With Perez, Democrats remain in limbo
On Saturday, the Democratic National Committee elected former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, an Obama cabinet official, as the DNC Chair. To some, this appears to be a victory for the “establishment” in a showdown with opponent Representative Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). But the Democrats made a decision that night with deeper implications: they voted against reinstating a corporate lobbyist ban.
Former President Barack Obama introduced the ban in 2008 in a resolve to “change how Washington works.” It prevented corporate lobbyists and political action committees from donating directly to the party. According to the Washington Post, this rule was first watered down in 2015 to make up for a loss of $20 million in federal funding for the convention, then removed entirely in February to “continue to have the resources and infrastructure” to support their nominee. But opening the door to corporate lobbyists is a much more sweeping change than simply allowing contracts with groups to help organize a convention or other benign shortfalls.
Jaime Harrison, a former candidate for DNC chair and a former lobbyist for a lobbying firm called the Podesta Group, defended the role of lobbyists. “I’m no longer a lobbyist, but a lot of good Democrats are,” he told Vox. “I won’t participate in this blanket assassination of various folks because some members of our party don’t agree with what their jobs are.”
But this misses a point I alluded to in my last article—it has nothing to do with the character of these lobbyists. The party is suffering from a complex that baits politicians into excessive fundraising and spending in an election industry that is hardly designed to win elections. These lobbyists, or in this case the consulting class, depend on a paycheck from the DNC for their services. Some have donor credibility and can fundraise to help win influence and keep their paychecks in order, while others actively participate, voting in rules committees and interacting with members throughout the process.
This is a fundamental problem. If consultants are underperforming—as one could suspect—they wield direct and indirect influence to keep their business interests open even if it is not in the best interest of the party.
Perez has been a skeptic of budget reform. He dodges questions about the role of corporate lobbyists and contrasts Ellison, who urged to open the budget, according to the investigative journalism site The Intercept. Perez’s website insists on “com[ing] together” and determining “what the DNC and outside groups each do best.” This language makes sense in reference to people-powered unions, but it also floats expensive lobbyist groups and Political Action Committees as friends rather than assets. If there are groups bloating the budget without much to show for it, they should be dropped. The party is looking to win votes, not to rub each other’s backs.
Ultimately, the party is changing its tune in campaign strategy, erring toward Howard Dean’s successful 50-state strategy, but it remains hesitant to make substantial changes internally. These impulses could run in conflict with one another. If the Democratic budget continues to be diverted toward third-party groups rather than political capital like organizing and outreach, a 50-state strategy may be impossible.
Part of Perez’s plan is to come up with “new DNC products” to “engage” voters. Does producing Democrat-themed baseball caps and bumper stickers really result in proportional voter turnout? Someone who gets paid to make them might think so.
This is a challenge, but not a new one. Even the election of Ellison would have been part one of a long process to win back Democratic votes—not just the ones that supported Senator Bernie Sanders, but ones that supported President Trump, voted third-party or did not vote out of disengagement or suppression.
It appears that Perez and Ellison were planning on giving the other candidate the secondary position of Deputy Chair, and Ellison was immediately selected for the position. While I trusted Ellison more to stand up to lobbyists and big money, this is an important development since Perez is opening the door for pressure from the progressive wing of the party. Anyone who supported Ellison can hope he will do everything in his power to plant seeds of change from the inside.
James Mazarakis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.