything so close and it was not over! Allowing most of the other candidates to withdraw they moved on to the second round of voting where Perez finally secured enough support to become the next Chair of the DNC.
When the winner was announced, some of Ellison’s supporters were outraged. About 20 of them formed a group and began loudly chanting “Party for the People, Not Big Money,” stopping the proceedings for several minutes. Perez then took the stage and the Chair, proceeding to pass his first resolution: making Keith Ellison Deputy Chair of the DNC. “Those in agreement?” he asked, and the entire room roared back. “Opposed?” You could have heard a pin drop in that silence. As far as first actions go it was impressive, even if some criticize it as merely an empty gesture.
The election of the DNC Chair revealed several things about the current state of the Democratic Party. With a vote total of 213.5 to 200, the party establishment (which is a reduction of a network of complex relationships into a stereotype) must recognize that progressives have become a force in the party and therefore cannot be ignored. Sanders and his supporters (another reduction) can no longer pretend to be the outsiders: they have their seat at the table and while it is not first, yet, it is a very close second.
There was of course another group, perhaps even larger than either Perez or Ellison supporters, at the convention. These are the people who are more concerned about the work of rebuilding the party than who leads it. It remains unclear how well expending so much energy on the DNC Chair race will help Perez and Ellison achieve the changes necessary to the Democratic Party. Focusing on executive positions at the expense of a ground game has not worked so well for Democrats as a strategy these last years. Most people I talked to were already at work building relationships, strategizing, and shoring up support and money for upcoming efforts even while the votes were being tallied.
In contrast to the hierarchical drama unfolding on the ballots, a decentralized and distributed confederation tentatively began to plan and coalesce around a different center. Possessing an outlook summed up well by Rise Stronger’s slogan “no ego, no turf,” this approach makes a marked change from current Democratic operating procedures. Emphasizing grassroots activism, these groups are looking to rebuild and regrow the networks and infrastructure neglected during the last eight years and beyond. How successful these efforts will be and what sort of support they will receive depends on the disposition of the real leaders of the democratic party: you.