ATLANTA — Sen. Bernie Sanders and his supporters went hard after anyone who wouldn’t back Keith Ellison in the run-up to the Democratic National Committee chair election.
Sanders phoned Jaime Harrison on Wednesday, the South Carolina Democratic chair who was on the verge of dropping out of the race, making a heavy pitch for him to endorse Ellison as a transformational moment for the party.
The next day, when Harrison threw his support to former Labor secretary Tom Perez instead, Ellison supporters worked off talking points and attacked him as a corporate lobbyist insider who’d struck a crooked deal that didn’t pass their purity test.
New York Rep. Greg Meeks had his own showdowns with the Sanders-inspired coalition. One of the few sitting members of Congress who had a vote in the DNC election here Saturday, Meeks was repeatedly threatened by Ellison and Sanders supporters with a primary challenge if he backed anyone else.
Ellison’s loss in the second-round of voting dashed the Sanders wing’s hopes of taking over the party establishment. But to the surprise of most in the room, the announcement that Perez won was met mostly with applause, rather than an outbreak of chaos and screams. There were chants of “Party for the people, not big money,” that briefly interrupted the proceedings but they came from a total of nine very loud Ellison supporters who were sitting in the seats left open to the general public.
What happens next for party’s Sanders-aligned movement, said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed — who backed Perez — “is an open question.”
More likely, it’s two questions: what Ellison does next, and what Ellison’s supporters do next.
The Minnesota congressman, a far left African-American Muslim from Minnesota, has clearly enjoyed becoming a more recognized leader of the party over the course of this race.
That’s despite the distaste for his approach and profile that helped push former President Barack Obama to urge Perez into the race — and continue the support all the way through. He called DNC members himself, and had aides including confidante Valerie Jarrett, former political director David Simas and his White House director of political engagement Paulette Aniskoff working members by phone through the votes on Saturday afternoon. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who officially endorsed Perez, also worked the phones with members.
Obama and Biden made a four-point pitch, according to a person familiar with the call strategy: Perez’s unimpeachable progressive credentials at the Justice Department and Labor, his ability to bring people together, his management skills and how he was one of the stars of the Obama administration.
Still, it took Perez to the second ballot to get over the top.
Ellison, who won many allies last year by coordinating help between Sanders supporters and the DNC and congressional candidates, won many more over the course of this campaign, including apologizing to DNC members who complained to him about harassment and threats made on his behalf and working to quell those efforts.
Coming off the DNC run, Ellison’s being talked about as a powerbroker in the House, where he said Saturday he’ll now stay in his seat —“his voice, his organizing skills will take him very far,” said Meeks. He’s also potentially a statewide candidate in Minnesota, for either the 2018 governor’s race or for Senate, on the chance Al Franken runs for president and leaves his seat open in 2020.
In the meantime, Ellison has pledged to work closely with Perez as deputy chair, fulfilling the unity pledge both made ahead of the election.
“I trust Tom Perez. If they trust me, they need to come on and trust Tom Perez as well,” Ellison said, standing at Perez’s side as they spoke to reporters after the vote, when asked what he’d say to the people who’d said they wouldn’t feel at home in the party if he lost.
That message hasn’t gotten all the way around.
Asked ahead of the vote what the future of his group’s involvement with the DNC would be if Perez won, Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee said, “not much of a future.”
“We would see if [Perez] reaches out,” Green said. “It’s up to him to reach out.”
Told about Green’s comments, progressive Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who backed Ellison, said, “I totally disagree.”
“This party is a big tent party,” Lee said, adding of progressives, “we’re going to have to work hard.”
Green was also one of those who quickly attacked Harrison’s endorsement of Perez on Thursday, calling him part of the “establishment/insiders.” Informed that Sanders had pushed for Harrison to support Ellison too, Green said, “maybe ‘insider’ wasn’t the right word.”
“If he can lead the Democratic Party to stand unequivocally on the side of economic justice and equality, then the millions of MoveOn members across the country will stand with it,” said MoveOn executive director Ilya Sheyman in a statement after the vote, hedging his support on a big “if.”
“If you are an activist, you have a whole lot of wins and a whole lot of losses. And you have to be able to learn from your losses and move forward with it. If someone who’s an activist says, ‘Oh no, I’m going to take my marbles if I lose,’ that means there’s no staying power for the fight,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, who delivered one of the nominating speeches for Ellison. “It’s not just that momentary win on who’s going to be the DNC chair, or whether you won a battle in a state legislature. Those are steps towards what America should look like. We’re fighting really hard for Keith to win, but Tom’s a good guy. Tom’s a progressive guy.”
Jonathan Tasini, a progressive activist who supported Sanders’ campaign and was here in Atlanta backing Ellison, said that with a Perez win, “there will be a significant number of people who will decide they’re done with the Democratic Party.”
It’s about how Ellison’s loss will be received by activists around the country, Tasini said, who argued that the message would be, “Elites win.”
And as they instead channel their energy into local races, Tasini predicted, “if the DNC says, ‘Do this,’ they’re going to say ‘No, I care about electing X person mayor, or for city council.”
Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ former campaign manager and currently running the Our Revolution group spawned from the run, arrived here for the vote openly hostile to Perez. With Perez winning, he said, the DNC would have to take the lead on making the relationship work.
“There’s a number of steps they could take, but people in the streets are going to want evidence this is happening,” Weaver said, as Perez delivered his acceptance speech. “There’s a level of distrust in the establishment and it’s incumbent on the establishment if it wants to bring those people in, if it wants to win elections, to make room in the party for that progressive wing.”
That kind of holding out upsets many other DNC members.
“My deepest hope is that all of us as DNC members and good Democrats will resist any urge to primarily continue to identify ourselves by whichever candidate we backed in 2016,” said former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, wishing that a completed DNC race would be “a period, if not an exclamation point at the end of the sentence.”
“We all lost last year,” Nutter said.
“What all people have to realize,” said Stuart Appelbaum, a labor leader from New York and Perez supporter who brought the chair process to the end Saturday afternoon by calling for the results to be accepted by acclamation, “is the real form of resistance is voting.”