Friday, February 24, 2017
By Karyn Bruggeman
Rep. Keith Ellison and former Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, the two leading contenders for Democratic National Committee chairman, have struggled to avoid the characterization that their contest is a replica of the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.
In at least one way, it isn’t.
Many labor unions came out early in support of Hillary Clinton, with whom Perez is aligned. But in this race, which ends Saturday at the party meeting in Atlanta, most of the same groups are now backing Ellison, who has the support of Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The reversal comes at a time when both the Democratic Party and labor movement are mulling an uncertain future. As Democrats are relegated to minority status in Congress, governorships, and state legislatures, union membership is also declining and Donald Trump won 42 percent of voters in union households in November, according to exit polls, primarily by opposing free trade and promising the return of manufacturing and energy jobs.
Ellison’s strength among organized labor is particularly notable given that he won it over Perez, whose Cabinet post in the Obama administration helped provide close ties to most labor leaders. But union members say their support for Ellison, a six-term Minnesota Democrat, is not about the Clinton-vs.-Sanders or Left-vs.-center split, but rather this position’s inherently different job description.
“The labor movement’s support for Keith is pretty surprisingly deep and strong especially considering it’s coming from people who are great admirers of the job that Perez did as Labor secretary, including me,” said Paul Booth, a top aide to American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees President Lee Saunders, a voting DNC member.
But, Booth added, “we need an effective Democratic Party and an organizer to put the mechanism together that can actually stop losing these elections.” Ellison’s roots are in activism and organizing, while Perez has a managerial background.
Perez is widely respected for championing pro-worker policies at Labor, but Ellison is often characterized as a man of the people who’s fought side-by-side with union members. Most labor endorsements of Ellison evoke images of him “on the picket line,” and as someone who knows how to run campaigns and support candidates.
Before Ellison was elected to Congress in 2006, he was active in local issues in Minnesota. He is also a longtime member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and has been a key labor ally in Congress for the past decade. Ellison opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, while Perez supported it.
“The basic reasons for it are, we look at Keith as an organizer and we think that this role of leading the DNC at this particular time needs someone who has an orientation towards grassroots organizing and experience with that, and that’s Keith,” said Mike Cavanaugh, the executive assistant to AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre, who is the AFL-CIO’s voting DNC member.
The next DNC chair will be decided Saturday by 447 voting DNC members. There are estimated to be between 30 and 45 union members who will cast a ballot. But Ellison enters the election with broad—though not unanimous—support among major labor unions and their top leaders, including those who have votes in the DNC race.
The list of Ellison’s labor endorsements is long. He has the backing of the AFL-CIO; the Service Employees International Union; the Teamsters; the United Steelworkers; the American Federation of Government Employees; the United Auto Workers; the Communications Workers of America; UNITE HERE, a major manufacturing and hospitality industry union; and two major SEIU locals, 1199 and 32BJ.
Ellison has individual endorsements from union presidents of AFSCME and the two major national teachers’ unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. He is also supported by former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, a DNC voting member and former House colleague of Ellison’s.
Perez has won a handful of labor endorsements in the race. The largest union backing Perez is the United Food and Commercial Workers, which has 1.3 million members. But Perez also has the support of seven comparatively smaller unions, including the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which supported Sanders last year.
There is a degree of suspicion among Perez’s staff and supporters that some unions came out early for Ellison as a course correction after Clinton’s loss, and to honor their members who supported Sanders and thought the Vermont senator could have beaten Trump. However, unions that did back Perez say they did so primarily because they want his management experience, not someone who will show up at every rally or protest.
“Secretary Perez had managed a large agency and made it function in a way that helped working men and women, and we feel that with his dedication to labor and the working public, he’d be a great fit to manage and move such a large organization like the DNC,” said Ademola Oyefeso, the associate director of the UFCW’s political department.
Ellison supporters say that if their support does represent the desire for a reset, it’s from the leadership of former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, not Clinton. Some of them harbor frustration with Wasserman Schultz for not placing enough of an emphasis on labor issues during her tenure and spending too much time raising corporate money, most of which was funneled toward the presidential race.
In terms of winning back the union voters Democrats have lost to Trump and other Republicans in recent elections, Ellison has won points for his early warning in 2015 that Trump could win, despite widespread mockery of his candidacy at the time. Even Trump took notice this week of Ellison’s prescient comments, tweeting that Ellison “was the one who predicted early that I would win!”
However, no one anticipates that winning back those votes is a problem the DNC chair alone will be able to fix.
“There’s a big credibility challenge, which is reflected by the success President Trump had in November,” Booth said. “And we have to be sober about it and not think that there are quick fixes about it. Trust has to be earned.”