Tom Perez isn’t facing blowback only over his management of his party’s unruly presidential primary field. He also has 280 constituents in Congress, some of whom are sounding off publicly.
The Democratic National Committee chairman is the face of presidential debate rules that will allow a meditation guru to take the stage next week while a red state Western governor watches on TV. Against that backdrop, a collection of Democratic lawmakers are still aggravated with Perez after he yielded to the party’s base last year and agreed to dilute their power as superdelegates — a problem Perez is still trying to defuse in private meetings with Democrats.
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Perez, complained Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly, has made Democratic members of Congress “second-class citizens in our convention.”
“As a result, I don’t think he has a reservoir of goodwill here among my colleagues in the Congress. And I think he’s lost a lot of stature,” Connolly added. “If you don’t have a reservoir of goodwill, no one’s going to back you up when you have disputes. … That puts him in a very exposed position that is one problem away from being terminal.”
Connolly’s irritation with party headquarters is more pointed than most but shared by a significant bloc of Democrats, according to interviews with more than a dozen House and Senate lawmakers, some of whom serve in party leadership or are close to party leaders. Several lawmakers said they felt shunned by the DNC and fret the party is headed toward a brutal election cycle with serious divisions over the best way to oust President Donald Trump.
Others were more forgiving, saying Perez and his team at the DNC are making the best of a no-win situation. Whichever side lawmakers fell on, they agreed that Perez’s job has become utterly thankless — and that he’ll be the prime target of the party’s anger if things take a turn for the worse.
“It’s got to be the biggest nightmare Perez ever possibly imagined,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Of the juggling act to determine which of the two dozen candidates qualified for the first debates, Durbin added: “I don’t think there’s any way to handle this well … at the end of it, I can bet that half of those [candidates] will be unhappy.”
The DNC defended its superdelegate changes and debate criteria by saying it gives “the grassroots a bigger voice and make our primaries and caucuses more accessible by reforming our party’s nominating process.”
“I, along with Chair Tom Perez, recognize the critical role our elected officials play in this process and will continue to engage all of them, including members of Congress, as we work to ensure our party continues to be the party of the people,” said Waikinya Clanton, senior adviser to the DNC.
Not far from anyone’s mind, of course, is the unceremonious ouster of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The Florida lawmaker was pushed out ahead of the 2016 Democratic convention, a move orchestrated by many members of Congress. There is no similar desire to oust Perez at this point; in fact, many Democrats said they’re sympathetic to his plight.
“We’re family. We had a good fight. They won, we lost,” said former Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond (D-La.), wholambasted the DNClast year over its change to superdelegates. Richmond is now co-chair of Joe Biden’s campaign. “But it was a family fight, and you move on.”
But that doesn’t mean they aren’t worried, or that Perez is off the hook. Concern in the party falls into three categories: The culling of the field via polling and fundraising requirements; the refusal to dedicate a debate to the topic of climate change, an idea endorsed by many Democratic lawmakers; and thewatering downof superdelegates in response to grassroots activists.
With superdelegates now holding less sway over the nominee, the power of their endorsements dropped correspondingly.
“It was a mistake. I’ve been around long enough to see the Democratic Party and its nominating process go from [being] dominated by the political establishment to eliminating the political establishment to trying to come to the middle” after 2016, said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). The previous setup gave superdelegates a modest amount of influence over the process, he said, and “added some stability.”
Asked for his views of the DNC’s performance, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver said he’s unlikely to attend next year’s convention in Wisconsin after speaking at the last four.
“I’m not going to be a delegate,” the Missouri lawmaker told POLITICO. “I mean, I can watch it on TV.”
Not all Democrats have hard feelings over the superdelegate showdown.
“There may have been some initial grumbling about the superdelegates process, but I think people recognize it’s strengthened our party,” added Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.). “It’s restored some of the public’s confidence in the way the DNC operates.”
But the changes have sparked new disputes, including over how to ensure the party’s historically large field produces a nominee who can beat Trump.
Some congressional Democrats aren’t bothered by the teeming roster of candidates; others worry the debate stage risks looking like a circus. Caught in the middle is Perez.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said the party is doing “about as well as they can given the very uniquely complex and somewhat baffling nature of the race.” And while Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz said “there’s no way to satisfy everybody,” he warned the DNC against tactics that are too heavy-handed. The party set the bar for qualifying for the first debates at 65,000 individual donors and 1 percent in polls, numbers set to double for debates later in the year.
“The field will winnow. And I don’t think that it’s worth it for the DNC to be involved in the winnowing,” Schatz said. “I don’t find it concerning or alarming to have 20 people running for president. I think it’s great.”
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is the biggest loser under the current formula, and he’s complained loudly about missing the first debate. His lone congressional endorsee, however, wasn’t as worked up.
“I’d love him to be on the debate stage, but if in fact he didn’t meet the criteria that the DNC set up, that’s that,” said Montana Sen. Jon Tester, adding that it would be “crazy” for the party to tweak the rules in response to grumbling.
For other Democrats, it’s less about what the DNC is doing now and more that they feel Perez has done little to repair relationships with members of Congress that frayed during the superdelegates clash.
“To disenfranchise those who are really invested in this party … is not the right thing to do,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York, who has not heard from Perez recently. Still, he believes Perez is doing a good job with the debates.
The DNC made Clanton a senior adviser for outreach to members about the 2020 election. Perez has also held private meetings with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and hosted a meeting open to the entire House Democratic Caucus about the changes to superdelegates. The DNC is also consulting with leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus on how to engage communities of color.
The DNC’s vice chair, Rep. Grace Meng of New York, serves as the conduit between congressional Democrats and Perez. She told POLITICO that Perez has implemented several steps to strengthen the DNC’s relationship with House Democrats.
There are now weekly check-ins between the DNC and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to coordinate talking points. Meng circulates a monthly newsletter to lawmakers on developments at party headquarters. And the DNC now alerts lawmakers when committee leaders are holding events in their districts, something that hasn’t always happened in the past, she said.
Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley has spoken directly to Perez about making climate change a prominent topic in the debates after the DNC rejected requests for a climate-only debate. Merkley said Perez is working to assuage his concerns, “but it’s not like I have it in writing.”
Yet with Republicans feuding among themselves on a near-weekly basis, many Democrats are in no mood to air their own dirty laundry. “You think you’re going to talk about Democratic infighting [with] me?” said Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who nearly ran for president himself. “Wrong day, man.”