ATLANTA — The race for the Democratic National Committee leadership is over, resolved with a Tom Perez chairmanship and a deputy role for Keith Ellison that momentarily quelled even the angriest Bernie Sanders-wing protesters in the room.
Now restless activists are eager to shake up the rest of the party’s leadership.
The party-officer elections here over the weekend turned into a mini-convention of up-and-coming politicians, activists, and operatives straining to envision the opening days of Donald Trump’s administration and Republican domination of Washington as a moment of Democratic revitalization, not reason to sink further into the party’s roiling existential crisis.
Quietly — and pointedly refusing to attach their names to the musings — they talk about starting to look past the all over-70-years-old leadership team of Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and Jim Clyburn in the House of Representatives. Some hope, wistfully, the three will step aside before the 2018 midterms to help send a message and generate new ideas. And as much as they like the idea of Chuck Schumer’s expanded Senate leadership team, they can’t help noticing how few of the body’s younger rising stars are included. They’re tired of Capitol Hill denizens staking their claim as the only leaders in the party, particularly as Trump’s political upheaval continues to echo throughout their ranks.
“We have to prepare a farm team within Congress, in our states, in local races. I don’t know when we became the party only of people who have been there for decades,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, the 46-year-old running for re-election who flew here to help nominate Perez and two other officer candidates. “We have to be aware of the energy that is all around us right now, not just on Facebook, but on our streets.”
Garcetti acknowledges that his own hope for a new era of party leadership is somewhat self-serving: “Look to the cities,” he said, as the places where the work of infrastructure, climate change, and immigrant affairs is happening on the ground.
But milling through the hallways of the Atlanta Westin Peachtree Plaza, the party operatives were far more blunt about the need for a broader change in direction.
“Absolutely, the fact that Nancy has held on forever and stifled a younger age group, it’s a thing, it’s absolutely a thing,” said one longtime state party official, pointing to the new crop of elected officials that includes four new vice chairs under the age of 50 as evidence that a new wave is coming. “That’s what you’re seeing here, it’s a new push.”
“There’s been no movement for 10 years, maybe more,” he said. “It’s got people frustrated.”
“Politics and time have a way of resolving a bunch of issues on their own,” added former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, advocating a turn to leaders with the luxury of years’ worth of work ahead of them.
The party’s three-day meeting here, accordingly, was a demonstration of the membership’s eagerness to move on, not only from an election cycle that saw a 68-year-old candidate defeat a 74-year-old candidate in their presidential primary — only to lose to a 70-year-old Republican — but from an entire era.
Donna Brazile, a veteran of Democratic fights from the 1990s and earlier — and the party’s interim chairwoman until Perez took over on Saturday — peppered the proceedings with reminders of how eager she was to get on with the election, insisting it’s time for a fresh face and perspective to take the reins.
And few of the party’s entrenched leaders showed up in Atlanta: none of the House or Senate leadership team came, and even hometown civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis, 77, was a no-show.
Instead, the weekend belonged to a younger crowd desperate to move beyond the doom and gloom and start talking about winning over new voters skeptical of the Democratic brand.
“Why am I here? Why am I here talking at you when you’re probably ready to vote by now? Because I am here to tell you that our party has an incredibly bright future,” said former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, 35, in his keynote address on Saturday. “I’m here to tell you that a nightmare that is a Trump presidency is just a speed bump on our journey to liberty and justice as a country.”
One day earlier, the session’s main speaker was California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, 59-years-old but embarking on a new role as an anti-Trump warrior. The night before that saw Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, 43, widely regarded as a big part of the party’s future in the state, address the crowd.
Saturday’s election was punctuated by the exit from the race of South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, 35, whose closing message — to a crowd that included a crop of new party chairs from states like Washington, Iowa, Hawaii, and Nebraska, who have swept into power by replacing older rivals in the last few months — was about the imperative of the party to move ahead.
It’s not that any of the crop of up-and-comers is secretly plotting to replace Pelosi and Co. anytime soon — especially not after seeing Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan fail in that quest in December. Pelosi — a major fundraiser and veteran of many midterm fights — moved after that challenge to elevate younger faces within the House leadership structure.
Given how many Republicans there are in office, the idea that the party’s old leaders need to be replaced in order to give the younger ones power creates a distracting “false choice,” said Kasim Reed, the 47-year-old Atlanta mayor who hosted the week’s proceedings.
“The facts on the ground are already creating opportunities for anyone who has talent and grit and ambition,” he said. “It isn’t a decision that these folks need to get out of the way for other folks to get in.”
“That conversation has to be predicated on what states actually want, and we have not invested in learning what they actually need,” added Abrams.
That sentiment was echoed by former party chair and onetime Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who backed Buttigieg for the chairmanship and who regularly speaks of the need for a new perspective atop the party infrastructure: “I don’t think the House and Senate is the problem, I do think the party has been mired in D.C. for eight years and we’ve got to get out of there.”
But many feel the imperative of facilitating the younger wind blowing through the party. It’s out with the old ideas that have seen the party sink to its lowest point in decades, and in with the new, even if those ideas aren’t yet fully formed.
“At some point we all need to do a gut-check and say, ‘Have I been doing this long enough? Is it time for me to turn this position, the reins, over to somebody else with fresh and new ideas, a new energy, a new generation?’” said former New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Kathy Sullivan. “It’s hard sometimes, you think you’re indispensable, I have things to do that aren’t finished.”
“It’s true whether it’s for me, for Nancy Pelosi, for Chuck Schumer, whether it’s anybody,” she added. “Everyone needs to have that conversation with themselves.”
If there’s no leadership change, party officials think, they are at risk of missing out on younger voters, who simply aren’t responsive to Democrats — or at least Democrats not named Barack Obama. And that would be a massive mistake with the political wind appearing to shift in their direction as Trump’s tumultuous opening days barrel along.
“A lot of our base feels we were not embracing our base all the time, and the only way we can really have our voices heard is to be at the table,” said Bronx Assemblyman Michael Blake, 35, a new party vice-chairman who noted the wide array of 30-somethings who ran for that position this year. “We can’t just talk about it, we have to be present.”
“We already have a strong party, they just don’t think they’re Democrats and they don’t show up to elections that aren’t interesting to them,” said Dean. “We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”
At least within the party mechanism, that conversation has already started. The question now is whether Washington will follow suit.
“There has been a lot of conversation on younger voters. It’s the future of the party. I have written a letter to all the chairs asking them to commit to a budget line item specifically dedicated to millennial outreach and technology,” said New York Rep. Grace Meng, 41, who was also elected vice-chair on Saturday and said the new leaders met late on Saturday night to discuss such new ideas.
“I don’t know if that would have happened if we had not lost in November.”