DNC Chair Debate: The Candidates

Written by Gavin Derleth | @gavinderleth17 January 2017 at 11:55PM

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2016 was a difficult year for the Democratic Party. In 2017, the party will attempt to bounce back from the election of Donald Trump. Democrats also lost key Senate seats, and only managed to net 6 seats in the House. During Obama’s tenure, the party has suffered historic state losses sustained facing unprecedented institutional hurdles due to the state voting restrictions passed in the wake of Shelby County v. Holder and gerrymandering implemented after of the 2010 census. With Republicans in control of every branch of government, the Democrats will try to overcome past mistakes made and rejuvenate the party.

This process will start with the election of a new Democratic National Committee Chair during the party’s winter meeting in late January. This position become contentious after the former chair, Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL) was forced to step down after leaked emails were published from the Democratic Party. Donna Brazile has served as interim chair since then, but has declined to run for a full term. The hacked emails evinced the claim that Wasserman-Schultz and the DNC played favorites in the primary, something Sen. Bernie Sander’s supporters alleged after she chose to limit the number of debates. As with many decisions following the election, this choice will not be without controversy.

Although the candidates for DNC chair have appealed for unity after the primary, party positions in several states have become proxy wars between the centrist and populist wings of the party. The position is not open to voting outside of the 400 or so elite party members, including state party chairs and elected officials. However, on January 18th, in hopes of making the process more transparent, The Huffington Post will be hosting a debate for the candidates, moderated by The Huffington Post Editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen and Washington Bureau Chief Ryan Grim at The George Washington University. Tweet or post your questions using #DNCDebate.

Although each candidate will propose their changes to and vision for the party, it is important to keep in mind that the party is unlikely to make significant gains in the House until at least 2022 when the new census takes effect and Democrats have a chance at redistricting. The current state-imposed voter restrictions are unlikely to be reversed under President-elect Donald Trump’s administration.

There are six candidates vying for the position and they will be debating their alternate visions at GW this Wednesday. Although it is a closed election, pressure from rank-and-file members will be crucial for any victor, and the debates are their opportunity to make a case to the public.

The first and arguably most prominent candidate is Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN). Ellison is best known for his support of former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and like Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), is considered to be an important figure in the liberal wing of the party. Before becoming the Congressman for Minneapolis’ district, Minnesota’s 5th, and the first Muslim member of Congress, Ellison was a litigator in civil rights, employment, and criminal defense. He built strong ties to the mostly Democratic community know for its large Somali immigrant population. The largest controversy from his past has been his praise of former Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan, who is a known anti-Semite. He has since renounced his praise. Ellison has been a Representative since 2007 and has many endorsements for his campaign to become DNC Chair. Ellison has been endorsed by 10 Senators, most notably Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT),Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), 25 Representatives, and many more state and local politicians and political organizations. Ellison stands for a more progressive and liberal Democratic Party stance, taking up positions similar to Sanders during his primary bid. Ellison has pledged to increase funding for the College Democrats and focus on all 50 states. He is the frontrunner in this race, although there is no certainty he’ll be chosen.

The other candidate drawing much of the attention is Secretary of Labor Tom Perez. Insiders at the White House have reportedly been hesitant to support Keith Ellison and have searched for a more moderate alternative. Although Perez is an unabashed liberal, he supported Hillary Clinton in the primary and favored the Trans Pacific Partnership. Perez has led a life filled with public service. He has worked in the public sector since 1987, most recently being appointed as Secretary of Labor in 2013 under the Obama Administration. Perez has been endorsed by five governors, including Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D-VA) and Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-CO), and several political organizations. He stands by his progressive history and points to his ability to get things done in government as a major qualification for the position. Ellison and Perez are seen as the two most serious contenders.

The next candidate is Jaime Harrison from South Carolina. Though Harrison has not held office himself, his qualifications for the job come from his work as the head of the South Carolina Democratic Party, which began in 2013. He was the first African American to hold that position. In addition to his work as chair, he has also worked as a lobbyist for the Podesta Group. This has garnered some criticism, but Harrison has denounced this as unimportant, claiming that it was a way for him to pay off student loans. Harrison has received endorsements from two House members, Jim Clyburn (D-SC) and Marcia Fudge (D-OH).

Another candidate for chair is Sally Boynton Brown from Idaho. Brown, like Harrison, has not held public office, but has worked in local politics since graduating from Boise State University. She managed campaigns for State Representative Sue Chu and State Representative Phylis King. Additionally, Brown has served as the executive director of the Democratic Party of Idaho since 2012. She stresses that the main focus of the Democratic Party should not be be ideological, but pragmatic, saying that the Democratic Party has always represented the people and that the Democratic Party should “blow the walls off our tent so everyone feels welcome.” She has also said that she feels a woman’s perspective was missing from the race and discussed running with NARAL President Ilyse Hogue, who some College Democrats may remember from knocking doors with her in Philadelphia this fall.

The next candidate is Raymond Buckley from New Hampshire. Buckley served as a State Representative in New Hampshire for 18 years, serving as Party Whip for many of those years. He later went on to become chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, beginning in 2007, and the Chair of the Association of State Democratic Party Chairs, positions that he still holds today. Buckley made it clear in his campaign statement that as DNC Chair he would focus not only on the White House, but also on the thousands of other elections in state and local contests that are so crucial for Democrats to combat redistricting efforts by Republicans in the next census, which Barack Obama and Eric Holder will be focusing on after the election.

Another candidate for chair is Jehmu Greene, the former analyst from Fox News. Greene joined Fox News in 2010. She also worked for CNN, MSNBC, and served as president of the Rock the Vote campaign. From 1998 to 2000 she worked as Director of Women's Outreach and Southern Political Director at the DNC. Greene believes that it will be women who help push the party forward, saying, “After an historic year and devastating losses up and down the ballot, it is women who are stepping up to protect the rights and freedom of every American… It is critical that the debate over the future of the Democratic Party reflects this energy — transforming the party and the country cannot be done without us.” She will not be attending the debate.

The final candidate is Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Buttigieg is a graduate of Oxford and Harvard, a Navy veteran, and has been the mayor of South Bend since 2012. He has billed himself as an outsider, believing that the changes to the party must come from outside Washington and his experience in local politics can help move the party forward. He has been endorsed by the Mayor of Dayton, Ohio, Nan Whaley.

There is no shortage of qualified candidates for the position, so Democrats should be excited about whoever wins. Bernie Sanders has characterized the positive effects of the Trump era on activists, and this may be one manifestation of that energy: “[It] will make more people into activists. No one who cares about America will be able to remain passive.” These candidates have answered this call to duty, and will challenge each other and answer questions from the public on the debate stage Wednesday night.

Gavin Derleth is a freshman from Claremont, California majoring in Political Science and Environmental Studies. He loves long walks along the National Mall and listening to his prized vinyl.

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