Tom Perez and Keith Ellison aren’t that different. Why should we still care?

By Josh Zakharov

One of the more reassuring arguments from centrist and moderate Democrats for unity in the face of Tom Perez’s surprising win is that the DNC chair does little, and that the ideas of former Secretary Perez and Congressman Keith Ellison are fundamentally similar.

This latter argument is a true one. Sec. Perez and Rep. Ellison both have expressed support for a 50-state strategy, as almost every DNC chair candidate has. Both have called for aggressive organizing on state, municipal, and national levels. Both have called for the expansion of voting rights in all 50 states. Both recognize an unsustainable status quo for local engagement of voters. Both have identified the depth and efficacy of RNC campaign strategy to suppress votes that would hinder them and urge and organize for votes to support them. An analysis from FiveThirtyEight identified that both are quite left of center relative to House Democrats, and are, by and large, similarly progressive.

Though Perez obviously doesn’t have the same voting record Ellison does, his history as Assistant A.G. in prosecuting the first hate crimes, in enforcing the Employment Non-Discrimination act and expanding workplace protections to the LGBT community, in defending due process and civil rights for students, in challenging discriminatory voter suppression-oriented state legislation, in being part of a DOJ that investigated police discrimination, and more critical progressive action should assure the skeptical that he stands and speaks for progressive causes. As Secretary of Labor, too, Perez made important advances for labor, particularly in workplace discrimination protections, the expansion of rights to disabled workers, and pushing for the release of allegations of labor regulation violations against corporations and contractors.

Ellison’s record shows a deep commitment to progressivism, too, but as Ellison himself would be first to say, he has critical experience in demonstrating effective turnout-boosting strategy in Minnesota’s 5th, his Congressional district, which had some of the lowest rates of voter turnout prior to his election and now boasts the highest. His focus on youth engagement and his outreach to millennials that overwhelmingly turned out for Sen. Bernie Sanders in primary elections, who represent the future of the party rather than its ineffective status quo, was also a particularly compelling point of focus in his campaign. Ellison’s record over his last 10 years of Congressional service has earned him a 100% rating from NARAL, showed support for Obama’s economic agenda, a deep commitment against racial profiling, domestic violence, and police brutality, and more.

Ultimately, though Keith Ellison offers more direct electoral experience, he is not significantly ideologically different than Tom Perez. Those who disagree could of course say that Keith Ellison has greater populist appeal, but there is no reason to believe that being an ally of populists like Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Sanders is a more compelling claim to populist politics than having been a literal representative of and defender for the working population of the United States as a Secretary of Labor.

The former argument is entirely inconsequential. Whether the DNC chair matters or not, insofar as Perez and Ellison would pursue generally similar strategy (and insofar as Ellison’s influence at the DNC will continue to be felt through his position as DNC chair), the particular internal outcome for the DNC’s actions would likely be no different with a Chairman Perez or a Chairman Ellison. Squabbles over the particular role of DNC chair – whether they have much influence over individual campaign strategies, or are instead a figurehead whose predominant role is chief party fundraiser – tend to ignore the optics-related consequence of naming one candidate or another the face of the party.

This question – the optics of the election, rather than the particular consequences of it for the party – is thus what should be the central focus of our analyses of the consequences of the DNC election. What does the party appear as or project now that it has a Chairman Perez, and how does that perception influence the ways in which Democratic voters will behave and react?

If there was no particular ideological or policy-based motivation to the support of either candidate, then members of the DNC must have known that the primary consequence of their ballot would concern the optics of a particular DNC chair.

Keith Ellison, naturally, was the choice of millennials, of progressives, of those who wanted the party to move left of center after the election to secure the votes of those who were disillusioned after the loss of Bernie Sanders during the primary. Sen. Sanders, of course, was one of Ellison’s earliest endorsements, followed shortly thereafter by other notable members of the leftist flank of Congress – Sen. Warren and Rep. John Lewis to name a few. Labor groups, unions, and other progressive coalitions endorsed him as well.

Perez, as soon as his candidacy was announced, was an “establishment” choice. Despite being one of the most progressive members of Obama’s cabinet, and despite, as mentioned earlier, having similar populist and progressive appeal as Ellison, the idea of an optic leftward shift for the Democratic Party deterred more moderate, centrist, and party-entrenched DNC voters, who felt that a Democratic party that looked any more radical would alienate voters that had moved from Obama to Trump. (There is, of course, a compelling argument that looking more populist is an effective strategy, particularly with a candidate supported by Sanders. Sanders was able to win primaries in states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and most notably Michigan and Wisconsin, by tapping into the same working-class discontent in a more policy-oriented way.)

His candidacy announcement was followed by endorsements from top Obama administration officials – members of the Democratic “establishment” – including 3 major cabinet officials to former Vice President Biden. This framed him as, regardless of his philosophical similarities with Ellison, Ellison’s diametrical opponent. Even though Perez’s advocacy is certainly not status quo, it was seen as such – even though Ellison wasn’t planning extreme obstructionism or radical progressivism for all Democratic candidates, it was seen as such.

Institute of Politics Director David Axelrod (whom I would argue is, for better or for worse, undeniably a member of the “establishment”) put the philosophy of Perez voters best – they simply assumed that Ellison and Perez, because of their ideological similarities, would fall one behind the other regardless of who won. “That will be his task, to try and unify the party,” said Axelrod in an NPR interview, speaking of Perez. “Tom Perez is quite progressive. So it’s not as if, philosophically, there’s a big leap for him to relate to these rank-and-file Democrats who were for Ellison.”

As such, the election of Perez as DNC chair is a conscious rejection not of a specific politics, but of a broad association with the rising coalition of the young, progressive, social Democrat left.

This makes Perez’s election as chair of the DNC all the more painful. A vote for Perez is one that acknowledges that a vote for Ellison would have had no adverse consequences or have few real differences than a vote for Perez would as it affects real DNC strategy and operations. A vote for Perez is instead an active rejection of what would have been a gesture to those who felt lost after Sen. Sanders’ primary loss. A vote for Perez is one that is cast based on who Perez is associated with – the moderate, center-left, status quo Democrats that endorsed him. A vote for Perez acknowledges that the only real impact of voting for Ellison would have been as a signifier of outreach, a plea for unity, and an olive branch to Sanders-sympathetic voters.

If there truly is no “big leap” from Ellison to Perez’s ideologies, then DNC members only voted Perez to spurn the young left. It is precisely because there are so few DNC strategy-related differences and so few political differences that we should disagree with the DNC’s choice of Perez.

Granted, the rejection of a potential gesture is no reason to quit the party. We must keep in mind that the DNC that Perez runs will be about the same as the one Ellison would run, particularly with Ellison as deputy. As of two days ago, the DNC already expressed an intention to make its budget more transparent, to focus on small-donation grassroots fundraising rather than prioritize big donors, and generally reach out to the young progressive left. This is a party with a progressive future, and the election of Perez is a cry from a waning, status-quo faction of it that notices its hold on the party slipping, and chooses to ignore it rather than adapt.

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