Candidates vying to lead the Democratic National Committee said Saturday that the party can capitalize on the election of President Donald Trump by communicating its values in the face of the chief executive's offensive rhetoric.
Ten candidates to chair the DNC appeared at the Baltimore Convention Center to lay out their visions for a party reeling from an election that cost them the White House and exposed deep divisions over its direction.
Democrats will choose new leaders this month who will be charged with crafting a national economic message and, perhaps more importantly, rewiring how the party organizes for elections.
The Baltimore forum, the last of four such meetings, drew the two candidates considered the front-runners for that job — former U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez of Maryland and Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota — the chairs of two state Democratic parties, and six others.
Democrats on Capitol Hill have been forced to adjust to a more vocal base in the wake of Trump's surprise election victory over Hillary Clinton. Spontaneous protests in response to the president's temporary travel ban from predominantly Muslim nations and a flurry of calls to congressional offices about his nominees have changed dynamics within the party.
Some are calling for aggressive opposition, such as filibustering the confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch, Trump's nominee to serve on the Supreme Court, and slowing his legislative agenda.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi indicated at the beginning of a caucus retreat in Baltimore this week that the message is being heard by House leaders.
"As long as the president continues down this path, there is nothing Democrats can work with him on," Pelosi said.
Ellison, in an interview before the forum, said the question should be flipped around to whether Trump can work with Democrats.
"The framing that Democrats won't work with Trump is actually ridiculous," he said. "He has come out against everything we stand for, guns ablazing. He's the one who got elected and said he wants to work with people."
Ellison said Democrats should filibuster Gorsuch's confirmation after Republicans refused to consider Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama's nominee for the seat.
"We have to oppose Gorsuch at every millimeter, and the reason why is Republicans stole a Democratic seat," he said. "We cannot capitulate to that kind of bullying. They're the ones who broke the rules."
Not everyone is convinced that an all-or-nothing approach is the best path forward for Democrats. In 2018, the party will defend 10 Senate seats in states Trump won, including Florida, Indiana and Ohio.
Despite the poor showing in November, Democrats have plenty to work with. Trump came into the White House with historically low approval — and those numbers have not moved significantly since his inauguration. Anti-Trump crowds, meanwhile, have been showing up at Republican town hall meetings in a wave reminiscent of the beginnings of the 2010 tea party movement for Republicans.
Perez said Trump's presidency has been marked by "carnage and chaos." To turn anti-Trump energy into votes, he said, the party must be transparent, fair and inclusive.
"The culture of the DNC has been far too secretive," Perez said. "We need to change that culture."
During much of the 90-minute forum, the candidates offered opinions on the 2016 losses.
New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley said Democrats lost because the party was too focused on responding to Trump and did not speak to everyday Americans who worried whether they would be able to keep a job, afford a house or send their children to school.
"We did not offer a positive message," Buckley said. "What we did was, we said, 'How offensive.'"
The candidates said the anti-Trump energy presents an opportunity for the next Democratic leader, assuming that that person can unite the party. Perez and Ellison — both considered liberal Democrats — hold widely different views on how to accomplish that.
Some view Perez as more of an insider, given his work at the Labor and Justice departments under Obama.
Perez, a Takoma Park resident and former Maryland state official, recently won the backing of former Vice President Joe Biden.
Ellison is supported by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who captured the support of young voters by running to the left of Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Whoever wins must confront the damage caused by the leak of internal party emails last summer that appeared to show party officials pulling for Clinton over Sanders. Those emails led to the ouster of former DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., said during an interview he would make cybersecurity a top issue for the party. Buttigieg, whom former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley endorsed for the chairmanship, highlighted his counterterrorism experience as an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve.
He offered an analysis during the forum on the election loss from the "industrial Midwest."
"I had a campaign button when we were campaigning for Hillary against Donald Trump that said, 'I'm with her.' It's all about her. And then ... it was all about him," Buttigieg said. "The people at home were saying, 'OK, who is talking to me? Who is talking about me.'"
Maryland Policy & Politics
The forum also included candidates for vice chair and secretary, a position currently held by former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. She is seeking another term in the position.
Ellison said there is meaning behind the decision to hold the forum in Baltimore, a heavily Democratic city where the unrest of 2015 drew national attention to entrenched problems. Similar meetings were held in Detroit, Houston and Phoenix.
"This is a message to the nation and to the people in Baltimore that the Democratic Party cares about them," Ellison said. "We're on their side, and we're invested and we're going to engage them."