ATLANTA — Democrats in Georgia to elect the next chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) are grappling with lingering divisions from the presidential primaries that they fear will persist no matter who becomes the party’s next leader.
The contentious race that has split party members appears headed for a close finish.
Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders: Canceled ObamaCare repeal vote 'major victory' for working class Stunning polls show Sanders soaring while 'TrumpCare' crashes The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (I-Vt.) and many of his allies are backing Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a progressive firebrand and favorite of the left.
Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden: 'McCain is right: Need select committee' for Russia With no emerging leaders, no clear message, Democrats flounder Obama defends healthcare law on eve of repeal vote MORE and other key figures from the Obama administration back former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who supported Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonHollywood stars weigh in on GOP pulling healthcare bill Hillary Clinton: Today was a victory, 'but this fight isn't over yet' House GOP abandons ObamaCare repeal effort in stunning defeat MORE in the primaries.
Democrats have done their best to quash the notion that the DNC chair race is a proxy war between these competing wings of the party.
But those divisions spilled into the open in the final hours before the Saturday morning vote, particularly among Ellison supporters, who think party officials are burying their heads in the sand when they claim there is no intraparty split.
“It requires, first of all, an acknowledgement,” Turner told The Hill. “People can’t just go to, ‘Let’s unite, everything is all right.’ We need to acknowledge there are some divisions in this party that need to be healed.”
“I don’t know where I am right now,” she continued. “I feel the same way I felt about Sen. Bernie Sanders when people asked me. My candidate is Congressman Keith Ellison. I have every confidence he will win. If he doesn’t, then I’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. I just believe Congressman Keith Ellison can be that bridge between the two factions that we do have in this party, the Bernie-crats and Obama-Clintons.”
As the DNC members filed into a party meeting at the Westin Hotel in downtown Atlanta on Friday, supporters of Perez wearing blue “Team Tom” shirts chanted out front: “Who do we want for DNC? Tom, Tom, Tom!”
Across from them were Ellison backers, many wearing green “Keith for DNC” shirts, with a competing chant of their own: “Change, change, change — Ellison.”
National Nurses United President Jean Ross, who also traveled the country stumping for Sanders, helped lead the Ellison cohort. Ross similarly declined to commit to backing Perez if he wins DNC chair.
“Keith is the better guy,” she said. “We would have to take [Perez] back to our members and talk about it. We’re at this point we have a known commodity [in Ellison], and it’s very hard to trust someone else, especially when they’ve been in positions before that would be considered establishment.”
“I wish [Perez] had not run when Keith threw his hat in the ring,” Ross continued. “We have to take it back to our members, because we’re that ready for a big change and that’s why I won’t say we’ll support [Perez]. We gave the same answer with Hillary, and we did tell our members to do what they feel is right. We didn’t oppose her but it did dampen.”
Those remarks came on a day that the DNC intended to focus on party unity.
Most DNC members interviewed by The Hill say they will support the chair whether their candidate wins or not.
“I’d back whoever won, that part is easy,” said David McDonald, an undecided DNC member from Seattle.
But in the final hours before the election, vocal progressives across the country, including liberal filmmaker Michael Moore and Progressive Change Campaign Committee founder Adam Green, cast the race as one between Perez and the establishment on one side and Ellison and the party’s more liberal grassroots on the other.
Perez supported Clinton in the Democratic primaries and was considered for her vice president pick. In the eyes of many progressives, his support from key officials in the Obama administration cemented his standing as the establishment candidate.
Perez’s supporters bristle at the notion that he is the establishment candidate, arguing that he has an unmatched progressive resume. Perez worked as a civil rights attorney in former Attorney General Eric HolderEric H. HolderOvernight Tech: Senate moving to kill FCC's internet privacy rules | Bill Gates pushes for foreign aid | Verizon, AT&T pull Google ads | Q&A with IBM's VP for cyber threat intel Uber leadership sticking by CEO Top Dems prep for future while out of the spotlight MORE’s Justice Department and later served as President Obama’s Labor secretary.
“We spend too much time pointing out the diversity and differences of each other instead of spending time on why and how we’re all in the same tank,” said John Danielo, the Democratic Party chairman from Delaware and a Perez backer. “That’s where we’ve got to get. As usual, they're asking for a revolution and that’s not how the party or the government system works in this country. If we’re going to win it will be because we’re all united, not because we’re 18 different factions.”
The dynamics have DNC members worried that no matter who wins, one wing of the party will feel alienated at a time when Democrats need a rebuilding effort in the wake of the devastating 2016 election cycle.
“I’m worried and I hope that’s not the case [that people withdraw],” said Jerry Shriner, a DNC member from Idaho who is supporting his home-state candidate, Sally Boynton-Brown, but will back Ellison if she leaves the race after multiple ballots are cast.
“There are risks with every candidate but [with Ellison and Perez] in particular…I think there will be people who pull back,” Shriner said. “But the way I look at it, we have four years to work on that. Whatever problems either candidate might create in terms of divisiveness, we have four years to pull that together.”
McDonald, the undecided DNC member from Seattle, says he’ll make his final decision based on who he believes can best bring together the rival factions.
“The question is which of the two can handle the aftermath of the close [DNC chair] election better and I haven’t decided that yet,” McDonald said. “I don’t have a good handle in my mind as to which of the two are best to deal with disaffected part of base and bring them in.”