Democratic National Chairman Tom Perez trying to heal party divided after 2016

As the midterm elections approach, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez is hoping his party can apply the lessons of the 2016 presidential election without endlessly ruminating over the outcome.

To the many Democrats still reeling from the election of Republican Donald J. Trump, Perez says, in effect, to snap out of it.

“Go vote!” he exhorts.

But his job is more complicated than encouraging brooding Democrats to go to the polls. In an interview, the 56-year-old former Maryland and U.S. labor secretary said he needs to make sure that progressives feel welcome in the party, that African-American voters aren’t taken for granted, and that the memory of 2016 motivates rather than depresses the base.

He says he is seeking to “rebuild trust” in a party that was divided in 2016 between the liberals who supported Bernie Sanders and the establishment that rallied behind nominee Hillary Clinton.

Clinton, damaged by the leak of stolen DNC emails on the eve of the party convention, won the popular vote, but lost the Electoral College, and the election, to Trump.

Perez, who lives in Takoma Park, has been stumping for Maryland gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous, a Sanders supporter in 2016. Jealous, the progressive former leader of the NAACP, won the nomination by beating the more moderate Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, the choice of the state’s Democratic establishment.

Since Perez became party leader in 2017, he has been on a listening tour of sorts, meeting with Democrats around the country and soliciting their views on the party and 2016. It has amounted to a long, last look at an election that Perez believes laid bare a problem he hopes the party is about to remedy.

Sanders supporters remain angry over the emails, published by WikiLeaks, that showed ostensibly neutral party officials pulling for Clinton. Many believe superdelegates exert too much influence over the nominating process.

Superdelegates are members of Congress, elected officials and other party insiders who may cast votes at the national convention for whomever they choose — that is, they are not bound by the primary results in their home districts.

Candidates typically court superdelegates directly. In 2016, they accounted for about 15 percent of the convention; most of them sided with Clinton.

“There is a strongly held view among millions that the so-called superdelegates play an oversized role in the party, and it’s undeniably hindering our ability to move forward to bring the party together,” Perez told The Baltimore Sun in his office overlooking the U.S. Capitol and House office buildings. “We want a party in which everybody feels at home.”

During a three-day meeting in Chicago over the weekend, the DNC approved a widely supported, Perez-endorsed plan that will keep superdelegates from voting on the first convention ballot unless the outcome is already determined.

“I don’t want a situation where, before anybody has gone to vote in the Iowa caucus, one candidate already has 600 superdelegates lined up,” Perez said. “So this is a dramatic shift from what we’ve done before.”

The Republicans have fewer superdelegates, and they are bound to vote at the GOP convention for the candidates who won their home districts.

The Democrats’ proposal, approved in July by the party’s rules and bylaws committee, is part of a reform package intended to reinforce a commitment not only to progressives but to grassroots voters. It also includes a plan to make party caucuses more accessible by allowing absentee voting.

The superdelegate change “will ensure that delegates elected by voters in primaries and caucuses will have the primary role in selecting the Democratic Party's nominee at the 2020 convention,” Sanders said in a written statement. “This is a major step forward in making the Democratic Party more open and transparent.”

Not all Democrats were on board. Critics say superdelegates, as a group, can serve as a brake to keep the party from nominating a candidate who would be problematic or unacceptable to the broader electorate. Under the new rules, they say, their role would become so minimal as to practically disappear.

Among those expressing concern was Democratic strategist Donna Brazile. The former interim DNC chairwoman said the change would “dilute or mute” important voices.

“We will not be silenced,” Brazile wrote on Twitter in July. “My one vote is my voice.”

But the measure passed on a voice vote.

Kathleen Matthews chairs the Maryland Democratic Party. She said she generally supports “the range of reforms Tom is embracing to make the party more inclusive.”

“We realized it was important for the state party not to be seen as putting its finger on the scale,” she said. The state party, like the DNC, has been “trying to rebuild the trust with the progressives who might be called the Bernie voters,” she said.

Matthews, a DNC member, initially withheld judgment on restricting superdelegates’ influence, saying she wanted to listen to both sides. She ultimately voted for the plan.

Others also appeared torn. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said recently that he was still assessing his position. He could not be reached for comment through aides after the vote. Cummings is a member and former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has expressed concern that reducing superdelegates’ authority could hurt minority participation.

Energizing the party’s progressive voters is critical to its success, analysts say.

