Post 2: New DNC Chairman Tom Perez and the State of the Democratic Party

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DNC Chairman Tom Perez. (AP Photo).

In 2017, the Democratic Party must feel as if their days of congressional majorities and expansive legislative agendas existed long ago. As it stands now, the White House, Congress and many state legislatures shine red and prepare legislation antithetical to liberal ideals.

However, just over eight years ago Barack Obama took the Capitol Hill rostrum to deliver his first inaugural address. He had a bounce in his step that day. After all, he was a president with congressional majorities: 57 Democrats in the Senate [1] and 257 in the House [2]. With a united government and popular wind at his back, Obama began crafting legislation such as the Recovery Act and the Affordable Care Act. Johnson’s Great Society was back in business.

What a difference two four-year terms can make. As it stands now, the Democrats are in crisis. They are hemorrhaging working class voters and have lost considerable legislative power. For example, from Obama’s first inauguration to November 2016, Democrats have lost 12 Governor houses, 82 congressional seats and over 900 state legislative seats. [3] This represents a dynamic shift in power, especially in statehouses where many legislative goals, such as education, welfare and law enforcement, are debated and codified.

So what happened to the party that, just eight years ago, had entered 2009 with a governing mandate? Of course reasons abound, but I’d like to discuss two factors: RNC focus on state-level races and Democratic losses among white working class voters.

When Howard Dean chaired the DNC from 2005 to 2009, he adopted a ‘50 State Strategy’ that invested funds in every state. [4] In the past few years, the RNC appropriated that plan and began to heavily invest in state politics. [5]As a result, state-level power has shifted dramatically.[6] Quite simply, RNC labors have paid off while Democrats have absconded from Dean’s comprehensive strategy.

Secondly, the Democratic Party has lost the support of white working class voters. In fact, President Trump won white voters by 20 points, [7] whites without a college degree by 40 percent [8] and swept rural working class areas such as Scranton Pennsylvania and Youngstown Ohio. [9] Many of these voters supported Trump because of economic anxiety, and frustration that Democrats appeared to favor wealthy cosmopolitans. In short, they felt excluded from the globalist economy, and forgotten by the Democratic Party who regularly hosted expensive Silicon Valley fundraisers instead of dining with working class people. With these concerns in mind, the white working class shifted right and voted Republican.

Enter Tom Perez: the new DNC Chairman. Perez was elected last week, beating out the progressive choice Keith Ellison. Perez assumes chairmanship of a troubled DNC, and must act quickly to salvage the Democratic Party. Given his background and experience, there is reason for progressives and establishment democrats alike to be hopeful that Perez can re-energize the party.

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Ellison and Perez after the election for DNC Chairman. (Chris Berry, Reuters).

Perez, a Harvard educated attorney and son of two immigrants from the Dominican Republic, has established a record of protecting civil rights and advocating for workers. As the head of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, Perez set a department record for number of police misconduct investigations, which included the Trayvon Martin case. [10] As Labor Secretary, Perez “energized” the department and posted accomplishments such as collecting $266 million in worker back pay, issuing a new rule to protect construction workers from exposure to dangerous levels of silica dust, raising the minimum wage and providing extended overtime protections for 2 million home health care workers. [11] It seems fair to say that Perez has established a record of energetic advocacy not only for civil rights, but for the same workers that have left the Democratic Party.

Perhaps equally as important is Perez’s intent to refocus the DNC on local and state politics. “Organize, organize, organize,” said Perez after winning the chairmanship. “We must redefine the role of the DNC so that we’re not simply electing the president.” [12] With this, Perez shows he is aware of the importance of local and state elections, and the amount of ground Democrats must regain in those arenas.

After the votes were tallied, progressives voiced their displeasure with Perez’s election. They worry that the DNC will continue to stray away from progressive issues. Others worry that the party will remain a cosmopolitan haven that ignores the working class. However, in Perez the Democrats have an accomplished professional who has made a career out of fighting for civil and worker’s rights. Further, he embraces grassroots campaigning and has already set his focus on the banal, yet important, realm of local and state politics. As result, the DNC has a strategic and progressive chairman with the intangibles required to reunite a fractured party. By the year 2018, we’ll begin to see if those intangibles are sufficient.

[1] United States Senate (2017). Senate History. Retrieved from https://www.senate.gov/history/partydiv.htm.

[2] United States House of Representatives (2017). Party Divisions of the House of Representatives. Retrieved from http://history.house.gov/Institution/Party-Divisions/Party-Divisions/.

[3] Sargent, G. (2015). How Badly has the Obama Era Damaged the Democratic Party? The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/wp/2015/11/04/how-badly-has-the-obama-era-damaged-the-democratic-party/?utm_term=.eb4719fd41ab.

[4] Oliphant, J. (2016). Democrats Search for Answers to Stem a Spreading Republican Tide. Reuters. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-politics-democrats-analysis-idUSKBN13H11P?il=0.

[5] Oliphant (2016).

[6] Oliphant (2016).

[7] Tyson, A. (2016). Behind Trumps’ Victory: Divisions by Race, Gender and Education. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/09/behind-trumps-victory-divisions-by-race-gender-education/.

[8] Lai et al. (2016). How Trump Won the Election According to the Polls. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/11/08/us/elections/exit-poll-analysis.html.

[9] Cohn, N. (2016). Why Trump Won: Working Class Whites. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/10/upshot/why-trump-won-working-class-whites.html.

[10] Serwer, A. (2012). Meet the Obama Official Investigating the Trayvon Martin Shooting. Mother Jones. Retrieved from http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/03/tom-perez-justice-department-trayvon-martin.

[11] Corn, D. (2017). Why Tom Perez if a Strong Competitor Against Keith Ellison in the Democratic Party Race. Mother Jones. Retrieved from http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2017/01/why-tom-perez-strong-competitor-against-keith-ellison-democratic-party.

[12] Cadei, E. (2017). New Democratic Party Chair Tom Perez Promises Focus on Grassroots Organizing. Newsweek. Retrieved from http://www.newsweek.com/tom-perez-wins-race-democratic-party-chair-organizing-560866.


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