Progressives rave over Harrison’s start at DNC

Jamie Harrison on Nov. 2, 2020 running for U.S. Senate
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Progressives are giving resoundingly positive early reviews to Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Jaime Harrison, saying that for the first time in years, liberals within the party infrastructure are seeing a boost in their status.

Interviews with nearly a dozen Democrats, including current and former DNC leaders, committee members and close Harrison allies, reveal a change in the attitude and approach in the party’s top brass toward progressives. 

Where many felt detached and disgruntled under former Chairman Tom Perez, they see Harrison as a figure eager to engage. 

“I didn’t know Jaime Harrison, but I have been very pleased,” said Jim Zogby, a progressive DNC member who supported Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) presidential campaigns. “This is a whole new experience in terms of the kind of personal outreach he’s made to so many different sectors of the party.” 

Progressives had an often-difficult private relationship with Perez, a former Obama-era Labor secretary, who is still criticized for his handling of the DNC.

“Perez was a disaster of a DNC Chairman, squandering any gains made by the Obama team, not taking advantage of downballot anti-Trump opportunities, and missing the potential gains over the RNC [Republican National Committee] in branding, data, and candidate recruitment,” said Michael Cohen, CEO of Cohen Research Group and the author of the new book, “Modern Political Campaigns.” 

“In 2020 the GOP made gains with Hispanic voters during his tenure, which cost [Democrats] winnable Florida races,” he added. 

Some Democrats view the criticism of Perez, who led the DNC for two years when the party was out of power in the White House and Congress, as unfair. They say he had a tough job after 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s surprise loss, when he inherited a divided party unified only in its hatred of former President Trump. 

But DNC members interviewed for this story also said Perez suffered from a lack of support from progressives, who didn’t see him as part of the fold. Perez last month joined Venable LLP as a partner, where he is set to advise clients on regulatory and policy issues. 

“It’s day and night,” another DNC member said of Harrison and Perez. “I felt like we were lost at sea during the Perez era. There was not a lot of confidence in him and in the direction of the party. Now, it feels like we’re back on track with someone who understands the party apparatus, and he has an understanding of what it’ll take to run a party that has felt so neglected.” 

Harrison’s rise tracks in some ways with Biden, who won an endorsement from House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) that helped propel him to a victory in the state’s Democratic primary and a huge showing on Super Tuesday. 

Harrison, a lifelong resident of South Carolina, served as the state party chairman for five years, including during the 2020 primary. More eyes fell on Harrison given those connections and his own effort to unseat Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Clyburn pushed Harrison for the DNC job.

In an interview with The Hill on Tuesday, Clyburn said he thought Harrison was the right person for the role because “he has everything going for him.”

“I always say experience is the best teacher,” Clyburn said, pointing to Harrison’s time running a state party as well as his Senate campaign.  “He is going to build a party that will surprise a lot of people.”

The majority whip said it was a “mistake” to move away from the 50-state plan that former Chairman Howard Dean laid out in previous years, in which Democrats sought to compete in the presidential race in every state. “I thought it was a very successful effort,” he said. “And Democrats, you need to be as inclusive as you possibly can. When you run campaigns with no room for error, things can get pretty problematic.”

While many embraced Harrison as Biden’s choice to succeed Perez, his ties to moderate Democrats like the longtime Southern congressman and reputation as a party insider made him a somewhat puzzling unifier among the activist class.

During his Senate bid, Harrison did not embrace the Sanders-backed version of “Medicare for All” and said the Green New Deal plan pushed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and other progressives in the House was “not feasible.” 

After Harrison transitioned into the role in January, however, he began “constantly” working the lines to members on the left, another party committee member said. Four DNC members told The Hill that Harrison is more accessible and open to dialogue than Perez. 

Harrison appointed Helen Brosnan, who previously worked as an independent expenditure director for Justice Democrats and as a regional political director for Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) presidential campaign, to do outreach to the left. She held a call on Monday with progressive members soliciting ideas for the DNC.

“Chair Harrison is proud to expand on the DNC’s foundation of success and is committed to ensuring that our party is in the strongest possible position to win and rewrite history in the months and years ahead,” a DNC spokesperson said on Monday. “Our party’s diversity is our greatest strength and that belief is central to the DNC’s work to support our members and to deliver for the American people.” 

Last week, Harrison used punchy language in pushing Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to vote in favor of voting rights legislation backed by the majority of the Democratic caucus in the Senate. 

Manchin had announced at the beginning of the week that he opposed the bill, angering progressives. In an interview with MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle, Harrison laid on the pressure. 

“Joe Manchin needs to do what Americans want our senators to do, which is to protect their right to vote,” he said.  

Traditionally, DNC leaders are required to remain neutral, even during heated moments of dispute. 

But some progressives say they can imagine Harrison pushing lawmakers from the outside. 

“Many of us would be very interested in that,” said Jeri Shepherd, a Colorado-based DNC member.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bernie Sanders Democratic National Committee DNC Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton Jaime Harrison Joe Manchin Lindsey Graham Michael Cohen Tom Perez
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