Democrats assemble in Denver to regroup
Reeling from a disastrous election, national Democratic Party insiders gathered in Denver on Friday to begin picking up the pieces of a coalition that appears badly broken.
African-American turnout was down, blue-collar workers overwhelmingly ditched the party in favor of Republicans, and even as Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2.3 million votes, Democrats got whacked up and down the ballot in battleground states.
“We should not sugarcoat that,” said Colorado Democratic Party chairman Rick Palacio, who moderated the event. “Republicans have not been this well positioned since the 1920s.”
With the victory of Presidentelect Donald Trump, Republicans will hold both chambers of Congress and the presidency for the first time since the George W. Bush era. And the party controls a nearrecord number of governor’s offices and state legislatures.
The first matter at hand Friday: picking a new leader for the Democratic National Committee, the embattled institution whose inner squabbles and controversies spilled into the general election even as rival candidates Clinton and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders called publicly for unity.
At the “Future of the Party Forum” at the Downtown Hyatt Regency, four prominent Democrats were expected to give their pitch on how they would reshape the organization if given the chance to lead. Several others are also eyeing the job.
But one who was considered a front-runner, former Vermont Gov.
Howard Dean, on Friday withdrew his name from the hat.
“I am not going to be a candidate for the Democratic National Committee chairmanship,” he said in a video message.
The other three candidates — Ray Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party; U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota; and Jaime Harrison, the chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party — all delivered variations on the same message: The DNC has to adapt to survive.
“We need to get our own house in order,” Buckley said. “We need radical change.”
All three candidates endorsed a “50-state strategy” in which the national party would do more to support races up and down the ballot. And they agreed that the party needs to do more to build a deeper bench of political talent — meaning candidates as well as campaign operatives and grassroots activists. But there were differences too. Ellison, a favorite of the party’s progressive wing, stressed the need to beef up the Democratic grassroots voter turnout apparatus.
And, he said, Democrats should have learned a lesson from how blue-collar voters — a longtime staple of the Democratic base — delivered much of the industrial Midwest for Trump.
He said Democrats need to “shut up and listen to folks, not just tell them what’s going to happen.”
Ellison has been by far the most visible of the contenders, rolling out dozens of endorsements, including that of two progressive senators — Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. — and that of some establishment Democrats, including Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the incoming minority leader.
The party’s next chairman is scheduled to be picked in February by DNC members from across the country. The new chairman will succeed interim chairwoman Donna Brazile, a longtime Democratic operative who stepped in after Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., resigned in July. Brazile has since come under fire for leaking CNN debate questions to Clinton.
Those controversies served as an everpresent backdrop at Friday’s forum.
Buckley, for one, spoke at length about the need to rebuild trust. He laid out a series of reforms designed to give the executive committee more control over spending and the presidential debate schedule, which was widely criticized for picking dates that seemingly guaranteed low viewership.
“Maybe if the executive committee of the DNC had a role in that we would say maybe this isn’t the right thing to do,” Buckley said.
Harrison, meanwhile, pointedly questioned the DNC’s strategy in prior elections, saying it was too focused on the presidential race.
“This needs to be the very last election cycle where the presidential candidate takes over the DNC,” he said to applause. “… When we ignore red states, we are in essence saying ‘Republicans, you take those U.S. senators, and you take all those Congress members.’ ”
Dean was a late scratch from the forum, but spoke first via a video message in which he pledged to support the eventual chair, and made a call for unity, a common theme of the day.
“We cannot allow this to be a proxy fight between Bernie Sanders’ people and Hillary Clinton’s people,” said Dean, a former DNC chair.
But even as he withdrew his name from the hat, Dean seemingly threw water on Ellison’s candidacy, stressing that being DNC chair is “a full-time job.” The implicit criticism: a U.S. Congressman doesn’t have time to do it properly.
In response to an audience question on the subject, Ellison said he hadn’t decided whether he would resign his Congressional seat, but if chosen, the DNC would be his “first priority.”
Still, major disagreements between the candidates were rare. They all said the party needed to reclaim its identity as champion of the working class. And they agreed that the party had to do more to energize millennials, a generation that overwhelmingly leans liberal.
Friday’s forum was hosted by the Association of State Democratic Chairs as part of that organization’s nationwide conference. The DNC Executive Committee, comprised of national party leaders and state chairs, is scheduled to meet Saturday morning.
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., gestures Friday in Denver as he takes the stage to address a forum on the future of the Democratic Party.