Does the Race for Democratic Party Leader Matter?

The race for the next head of the Democratic Party has been filled with promises to reconnect with the grassroots and win back the trust of voters alienated from the party. But when presented with the opportunity to do just that in an off-script moment at their final public forum, the crowded field of candidates ducked.

Former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez was midway through an answer about bringing working-class women back into the party when a young woman toward the back of the hall stood up and, with young men beside her, unfurled a banner that read: “Dems: #Resist Trump or Be Replaced.”

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Related: How the #Resistance is tapping the Tea Party's playbook

“My name is Natalie Green,” the woman said, as several rows of well-dressed, silver-haired women in the front of the audience grumbled. “I am a survivor of sexual assault.”

“Oh stop it!” One of the older women shouted.

“Secretary Perez, I have a question for you,” Green persisted. “Would you commit to supporting primary challengers’ fight against incumbent Democrats who refuse to resist Donald Trump’s agenda? Yes or no?” Perez was silent, and Green began to repeat her question, which prompted more cries of dismay from the predominantly older audience at the tony Woman’s National Democratic Club in central Washington, D.C. “Sit down!” The older women yelled. “Don’t interrupt!”

Perez, one of the frontrunners in the race for Democratic National Committee chairman, laughed off Green’s question, which she repeated a third time. “When we have spirited debates, you know what it reminds me of is Thanksgiving dinner at my house!” he said to applause. None of the other eight men and women on the dais said a word as Green and her fellow protesters were escorted from the room.

The awkward confrontation between Democrats’ old guard and a rebellious set of young activists is an apt metaphor for the party’s current conundrum as it tries to respond to the populist angst rippling through America. On the right, that anger propelled Donald Trump to the White House, and on the left, it’s now fueling the stream of protests and marches against him. Democratic politicians are quick to show up to events protesting Republicans, and pay lip service to the activists behind them. Folding them into the party is another matter. Judging by the dismissive response of party members to the protesters in Washington last week, it’s clear the party is still trying to figure that out. Doing so may be the only way for the Democratic National Committee to regain its relevance.

The party committee “can’t be managed in a traditional, inside-the-Beltway, top-down way,” former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who served as DNC chairman from 2005 to 2009, tells Newsweek. “We desperately need an outside-the-box thinker in this position.… If we don’t get one, the DNC won’t be a success.”

It’s been widely acknowledged that important parts of the coalition that twice voted Barack Obama into the White House simply did not turn out for 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. In heavily Democratic Detroit, for example, more than 75,000 voters who had supported Obama didn’t turn out in 2016, University of Pennsylvania professor Jonathan Zimmerman pointed out in a January op-ed. Clinton narrowly lost Michigan to Trump. Democrats also saw a drop in millennial support in 2016 compared to 2012; a larger proportion of millennials voted for a third-party candidate this time around.

The DNC, moreover, is regarded with deep distrust among liberals and those outside the party establishment, particularly after a 2016 primary race between Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders that sowed deep divisions between progressives and pragmatists. The hack of DNC emails, which U.S. intelligence agencies have attributed to Russia, resulted in a trove of embarrassing emails being released that confirmed Sanders supporters’ suspicions that committee staff were actively working to boost Clinton. The grassroots regards the party committee as little more than an arm of the corporate-funded Democratic establishment.

That divide echoes in the current race for chairman, with Sanders and several liberal allies vigorously backing Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, who was an important surrogate for the Vermont senator during the campaign. Perez, meanwhile, served with Clinton in the Obama administration and has the support of former Vice President Joe Biden. Two dark horses—the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, and South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison—are pitching themselves as fresh faces and outside-the-Beltway alternatives who can move beyond 2016’s “factions.”

Democrats may have struggled to inspire the grassroots in the 2016 campaign, but Trump’s victory in November certainly has done so. Young people, in particular, have been a visible presence in the protests that have sprung up since the bombastic real estate mogul defied expectations to win the White House. “That’s who went to the airports, that’s who did the Women’s March,” says Dean. “We have to get them into the party.”

Nucchi Currier, president of the Woman’s National Democratic Club, said much the same thing in her opening remarks Wednesday evening before the DNC forum. Noting the strength of the protests against Trump, Currier claimed, “We are seeing this movement largely among young women." And she urged the party to capitalize on the backlash: “This remarkable surge of energy on the left in response to Donald Trump’s election needs to be harnessed.”

Former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, center, speaks to Jaime Harrison, left, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, and Jehmu Greene of Texas during a Democratic National Committee forum where candidates for Democratic National Committee chairman spoke, in Baltimore, Maryland, February 11. Party members will elect their next leader on Saturday, February 25. Joshua Roberts/REUTERS

The candidates for DNC chairman agreed, at least in theory. “We have got to engage at the grassroots level and win the trust of the voter,” Ellison declared Wednesday in D.C. “That means we’ve got to stand up for what they stand up for, that means we’ve got to fight for what they fight for.”

Buttigieg urged “humility” in approaching the activists behind the anti-Trump protests. "It’s not about cramming it all into the party and having it all be directed from Washington or organized by politicians,” he said. “The important thing is our partnership with these different groups and authentic, that we are really there to help them so it doesn’t ring hollow a few weeks before the election when we say they ought to be there to help us.”

One Democratic consultant says Buttigieg may surprise people in this race. “I think he’s coming on,” says the consultant, who is familiar with DNC operations. “I wouldn’t sleep on him.” On Thursday, the 35-year-old openly gay mayor earned the backing of former governors Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania and Ted Strickland of Ohio. Rendell also ran the DNC from 1999 to 2001.

The election, scheduled for Saturday, is still very much up in the air. Head counts of who's supporting whom are hard to pin down and changing by the day. With no clear favorite, observers expect the election to go several rounds before the next chairman is chosen. “There’s a lot of horse trading that could go on,” says the strategist.

Most of the race has been focused on party mechanics and rebuilding political infrastructure at the state and local levels. Eight years after Democrats surged back into the White House and won control of Congress, the party is now staring at an electoral deficit not seen since the 1920s. Not only is Trump in the White House but Republicans control the House and Senate, as well. And since 2008, Democrats have lost more than 1,000 state legislative seats and a dozen governors’ mansions. At the most basic level, the next DNC chairman’s task is to start to claw back some of those posts in 2018. “We have a daunting task ahead of us,” observed D.C. City Councilmember Jack Evans, one of the forum’s moderators on Wednesday night. “The question as we go forward, is, whoever is the chair of this party, what are you going to do to win us three Senate seats, 26 House seats, nine governors and seven state legislatures so we are back in charge?”

Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, chairman of the DNC between 2009 and 2011, says the party needs to “be everywhere.” It’s the kind of 50-state strategy that involves funneling funding and staff to state parties and doing regular outreach on the ground that Dean instituted last decade and others have since embraced. All nine of the 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 consensus across the field is that the party has the corect policies—it just needs the right organizer and messenger to communicate those policies effectively. “I believe that our values are the right values,” Perez said in D.C. “But we’ve got to make more house calls, we’ve got to have a 12 month-a-year organizing strategy where we’re touching every community, and doing a heck of a lot more listening.”

That did not, however, appear to include listening to protesters at their own forum.

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