On a snowy, bitterly cold day Saturday, candidates who are in the running to become the next Chairman of the Democratic National Committee rendezvoused in Columbus to discuss reforms the party needs if it hopes to become relevant and win elections, big and small, again in 2018 and beyond.
The results of the Nov. 8 elections were devastating to Democrats, who lost the presidency and the U.S. Senate and the House at the national level and scads of state races across the land. Democrats, who once thought they would win the White House and whose miscalculation was confirmed by one poll after another, are still in shock from the national magic trick Donald Trump pulled off to beat Hillary Clinton to 270 in the Electoral College vote. Mrs. Clinton could only get to 232 votes in the all-important Electoral College, but has since the election accumulated 2.8 million more popular votes than did Trump.
The reversal of fortunes for Democrats, from once thinking Clinton would be elected president and Democrats would retake control of the U.S. Senate, is a cruel blow that has caused severe introspection at what went wrong and how to fix it.
To help clarify the road ahead, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison, New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley who participated via Skype, and New York State Assemblyman Michael Blake of the Bronx accepted an invitation from the Ohio Democratic Party to come to Ohio to talk about the uphill climb before the party.
In Ohio, a battleground state where Trump beat Clinton by 8.1 percent, a far higher margin of victory than in other Rust Belt states like Michigan or Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, critics of the state party essentially argue the same line Donald Trump argues about Washington: drain the swamp. In the case of Ohio, though, the swamp represents long-time insiders who, election after election, demonstrate they don’t know how to win.
Another concern by some is that those who rule the swamp, benefiting from the resources the party generates, lack the ability to use them effectively and develop strategies that will win elections. For others attending, not discussing not responding to $50 million spent to destroy Democratic Senate candidate Ted Strickland by Sen. Rob Portman and his allies was a major denial about a major failing by the party.
In a forum format, ODP Chairman David Pepper gave each of the candidates about five minutes to summarize their thoughts before opening the floor to questions from those attending.
Lead off speaker was Michael Blake from the Bronx borough in New York City, who is a candidate for vice chairman of the DNC. In his second term, having won both elections with 80 percent of the vote, Blake said Democrats need a message about themselves, not against someone else. Clinton has been criticized for railing against Trump as unfit and unqualified to be president, while Trump talked about bringing back jobs, a message that hit home with lots of working class Ohioans. Blake said Democrats need to retune their economic message on jobs, build “bench strength” while finding ways to strengthen party, then embrace the future.
Ray Buckley spoke next via Skype from his home in New Hampshire. He summarize his long history of political activity that includes holding almost every position in his state party. Buckley stressed the importance of grass roots organizing and field operations. Although New Hampshire is a fraction of the size of Ohio, Buckley talked about the long and impressive winning streak in his state that is evenly divided between the two major political parties, including winning five of the last six races for governor, three of the last four races for U.S. Senator and after this year’s election, having Democrats hold all Congressional seats, two senators and two congressmen. Buckley knows Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, who made a valiant but failed attempt last week to unseat Nancy Pelosi as Minority Leader.
Jaime Harrison took the floor next. He said this recent election was “a punch in the gut” for Democrats. He said “:people feel like no one has been listening to them,” adding that the party needs to “invest in folks and understood we all matter.” He said of the party’s direction, “We’ve lost our way. We’ve allowed the party to deteriorate, we’ve built a beautiful house, nicely decorated, but the foundation has been rotting, and the house has been falling down.” Harrison echoed what the others said about state parties, “We haven’t invested in state parties,” he said, saying the party only obsesses with the White House. He called for a return to basics, noting that when state parties are strong, the style of candidate or the qualify of the message doesn’t matter if the “message delivery system is broken.” he said Republicans win by subtraction while Dems win by addition. Back in South Carolina, he said, he started a program to show Democrats care by impacting daily issues, like a drive for school supplies. Another piece of mail or another TV ad won’t do it, he said. What will is rebuilding a Democrat brand that builds trust. He knows what being on food stamps is like because he’s done that. If elected, he said, he’d be the youngest DNC chairman. “I can touch rural working voters but I also understand Washington,” the former 2009 floor whip for Democrats said.
Keith Ellison, who arrived late due to a flight delay, said the party’s problem now is that for some people it not perceived as an electoral instrument. “We have a turnout problem, but it’s deeper…there’s a slow erosion in state legislative races like governorships…we need major rebuilding and restructuring.” Ellison said his district, which once had the lowest voter turnout now has the highest. He stressed the need to engage voters in off-year elections, like two years from now in 2018. When votes spike in Minneapolis and its suburbs, we produce blowouts. He said fighting for what is right should always be values Democrat should never shy away from. As a sitting member of Congress, he said he’s been convinced that the DNC needs a full-time chairman. He’s won five elections with 70 percent of the vote, but he questioned what good that is when he goes back to a “sea of red” in Washington. He cited the AFL-CIO’s endorsement of him because he will stand and fight for workers. “If you elect me, be ready to work,” he said, adding that unity is hard work.
In the Q&A that followed, responses to questions included Harrison saying that some important states, where Democratic Senators are running for reelection, are short of funds now. He said a major objective should be to find young people, noting that the party’s greatest threat is not having engaged young people. Next is training the next generation of campaign workers, field operatives and candidates.
Noting that Democrats lost rural voters big time this year, Ellison said, “Go to rural communities, show up, listen, and recruit rural candidates.” Rep. Ellison, a Muslim, reminded his audience that he started out supporting Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. But when Sen. Sanders lost the primary to Hillary Clinton, Ellison said he then hit the trail for Clinton in seven states. Democrats should form a circular firing squad, he said, but do the heavy work to forge unity again. “Everyone is for unity but it’s hard to achieve, unity is hard work, we work hard to bring people together and unite on common understanding,” he said. His promise if elected DNC chairman, “I’ll be the chair who will be in the room to nail it all back together, when we fall out, and we will.”