With the vote for the next chair of the Democratic National Committee scheduled for Feb. 23-26, Jewish activists agree that Democrats need a leader who can rebuild a party that has lost both houses of Congress and the White House.
But they are divided on who is best suited for the job’s challenging tasks of recruiting candidates for political office, fundraising and organizing the party structure.
Frontrunners are the outspoken liberal Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota and the progressive, pragmatic Tom Perez of Maryland, who was secretary of labor during former President Barack Obama’s second term and, before that, a member of the Montgomery County Council.
Whoever the DNC’s 447 members choose, Jewish activists agree that the winner must work at the local level across the country and rebuild the party from the grassroots up if it is to have a viable future.
The Ellison-Perez faceoff is one between the heart and the head. Ellison’s supporters laud his outspokenness in favor of issues such as gay marriage and his ability to mobilize people. Perez supporters praise his management skills, his experience in running organizations and his practical approach.
Other candidates include New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Raymond Buckley, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Idaho Democratic Party Executive Director Sally Boynton Brown, Texas Democratic strategist Jehmu Greene and South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison.
The winner will succeed Donna Brazile, who stepped in last July during the Democratic National Convention, after WikiLeaks released a series of embarrassing emails involving then-chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), forcing her to resign.
Perez has the advantage of having served both at the federal and local levels of government. This gave him the opportunity to meet prominent national political figures, some of whom live in Maryland, such as former AIPAC President Howard Friedman and Ann Lewis, a former political director of the DNC. Lewis, who also worked for both former president Bill Clinton and former senator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton, is the sister of former Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts.
In noting Perez’s qualifications, Lewis cited his work on pushing for progressive causes that include paid medical leave and expanded voter access, the latter of which he worked on as assistant attorney general for civil rights during Obama’s first term.
Lewis also pointed to the federal lawsuit Perez brought against former Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio in 2012 over alleged racial profiling of Latinos. She said this along with his challenge of voter ID laws in South Carolina and Texas demonstrates the connections he has made with communities around the country.
“[Perez] has a record of leading a large and complicated organization using progressive principles and coming up with real achievements,” she said. “He has gone in and worked with the grassroots and grass-top leadership in every state. You can’t get that kind of work done unless you’re on the ground working with people.”
Another prominent Democratic operative, former DNC treasurer Carol Pensky, said she thinks Perez’s management experience will help rebuild the party after it lost its majorities in both houses of Congress and the White House over the course of six years.
“People [Democrats] are demoralized,” she said. “We’ve got to start winning elections again and work from the grassroots.”
Pensky said she has reservations about Ellison because he is an elected official. She said having the dual role of serving a constituency and running the party “sets you up for problems.” While she did not criticize Wasserman Schultz, Pensky said that not being able to devote 100 percent of one’s energy to the job hurts the party.
“I think we were asleep at the wheel in terms of grassroots politics at the time when the Koch brothers were influencing elections and we took our eye off that,” she said.
Ellison has said he would give up his House seat if he is chosen to lead the party.
Some Jewish Democrats have criticized Ellison for comments he made in 2010 in which he criticized the U.S.-Israel relationship by saying that “a region of 350 million all turns on a country of 7 million.” On Dec. 2 megadonor Haim Saban labeled the remark anti-Semitic and Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt called it “deeply disturbing and disqualifying.”
In response to the criticism, more than 300 Jewish lay leaders, professionals and activists that included 100 rabbis pushed back Jan. 14 with a letter calling the allegations of anti-Semitism “unfounded and dishonest.” They pointed out that Ellison had voted for more than $27 billion in aid to Israel.
One of those supporters is Rabbi Steve Gutow, former head of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and now a visiting scholar at New York University.
Gutow said he thinks Ellison’s experience as a community organizer is a valuable asset to a party in need of more grassroots-level advocacy. He saw this when he first met Ellison in 2007, when the two men took the “food stamp challenge,” trying live in Washington on the federal food stamp allotment for a week, to raise awareness of poverty and hunger.
“I was overhearing him [Ellison] talking to his aide and we had just done a press conference and they said, ‘You need to get a good photo and then go over with [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.],’ and he said, ‘I didn’t come to Washington to meet with the speaker. ‘I came to Washington to help poor people’.”
Gutow said he has found Ellison to be a “very real” person who has the ability to “speak to people of the party.
“He’s really happy in his own skin, and I think we struggle as Democrats to find people that have an identity,” he said.
But it may be that the answer to the question of who can most firmly stand against the policies of President Donald Trump will determine who the next DNC chair is. Jacques Berlinerblau, the director of Georgetown University’s Center for Jewish Civilization, said the Jewish community, which largely voted Democratic, is “far more energized against this presidency than they were against George W. Bush” and that divisions over Israel will not be a factor.
“For Ellison, I kind of felt like those issues have been smoothed over, and it’s more those people on the right that would point to these issues,” he said. “I’m hearing, ‘Who’s going to stand up to Donald Trump?’”