“A bird can’t fly on one wing,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Democrats have to find ways to accommodate both progressives and more mainstream liberals and centrists. The obvious way to do it is to let party members in each state and district choose someone who is ideologically positioned to win in that area.

“It’s tougher once we get to president again. There can only be one nominee, and it’s impossible to please everybody.”

Progressives criticized Perez last spring for endorsing New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's re-election bid instead of remaining neutral in the primary. Cuomo is opposed in the September primary by Cynthia Nixon, the former “Sex and the City” star.

A Perez aide said the endorsement was “personal” — Perez grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., and knows the governor — and does not represent the DNC’s views. The DNC has said it won’t expend party resources to support Cuomo during the primary.

The party is anxious to avoid a repeat of 2016, when Sanders supporters felt alienated after the Clinton emails were made public.

“We have young people who share our values but don't necessarily have the attachment in many cases to the institution of the Democratic Party that I do now,” Perez said.

Perez has a personal story that President Barack Obama once described as embodying the American dream. The son of Dominican immigrants, he was 12 when his father died of a heart attack. He put himself through college with scholarships and work as a trash collector and warehouseman.

He served as Montgomery County Council president, state labor secretary under Gov. Martin O’Malley and U.S. labor secretary under Obama.

Elected last year to chair the DNC, Perez said his job includes reminding people “that democracy cannot be a spectator sport.”

Perez said he has been trying to assure black voters that the party does not take their support for granted.

“I met a woman at an AME church in Detroit who said to me: ‘You've got to stop showing up every fourth October,’ ” he said.

Surveys show that African-American voters turned out less in 2016 than in 2012, when Obama was on the ballot.

Republicans say Democrats can’t seem to let go of the last election.

“With less than 100 days to go before the 2018 midterm elections, the Democrats are still busy dealing with the aftermath of 2016,” Republican National Committee spokeswoman Ellie Hockenbury said.

“If they can’t come up with a more unifying message than resist and obstruct while being yanked further and further to the left, how to deal with superdelegates will be the least of their problems in 2020.”

All 435 U.S. House seats and 33 Senate seats are on the ballot on Nov. 6. Maryland’s highest-profile state race pits Jealous against Gov. Larry Hogan, who is trying to become the first Republican in more than 60 years to win a second term as Maryland governor.

The DNC awarded the state party an $85,000 grant in March to aid its organizing efforts, particularly with young, African-American and rural voters. Democratic organizations in 41 other states and territories received similar grants.

Perez and state Democrats are calling the governor “Hidin’ Hogan.”

Hogan declined to support Trump in 2016; on Election Day, he said, he wrote in the name of his father, Republican former Rep. Lawrence Hogan Sr.

But since then, Democrats say, he has shied from criticizing the president. Hogan is popular in Maryland; Trump is not.

“We have the most dangerous president in American history and this governor has a sock in his mouth,” Perez said. “We need a governor who is going to be part of the system of checks and balances.”

A Hogan campaign spokesman rejected that line of attack.

“Quite frankly,” spokesman Doug Mayer said, “Tom Perez is a national Democratic operative and is paid to say things like that.

“I think the challenge for Ben Jealous is not to make the Bernie wing feel more at home in the Democratic Party. It’s the inability to make regular Democrats feel at home in Ben Jealous’ party.”

Jealous, like Sanders, supports a single-payer health care system. The Democrat, who has been endorsed by Sanders, also backs legalizing marijuana for recreational use and raising the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. While Hogan’s campaign has said Democratic support for Jealous is lackluster, the state party counters that most leading Democrats “have united behind Ben.”

The Democrats’ hope, say Perez and others, is that Jealous will turn out unlikely voters — particularly young voters — who would otherwise stay home.

In 2014, when Hogan upset then-Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, “we had very low turnout,” Perez said. “That was a big problem for Democrats.”

Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said Jealous “presents a really interesting test case” for Democrats after 2016.

His candidacy poses the question: Can he attract not only progressive voters, but enough moderate support to win?

“For progressives to feel listened to, they really need to win elections, particularly in this midterm,” Kromer said. “They need to demonstrate they are electorally viable.”

Perez said he already knows the answer.

“Is [Jealous] the underdog? Of course he is the underdog. So was Doug Jones,” the Democrat who upset Republican Roy Moore in Alabama’s senatorial special election in December.

“You saw how Ben organized in the primary,” Perez said. “He left no ZIP code behind.”

jebarker@baltsun.com

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