ATLANTA—They’ve got chants, they’ve got songs (supporters of Rep. Keith Ellison’s bid for Democratic National Committee chair have written their own words to both “Shake Your Booty” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic). What they don’t have is any clear sense of exactly how Saturday’s votes are going to play out — or even what the rules are governing the DNC elections.
Democratic leaders are pushing hard to get the chair race settled on the first ballot, bringing an end to the four-month long proxy war for what the party’s supposed to stand for.
“After months of future forums, the future is now,” said Donna Brazile, the outgoing interim chair said Friday, kicking off proceedings.
She’s not running for re-election, and has remained neutral in the race, but Brazile has been quietly urging members not to let the chair vote descend into multiple, divisive rounds that members fear will only feed tensions in the room and a media narrative that the party remains in disarray in the wake of President Donald Trump’s win.
“I have hope that it will resolved on the first ballot,” said Ray Buckley, the New Hampshire party chair and a candidate for DNC chair himself until dropping out to back Ellison last week.
With teams of volunteers roaming the hotels with signs and campaign literature in the first DNC chair race since 1988 that went into the vote without a winner already clear, several DNC members say they’re exhilarated by what feels like a real convention, like the old days of party politics. Others call it a circus.
“It is a celebration of democracy,” Buckley said.
The sense at the Westin Peachtree, where the vote will be held, is that former Labor Secretary Tom Perez holds the lead. He’s lined up up blocs of late support, including a Thursday endorsement from fellow candidate South Carolina party chair Jaime Harrison. But Ellison’s last-minute scramble continues to sway votes. Working members at breakfasts, lunches, and on the sidelines of the hotel bar here, the candidates are both whipping votes until the final hours.
The Minnesota congressman’s obstacle is that the anti-Ellison vote remains strong, especially among a sizable number of DNC voting members whose bitterness toward Sen. Bernie Sanders runs as high as ever and feel that they’ve been attacked by Ellison’s supporters for being part of the establishment. Of course they’re the establishment, they say. They’re state chairs and party officials who are voting members of the DNC.
“I think these elections are really hard to gauge because they remind me of caucus elections where a lot of people aren’t necessarily forthright in telling candidates who they’re going to vote for because people don’t want to say ‘no’ to somebody,” Michigan Democratic Party chairman Brandon Dillon, an Ellison supporter, said. “I do think it’s going to be close, I do think it’s going to go to more than one ballot.”
On Thursday, the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State reflected the mood by announcing that its leaders would divide their votes between Ellison and Perez. Vermont’s Jim Condos, the DASS vice chair, would back Ellison and Connecticut’s Denise Merrill, the chair, would back Perez.
“We are splitting our votes on behalf of our membership because we know that with either Tom or Keith as head of the party, we will have someone who is dedicated to protecting our voting rights, engaging voters, and being prepared for the critical redistricting battle to come,” the secretaries said in a joint statement.
Perez won extensive late breaking support Friday, including an Iowa delegation that was voting as a bloc — and was waiting to see who looked like a clear winner, as insurance to preserve the state’s caucuses as the first presidential primary contest. Then late at night, Henry Muñoz, the finance chair who’s running unopposed for reelection, also endorsed Perez — an unusual move of endorsing in another officer race.
In the run-up to Saturday’s vote, unofficial vote counts suggested Idaho state party executive director Sally Boynton Brown, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and others trailed far behind. Buttigieg spent the final days highlighting his endorsement from former DNC chairman Howard Dean, one of the most influential non-voting party voices.
The chair race is the highest profile, but far from the only race on the ballot, with contested elections for every position except finance chair.
The most complicated battles are over the vice chairs who will be elected. With obscure DNC rules governing who can hold which position — including equal distribution among men and women — it won’t be clear until after several ex officio vice chairs are selected by virtue of winning other positions who’s even eligible.
“The complete confusion about who we can and can’t elect is the Democratic Party’s version of elementary school T-ball—everyone needs to win a prize,” said Robert Zimmerman, a DNC committeeman from New York who’s backing former Hillary Clinton organizer Adam Parkhomenko and New York Rep. Grace Meng for vice chair. “If everyone needs to win a prize, nobody wins.”
That race has a wide array of candidates, including Colorado Democratic Party chairman Rick Palacio, New York City Assemblyman Michael Blake, UNITE HERE official Maria Elena Durazo, and former Sanders organizer Melissa Byrne.
And the party will also vote for a new secretary — a race that includes Wyoming chairwoman Ana Cuprill, Wisconsin DNC committeeman Jason Rae and Nevada chair Roberta Lange — and a new treasurer.
Meanwhile, the party infighting continues. Rote proceedings on Friday were stopped momentarily when Bart Dame, a state committeeman from Hawaii, tried to amend a perfunctory resolution praising DNC staff for their work over 2016 to insert two words so it would instead praise “most of the staff.”
Citing the drama and division in the party last year that, among other things, forced Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz out as chair at the outset of the Democratic convention after a dump of hacked emails were released, Dame said he felt the party still hadn’t grappled with the record or safeguards to prevent such problems in the future.
“I cannot yield without that qualifier,” Dame said, to boos.
Brazile held a voice vote. There wasn’t much question.
“The no’s have it,” she ruled.
Daniel Strauss reported from Rosslyn, Va.; Edward-Isaac Dovere and Gabriel Debenedetti from Atlanta.