Yes, the Democratic National Committee put “a thumb on the scale” to make sure Hillary Clinton beat Bernie Sanders in 2016. But it’ll do better next time.
So Keith Ellison — the DNC’s deputy leader — promised a church full of local Democrats Saturday.
Ellison, a Minnesota U.S. Congressman and prominent Sanders supporter who was elected DNC deputy chair in February 2017, held a community forum on Saturday afternoon at First and Summerfield United Methodist Church at the corner of College Street and Elm Street. The forum was organized by the Connecticut Democratic Party.
Over 300 people from New Haven and throughout southern Connecticut showed up to learn about the DNC’s revised strategies and mission, and to voice their concerns about how to make the Democratic Party strong at the local, state and national levels.
State Democratic Party chair Nick Balletto and New Haven Mayor Toni Harp took the podium first, talking about how Democrats had flipped 22 Connecticut municipalities from Republican to Democrat in 2017 municipal elections. They also warned that President Trump and the Republican-majority Congress are intent on making deep cuts to the social safety net, and that Democrats must rally together to resist such an assault.
“We are a sanctuary city,” Harp said. “You are in a sanctuary church. But each and every one of us knows that democracy as we know it is under attack. Each and every one of us knows that what we have to do is resist, that we are going to have to fight to get our country back.”
When Ellison took the stage, he spent less time criticizing anti-democratic tendencies among Republican politicians, and more time reflecting on the ways that the DNC had failed its constituents in years past, and how that needed to change going forward.
Ellison had run for chair of the DNC after the 2016 election, the standard-bearer for Bernie Sanders supporters who felt the party needs to become more progressive and democratic. He came in second, and has since united with the victor, Thomas Perez, to seek to unify party factions.
“We’re here to talk about not just how to win an election,” Ellison said, “but how to really win the argument for working people all across the country. You cannot build a sustainable economy and society unless you win the argument that we ought to have health care for everybody, that college has to be affordable, that you’ve got to be able to drink clean water and breathe clean air, that you’ve got to be able to use science to deal with problems like climate change, and that you should have unions and a voice on jobs.”
Ellison said that the DNC failed in recent years at doing community organizing and grassroots engagement. Those failures, he said, have cost the party thousands of seats in local, state and federal offices throughout the country.
He said that the DNC has changed its mission and its model. No longer will it focus only on reelecting Democratic presidents, reaching out to its supporters every four years with the hope of keeping the White House blue.
Instead, the DNC will invest its money and resources into local elections and community organizing, Ellison said. He said that working people throughout the country need to recognize in the Democratic Party a party that represents their values and best interests.
“My prayer for the Democratic Party is that people out there looking for a good job that pays well feel that we know them,” he said. “That somebody who’s on a union drive so that they can have a voice on the job, that they feel like we know them. That some African-American mom who’s worried that her son is going to get treated with less than fairness and respect by law enforcement, that she knows that we care about her.”
Thumb on the Scale?
The majority of the hour-and-a-half event saw audience members lining up to ask questions about the new workings of the DNC, and Ellison responding in kind.
“Do you believe that the DNC had its thumb on the scale in 2016?” asked New Havener Bruce Oren. He said the party needs to have “fair and honest primaries” if it truly wishes to win back disenchanted members of the party, particularly those who supported Sanders’s Democratic presidential primary campaign against Hillary Clinton.
“Do I believe that there was a thumb on the scale in the primaries?” Ellison said. “It’s kind of undeniable.” He cited the deal that the DNC made with the Clinton campaign in August 2015 that gave that campaign influence over party finances, strategy, and staffing decisions.
“Having acknowledged that fact,” he said, “what do we do now?”
He said that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders had agreed to setting up a unity commission last year. He said that on Dec. 5, 2017 that commission made public a slate of proposed reforms, including cutting the total number of superdelegates to conventions by over 60 percent, pushing state parties to have more open primaries, and requiring that no officer of the DNC endorse a presidential candidate before the primary is over.
“If you have trust issues,” Ellison said, “there’s reason for you to give us a shot.”
Another member of the audience said that the Democratic Party always asks people of color for their vote, but rarely includes them in positions of leadership.
“Yes, the party’s been a little stupid, but we’re waking up,” said Ellison, who is African-American. He said that the DNC invested $1.5 million in Virginia statehouse elections in 2017 and invested $600,000 in the Alabama U.S. Senate race between Doug Jones and Roy Moore. He said that that most of that money went to communities of color in Virginia and Alabama, so that locals, as opposed to D.C. interlopers, were talking to their neighbors about why they supported the respective local Democratic candidates.
Audience members were not only concerned about Democratic Party failings. They had also showed up to express their fear and frustrations about Donald Trump.
Cate Saxton from West Haven told Ellison that she grew up in a conservative household; her father ran, unsuccessfully, for U.S. Senate as a Republican. She said that Trump’s party is “not my daddy’s Republican Party,” that she feels galvanized to show up to protest the current administration’s hostility towards immigrants, women and people of color.
“When he said the ‘shithole country’ thing, I felt like he was talking about me. When he said ban the Muslims, I felt like he was talking about me,” said Ellison, who is Muslim. “We have got to be the party this unwaveringly for civil rights for all people.”