Looking to influence the future course of their party, New Haven’s Democratic Town Committee plans to endorse one of the leading candidates for national chairman in a battle that has revived the conflicting visions of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
Nearly 70 of the city’s Democrats, mostly its ward co-chairs, gathered at the Betsy Ross Parish House on Kimberly Avenue in the Hill Monday to debate whom to back in the Democratic National Committee chair fight: U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, a prominent supporter of Sanders’ presidential primary campaign; or former Obama Labor Secretary Tom Perez, a prominent supporter of Clinton’s quest.
The DNC’s election for chairman is expected to be held any time between Thursday and Monday during its winter meeting. In New Haven, the debate Monday night turned on who can bring Obama voters who voted for Republican President Donald Trump back into the fold, and unite the party’s progressive and establishment factions.
The New Haven Democratic Town Committee’s (DTC) platform committee recommended weighing in on the national fight as the party decides how to rebuild from its devastating November defeats. At the parish house Monday night, members began voting on a recommendation to send to the seven Connecticut DNC members who will cast ballots. As the state’s largest party committee with the most respected vote-pulling apparatus, the DTC is listened to by Connecticut politicians.
Though other Democrats are vying for the position of party chairman, Ellison and Perez are seen as frontrunners. The men represent two factions battling for the soul of the party. Perez is backed by establishment Democrats like former Vice President Joe Biden and former Attorney General Eric Holder; Ellison has the support of the progressive wing of the party represented by U.S. Sens. Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. President Obama has declined to make an endorsement in the contest though it is widely believed that he favors Perez.
Twenty New Haven DTC members voted in support of Ellison at Monday night’s meeting. The other 40 DTC members have until 4 p.m. Thursday to email in their choices before the DTC formally goes on record with its choice.
Connecticut holds seven of the 447 votes that will decide the next DNC chairman. Two of those votes are already committed: Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is supporting Perez; Connecticut Democratic State Party Chairman Nick Balletto is backing Ellison. The next chairman needs a simple majority of 224 votes to win.
The five other top state Democrats who will help decide who the next national party chairman are: Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman; state party vice chair, Dita Bhargava; Joanne Sullivan, National Federation of Democratic Women chair; former state party chair Nancy DiNardo; and John Olsen, former AFL-CIO Connecticut head.
New Haven DTC Chairman Vinnie Mauro Jr. said that with five more votes still up for grabs, this is an opportune time for New Haven—a big blue dot in a little blue state that turned out 34,577 votes for Hillary Clinton—to weigh in on the national leadership and ultimately the direction of the party. Mauro said it’s the first time that the DTC has attempted to have such influence on the national party.
Ellison, who is known for his grassroots organizing, was the heavy favorite, at least in New Haven. His name was on the lips of many who spoke Monday, including State Sen. Gary Winfield, and the majority of the platform committee. (Maria Elena Durazo, the current DNC vice chair, was also supported by the Ellison camp in New Haven for her efforts at turning states like California and Nevada blue in 2016.)
Winfield, who supported Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary, came to know Ellison through their work in a states-level organization that worked to turn red states blue. He said Ellison isn’t someone who just talks about being progressive. Winfield said Ellison is someone who has been in the fight as the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and as the first Muslim member of Congress. Ellison is “someone who is willing to fight to make our politics a little more blue than they currently are,” Winfield said
“My personal opinion is that we should take a strong look at his alignment with the part of the party that feels like it wasn’t listened to [in the last election],” he said. “I think it could help to bring the party together in ways that some others who align differently in the party may not.”
Lisa Bassani, a platform committee member and Morris Cove Ward 18 co-chair, said she doesn’t disagree with Winfield’s characterization of Ellison, but she still wasn’t sure if he is the right person for the job. Bassani said Tom Perez is talking about “the most salient thing facing us right now”: voter suppression. She said between strict voter ID laws, and ending of initiatives that encourage voter participation such as Sunday voting in North Carolina, Republicans have made voter suppression part of their political strategy.
“The Republicans came at this hard 10 years ago and they sat down and they created a multi-prong effort to basically eliminate voting rights for a lot of people,” Bassani said. “I think if we don’t sit down ... with a deep plan to change that, I don’t see how we overcome the next four year.”
Bassani said if Ellison is ultimately chosen to lead the party she hopes it doesn’t become a divisive fight that continues to keep party factions at odds. “We’ve got a psychopath in the White House,” she said. “And what we need is to be unified. Honestly, if Ellison wins, let’s get behind him. No matter who wins, let’s put our boots on and help.”
Some DTC members in the rooms said they want a little more time to learn about the candidates, who also include Sally Boynton Brown of Idaho, executive director of the party since 2012; Pete Buttigieg of Indiana, Mayor of South Bend since 2012; Robert Vinson Brannum, Veterans Committee chair of the NAACP’s Washington D.C. branch; Jehmu Greene of Texas, Democratic strategist, Fox News analyst, and former Rock The Vote president.; Peter Peckarsky of Wisconsin, attorney; Jaime Harrison, chair of the South Carolina party since 2013; and Sam Ronan of Ohio, activist and U.S. Air Force veteran.
Raymond Buckley of New Hampshire, chairman of the New Hampshire Dem. Party since 2007, has since withdrew his name from the running and endorse Ellison.
The undecided, those like Upper Westville Ward 26 co-chair Amy Marx, will get a few more days to make their decision. Another 40 or so co-chairs will email their votes by Thursday. Marx said the way she sees it, there are two agendas at work in the direction of the party: the push for grassroots activism and excited base vs. a need to attract “the reachables.”
The reachables, she said, are those voters who claimed to have voted for Obama previously, but went on to vote for current President Donald Trump in the last election cycle.
“There’s no doubt that Congressman Ellison has the magic of grassroots activism. He’s [late U.S. Sen. Paul] Wellstone trained, he’s the hot ticket,” she said. “But I fear that it’s not what we need if we want to attract the reachables who voted for Trump.” Marx suggested that Ellison might be too far left to reach those Obama-turned-Trump voters, and Perez might be better at appealing to that demographic.
Ethel Berger, Ward 19 co-chair and platform committee member, countered that the way to reach those very voters is through grassroots organization, which she said didn’t happen among Democrats during the last presidential election.
“The only way to reach the ‘reachable’ is to knock on peoples’ doors and speak to people in Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania,” she said. “We don’t need primary fundraising weekends in Ohio.”
Ultimately, those in attendance who were ready to cast their votes—about 20 of the people in attendance—did so for Ellison. The others, like West River Ward 23 co-chair Jerry Poole, will cast their vote by email before 4 p.m. Thursday. Some in attendance wanted time to do a little research on the candidates and to watch an upcoming debate hosted by CNN Wednesday night. Others like Poole planned to use the short window to meet with or poll their ward committees on whom they should throw their weight behind.
“It’s not Jerry Poole’s vote. It’s Ward 23’s vote,” he said.