ATLANTA (AP) – Democrats on Saturday neared the end of a long, competitive battle to choose a new national party chairman who will attempt to turn widespread opposition to President Donald Trump into more election victories.
The contest between former Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison has animated the hundreds of party officials, donors and activists who convened in Atlanta.
With seven candidates on the ballot, multiple rounds of voting were expected before anyone claims the required majority.
The outgoing chairwoman, Donna Brazile, told Democratic National Committee members that this promised to be a “very special day for our party.”
At the least, it’s uncharted territory as Democrats face a power deficit not seen in nine decades – beyond the lifetimes of virtually every American voter. Republicans control the White House, Congress and about two-thirds of U.S. statehouses. The GOP is one Senate confirmation fight away from a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.
The candidates all pledge to combat Trump and the GOP aggressively. But the chair race is more likely to turn on who can convince enough DNC members to believe in his or her promises of rebuilding the state and local party infrastructure that withered under former President Barack Obama despite his personal electoral success.
“We are fighting for a party that is not the status quo,” Ellison told his supporters late Friday, arguing that Democrats have become too timid and lost touch with too many voters across much of the country by abandoning working people. The key, he said, is to “knock on doors and engage people” while pushing policies that benefit them. “Let’s have a debate,” he said. “You’re not scared. I’m not scared. Let’s do it.”
Perez said the party must be the center of Trump resistance.
“The most important word in a democracy is that simple two-letter: ‘We,'” he said at a nearby reception, promising he would help Democrats capitalize on the budding opposition movement. “It’s amazing what we can accomplish when we have strong parties everywhere that allow us to put those values into action.”
Perez got into the race at Obama’s urging, but he has pushed back on the notion that represents the same “establishment” label that dogged Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Ellison has endorsements from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who challenged Clinton for the Democratic nomination, and also from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
The candidates are not expected to address DNC members Saturday, instead leaving last-minute urging to top-flight supporters.
Democratic mayors of the nation’s two largest cities have taken opposite sides. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is at the meeting campaigning for Perez. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is lobbying members on Ellison’s behalf.
A third candidate, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, is leaning on former Chairman Howard Dean, popular among party liberals and state party leaders. Buttigieg’s hopes depend on Perez and Ellison being unable to capture a majority after several ballots, a scenario that might lead the party to look for a third option.
Party chair races usually aren’t undecided when the actual voting starts, because a leading candidate usually emerges to make the voting a formality. This time, the high likelihood of multiple ballots has party staff and 442 eligible DNC members dusting off complicated rules that usually don’t matter.
For example, party officials expect about 70 or 75 members to be absent. Nearly all have designated another member to cast paper proxy ballots on their behalf. But that also adds a layer of suspense: Members in attendance will vote electronically, with quick tallies, while the paper proxies must be counted by hand. That will create a longer wait with the candidates and members unsure of the results and, perhaps, not even knowing how many total votes there are and what the majority threshold will be.
After a second round of voting, the rules require that the last-place finisher be dropped from the next round of voting.
Clinton has stayed out of the DNC contest, but she made a video appearance at the party gathering Friday.
“Let resistance plus persistence equal progress for our party and our country,” she said, praising the Jan. 21 women’s marches across the country and other signs of public criticism of Trump. She also indirectly noted her popular vote victory, which Trump has insisted was not legitimate. “Nearly 66 million votes,” she said, “are fueling grassroots energy and activism.”
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