The Democrats desperately need a new national party leader, technically the chair of the Democratic National Committee. The current national committee, elected at the last Democratic convention based on the relative strengths of the Clinton and Sanders forces, is narrowly divided, and close to deadlock.
Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, an early favorite after Sanders endorsed him, now appears to be at risk. Though Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democrats’ Senate leader, quickly jumped in and backed Ellison as part of Schumer’s repositioning as a progressive, there is pressure on Schumer and other early supporters to back off. For now, Schumer says he still supports Ellison, though there is furious backroom jockeying afoot.
Ellison, for his part, stands for the progressive ascendance in the grassroots Democratic Party. His blueprint for party activism reads like a progressive organizer’s dream.
One problem however, is that Ellison is a sitting Member of Congress. National party chair ought to be a fulltime job, a reality proven by the previous and ineffectual DNC chair, Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schulz.
The best recent DNC chair, Howard Dean, treated the post as a full-time commitment. Dean, who rebuilt a 50-state party in the mid-2000s, wanted the job back—but Sanders vetoed that because he felt Dean had been disrespectful to him. Dean has now dropped out. Ellison has hinted that he might give up his House seat, but has not committed.
Other objections have lately been raised, that Ellison is a Muslim and that he is not friendly to Israel. His religion is the wrong reason to challenge his candidacy, but the latest disclosures of remarks that alienated much of the Jewish community may sink Ellison as a party unifier.
In 2010, it recently emerged on a tape surfaced by CNN, Ellison spoke at a fundraiser hosted by a past president of the Muslim American society. In the speech, referring to Israel. He declared, “We can’t let another country to treat us like we’re their ATM.” This is not entirely wrong as a description of Israel’s view of U.S. aid, but Ellison added:
The United States foreign policy in the Middle East is governed by what is good or bad through a country of seven million people [Israel]. A region of 350 million all turns on a country of seven million. Does that make sense? Is that logic? Right? When the Americans who trace their roots back to those 350 million [Muslims] get involved, everything changes.
So while it is appalling to have Ellison’s candidacy founder for the sin of criticizing Israel, his language was pretty raw and Ellison may well be too radioactive to get the job. No other declared contenders seem to have what it takes.
Here are two outside-the-box ideas for potential people to lead the national Democratic Party. Neither has declared a candidacy. This is just a citizen nomination, from me:
· Cecile Richards. The head of national Planned Parenthood, a job she’s held for a decade, is far and away one of the best organizers, on the ground and nationally, in the progressive Democratic universe, as well a prodigious fundraiser for progressive causes. She’s a fighter and a genuine hero.
As a young adult, Richards was a labor organizer in the South. She did a brief stint as an aide to Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, and then headed a broad get-out-the vote coalition in 2004 called America Votes.
· Tom Perez. Obama’s labor secretary and former assistant attorney general in charge of civil rights, is one of the best we’ve got. He is also a superb politician, with no immediate plans after January 20.
Perez is great at connecting to the working class—black, white, Latino. He served as the elected president of the Montgomery County Council and many of his admirers were disappointed he passed up the chance to run for governor of Maryland.
Both of these leaders are charismatic, in their 50s, widely admired, and good at details as well as at rousing grass roots enthusiasm. As full-time party leaders, either could re-energize a party in an understandable funk. None has Democratic enemies.
Both bridge the Clinton/Obama wing of the party with the now ascendant Warren/Sanders wing. Both are somewhat to the left of the Clintons ideologically, though Hillary was a Richards ally as a stalwart on reproductive rights. And Perez was one of the most progressive of Obama’s appointments.
Meanwhile, however, Sanders supporters at the DNC are enraged at what they see as a stop-Ellison drive engineered by Clinton supporters and promoted by the press. They think they may yet have the votes, and are adamant about not wanting to give the job to anyone who disrespected Sanders.
The battle over a new, more progressive and effective leader for the Democrats is degenerating into a bitter fight over loyalty, score-settling, and the power of the Israel lobby.
The Democrats have enough problems. They hardly need this donnybrook, much less a DNC elected in a narrow and bitter factional win. Ellison is a great guy, but this may not be his moment.
The appointment of either Richards or Perez could sidestep a potentially divisive dispute, would look forward rather than backward, and unify the party behind a progressive leader—one who is every bit as progressive as Ellison.
As that old typing-practice sentence had it: Now is the time for all good men (and women!) to come to the aid of the party. Lord knows the party needs some fresh leadership.
What say, Cecile and Tom?