No matter what happens in Virginia, Democrats are approaching a moment of truth.
Democrat Ralph Northam’s fortunes in Virginia’s gubernatorial race Tuesday will shape the party’s playbook for 2018, but either way Democrats are fed up with the Democratic National Committee.
If the DNC doesn’t institute reforms being pushed by all rungs of the party, those who are holding back will soon be calling for heads to roll. Some are threatening to abandon the DNC, others say there could be cries for a revolt.
The next few months will be pivotal for the party as the DNC struggles to maintain its relevance.
“The writing is on the wall,” said Jane Kleeb, DNC member and chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party.
Much of the dissension centers around one committee: the Unity Reform Commission. After a tense 2016 presidential primary that left supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., disenchanted, DNC members voted at the national convention in Philadelphia to create the commission. Its task: Propose reforms to the presidential nominating process, making caucuses more accessible, and reducing the power of superdelegates.
A December meeting of the commission is one of Kleeb’s “clear lines in the sand.” She supported Sanders during the primary and in a 30-minute conversation with the Washington Examiner tore into DNC Chairman Tom Perez.
“If we aren’t able to get Chairman Perez behind those proposals then what are we doing,” she said. “Are we saying to the grassroots that we actually are serious and listening to their concerns and anger because the grassroots — whether you’re Clinton, Sanders, Martin O’Malley, whomever — you’re angry right now, you’re angry we’re losing elections, you’re angry we’re not raising money, and angry there hasn’t been some clear reforms.”
In a Medium post published on Saturday, Perez tried to calm reignited anger over the primary process stirred up by fresh allegations from former interim DNC chairwoman Donna Brazile’s book. Brazile's recent comments have lent support to the contention that the 2016 nominating process was "rigged" against Sanders for Clinton's benefit.
“I am more committed than ever before to restoring voters’ faith in our democratic process because even the perception of impartiality or an unfair advantage undermines our ability to win,” Perez said, adding that he remains dedicated to the reform commission.
“We will work with the Unity Reform Commission to implement their collective recommendations for meaningful change in our party,” he said.
But Kleeb’s grievances don’t stop there. She and others on the unity commission are irritated by the fact that no one from the Bernie wing of the party was appointed to the “most powerful committee” in the DNC — the Rules and Bylaws Committee.
“If you are serious about bridging the ideological differences within our party and making sure that we’re all at the table then prove that to us,” Kleeb said. “It is not okay that there is not a single Bernie Sanders person on the Rules and Bylaws Committee. That is where all the structural changes and reforms get voted on.”
Kleeb tried to voice some of these concerns to DNC leadership at the party’s October meeting in Las Vegas. Namely, Kleeb told people on Perez’s team that it would go a long way if DNC Vice Chairman Keith Ellison were allowed to pick people for the remaining officer posts. Currently, there are eight male officers and four female officers — DNC bylaws require a gender balance for those positions, meaning four more women should be appointed.
“When I brought that up I got told by Perez’s people that that’s never going to happen, and essentially got laughed at,” she said. “I deeply respect you, Tom Perez, for everything you’ve done on civil rights, but you don’t come from the party structure. You don’t come from that kind of world ... just offer some bridge to us, just some bridge.”
While it’s common for brutal election years to stir up intraparty squabbles, the fact that discord remains pervasive within the DNC one year after the 2016 election is telling. What sounds like in-the-weeds bickering among Democratic factions is about much more. Bernie folks want their voices at the table because it means a different ideological viewpoint. The DNC might be diverse in other ways, but not ideologically, according to progressives.
Do Democrats try to win back Trump voters, finding an economic message that sticks? Or do they focus on identity politics and driving up turnout among growing demographic groups? Or is it a fallacy that Democrats have to choose at all? The Bernie wing wants to be at the table for those debates.
“Democrats were handed the largest and most diverse generation in history on a silver platter,” said Nomiki Konst, member of the DNC and the unity commission. “When you’re not getting those people who you don’t even have to win the hearts and minds of, there is something else that is the problem, and that’s why I think there needs to be institutional reform internally.”
Konst and Kleeb agree that the upper echelons of the DNC — people around even before Perez — are so ensconced in their way of running the party and campaigns that nothing has changed since 2016.
Perez inherited the DNC’s mess, but Konst said, little has changed since he took the helm.
The Virginia gubernatorial race, Konst said, “is a test for Democratic leadership because it’s one of the last opportunities for them to prove their model works.”
For Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, the “moment of truth” coming for Democrats extends beyond Virginia. Again, it all comes down to the Unity Reform Commission and whether the entire way the DNC does business is changed.
“The DNC — with its Unity Reform Commission — is at a moment of truth about whether they want to be perceived as part of the solution,” Green said. “There’s nothing inherently powerful about the DNC as a structure. They need buy-in from Democratic donors, activists, and candidates themselves and what they do in this moment of truth will determine how big a role they play in 2018 and 2020.”
“People are waiting and seeing what the Unity Reform Commission will do — a lot of people aren’t investing their time or their money into [the DNC] structure,” Green added. “I see it as a quest for relevance in the larger debates of the future of the Democratic Party.”
Whatever happens during Tuesday’s elections, with all eyes on Virginia, Democrats will be looking inward as the year comes to a close and the internal strife at the DNC could foreshadow where the party is headed.
“Do we field anti-establishment inspiring authentic progressives as our standard-bearers or milquetoast establishment actors?” Green said.