The Democratic National Committee headquarters remains mostly empty, devoid of almost any senior staff. It has a new chairman, Tom Perez, but there’s still no executive director. There’s a completely new organizational chart, but the gutted political, finance, and tech offices remain in search of new leaders.
In other words, the DNC is showing signs of life after a long period of dormancy, but progress is slow. And it’s about to get more painful as Democrats prepare to embark on a delicate round of group therapy sessions — otherwise known as unity commission meetings — that could reopen intraparty wounds from the Bernie Sanders-Hillary Clinton presidential primary fight.
In private conversations with fellow Democrats, new Chairman Tom Perez describes the precarious situation as trying to repair a plane that’s already in the air.
The committee had been largely neglected by party leadership in the final years of Barack Obama’s presidency. After an email hack and leaks that intensified charges that the DNC favored Clinton over Sanders, Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was ousted in July, forcing the committee to undergo a high-wire transition in the middle of the campaign.
“It’s not a surprise that it’s such a big task, but it’s like any office. You run, but then you get there and you realize, ‘Wow. This is an enormous task,’” said one prominent state party official who’s been in contact with Perez and his team during the transition. “It’s a turnaround at all levels: structurally, culturally. It’s a big rebuild. If people are saying, ‘Why didn’t he just fill the vacancies?’ those people may not realize: It’s far deeper than that.”
Perez has spent the beginning of his tenure working overtime to bolster his committee’s reputation among skeptical voters by criss-crossing the country with Sanders, using profanity in speeches as evidence of his passion, and circulating robocalls into key districts during legislative fights.
But he’s also worked to staff up the building, including interviews with between 10 and 15 people for the executive director’s post, according to Democrats familiar with the process. One of Perez’s first moves in office was to appoint a small internal transition committee separate from the broad, publicly announced one to methodically evaluate each department of the committee.
The group — which included Perez aides Sam Cornale and Emmy Ruiz, Deputy Chair Keith Ellison aide Will Hailer, former South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison, committee veteran Leah Daughtry, finance chair Henry Muñoz, and Clinton campaign finance staffer Rebecca Leal, among others — decided to entirely scrap the DNC’s old organizational structure in an attempt to eliminate silos. Now, the committee is ramping up a hiring process that includes sifting through hundreds of resumes from Democrats across Washington.
“I’d rather it be a deliberative, strategic restructuring than a back-of-the-cocktail-napkin plan,” said Robert Zimmerman, a DNC member from New York.
Operatives close to the former Labor secretary say that Perez and his allies see this moment as an inflection point where they can make major changes to the functions of the committee, so they’re proceeding with caution and making each hire deliberately — and only after defining specific roles for each of the party’s elected vice chairs over recent weeks. Those include Michael Blake focusing on mobilizing base voters and constituent groups, and Maria Elana Durazo on labor and Latino outreach. Perez also brought on Harrison, who finished his tenure in South Carolina last month, as an associate chair and counselor working with state parties.
Harrison has been working with Louisiana Democratic Party executive director Stephen Handwerk to build a 50-state strategy proposal, meeting with the executive committee of the Association of State Democratic Chairs in Washington last week. Meanwhile, as Perez studies how to reshape the party’s fundraising strategy now that it’s out of power and can’t rely so heavily on Obama or Joe Biden, he has quietly started holding fundraisers to introduce himself to some of the party’s top donors from New York to California.
The DNC also now has full communications and research operations in place to respond to President Donald Trump and Republicans.
But some of the biggest issues confronting the party — both administrative and ideological — remain unsettled. The party’s chief operating officer recently left. While finalized 2016 autopsy reports are starting to trickle out from various Democratic groups in recent months, the national party still hasn’t revealed whether it will undertake its own full evaluation, a decision that was left to Perez. Such a project, note party leaders with experience studying previous election cycles, would require a good deal of coordination.
“In order to conduct an autopsy we need help from Team Clinton, DCCC, DSCC, and more,” said Donna Brazile, Perez’s predecessor as the party chair.
For months, party operatives have sought to give Perez’s team breathing space, an acknowledgement of the magnitude of the task ahead of them. Many note that the new chair took over one month later than expected after Brazile delayed the chairmanship election upon Trump’s win.
Their patience, however, is limited. At the moment, leading Democrats across the country remain unsure whether the party committee intends to revive its organizing program, what will happen with its training program, or what will be the shape of the political office that keeps in touch with officials and committees elsewhere on Capitol Hill.
Even the DNC’s annual summer meeting — the event at which the party traditionally convenes its strategy-setting committees and considers new at-large members in August — has been a work in progress: The 2017 summer meeting in Las Vegas, for example, won’t be held until the middle of October, according to an invitation obtained by POLITICO. Committee members just learned about the delay on Tuesday.
Then there are the matters of principle. Perez sparked a furor over the question of whether candidates who oppose abortion rights have a place in the party after Sanders appeared at a recent rally with Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello. The new chairman on Thursday morning met with roughly fifty leaders of powerful women’s groups for an hour-and-a-half in Washington, according to someone familiar with the sit-down.
“If you’re going to put in a new team, you have to give the team a year to implement all its ideas, its new things,” said former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who served as DNC chair between 1999 and 2001. “The tour [with Sanders] was a good symbol. But chairs are more than symbols.”
Politico · by Elena Schneider · May 6, 2017