DNC Chair Race: Why It Matters, Why It Doesn’t, and What It All Means

A few weeks ago, the Democratic National Committee voted to elect former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez as chairman of the DNC in the culmination of an unusually contentious race. The race garnered more attention than is typical because it essentially evolved (or, perhaps, devolved) into a rehashing of the 2016 presidential primary race. Although the campaign for DNC chair also shed light on lesser-known rising stars within the Democratic party, it ultimately became a struggle between Perez, an early supporter of Hillary Clinton and a favorite of the party establishment, and Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN), endorsed by Bernie Sanders and painted as the race’s more progressive candidate. Perez emerged victorious after beating Ellison 235-200 in the second round of voting, to the outrage of many Sanders/Ellison enthusiasts. But does the outcome really matter? What does the DNC chair even do, anyway?

DNC Chair Tom Perez. // Photo Credit: Alex Wong / Getty Images.

DNC Chair Tom Perez. // Photo Credit: Alex Wong / Getty Images.

To determine the importance of the DNC chair, it helps to know what the DNC is. Essentially, the Democratic National Committee is the formal organization that represents the Democratic party. Made up of representatives selected from each state based on population, the DNC determines the rules for Democratic primaries, organizes the Democratic National Convention, raises money to promote Democratic candidates and ideals around the country, sets the tone for the Democratic party’s message, and, of course, elects the DNC chairperson.

As leader of the DNC, what does the chairperson do? According to the Hill’s Mary Plotkin, “The first and only job of the chair is to win elections — to elect more Democrats at every level, from city councils to state legislatures to the U.S. Senate.” In order to accomplish this, the chair leads the decision-making process in a variety of areas, from spending, to organizing, to messaging, within the DNC and by extension, the Democratic Party.

It seems, then, that Tom Perez has just been elected to a very important job. That’s true, in a sense, but it’s not the whole picture. As many journalists (and even the DNC) are quick to point out, the chairperson is not the leader of the Democratic Party; that role is shared by Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Representative Nancy Pelosi (CA-12) in Congress. Furthermore, Perez and Ellison’s visions for the future of the Democratic party are not as different as they’ve been made out to seem. As FiveThirtyEight’s Clare Malone reported, Perez and Ellison were both more liberal than the average Democrat serving in Congress. Additionally, journalist Emily Cadei of Newsweek covered the candidates’ extensive strategy of grassroots campaigning and outreach, concluding that both “candidates for chairman have promised some version of that strategy if elected. Overall, there has been little disagreement in the series of forums and public appearances the candidates have made as they seek the support of the party faithful.”
The dissent, then, seems to have arisen not from the candidates for DNC chair themselves, but from their supporters, particularly the Bernie Sanders wing of the party, who felt that their concerns were once again silenced by Perez’s victory over Ellison. It is worth noting that, in the same speech in which Perez accepted the DNC chair position, he announced that Ellison had accepted the position of deputy chair of the DNC. This attempt to quell discontent was echoed by Ellison, who told his supporters, “We don’t have the luxury to walk out of this room divided.”

Ellison is right. The Democratic party does not have the luxury to continue to be divided, especially when we lack political power in Congress, in the White House, and even at the local level. However, the strategy of the Democratic party’s establishment wing may not be so effective at repairing these divisions. Ignoring the discontent of those on the far left is not going to make it go away, as evidenced by the fervent outrage of progressive groups that once again reached a fever pitch last Thursday, when it was revealed that only three of the thirty members of the DNC’s transition team were progressive favorites.

Reminding frustrated Democrats that Tom Perez is a progressive leader does nothing to erase the fact that there is still a Clinton-Sanders rift within the Democratic party. We might not want to talk about this rift because we don’t want to show division when we need to be more united than ever, but the truth is that we are not as united as we need to be. The 2016 election taught us that the correct response to people who feel frustrated or ignored is not to tell them that their problems don’t exist, but to acknowledge and address the sources of their frustration. Democrats need to practice what we preach. We need to do a better job of engaging in dialogue not only with those outside of our party who feel left behind, but also with those within our party who feel unrepresented. The leaders that we elevate need to bridge the divide, exhibiting genuine concern and a united message for all Americans.

Alexandra Kurland