Dems engage in friendly debate for DNC chair

Dems engage in friendly debate for DNC chair
© Greg Nash

Democrats seeking to take over as the next Democratic National Committee chairman offered little disagreement over how to rebuild the party Wednesday, coalescing around the need to hold President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: WHCA picking non-comedian for headliner a 'good first step' Five takeaways from Mississippi's Senate debate Watergate’s John Dean: Nixon would tell Trump 'he's going too far' MORE’s feet to the fire over the next four years. 

There were no explosive moments at Wednesday night’s debate at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., sponsored by The Huffington Post. 

Instead there was widespread agreement about the path forward — a return to a 50-state strategy, a messaging improvement, a retooled primary process and opposition to Trump — along with praise for the other candidates on stage. 

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The candidates repeatedly acknowledged the lack of fireworks, noting that they’ve all pledged to keep the campaign attack-free. 

“If you had watched the Republican primary debates, there was chair throwing, there was a contest about hand size and other things,” Labor Secretary Tom Perez told the crowd.

“Among the family, the voters will choose in February which sibling will lead the family and we will then move forward as a family.”

All of the Democrats running fiercely defended Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) against a top donor’s claim that he is an “anti-Semite.”

Huffington Post editor Ryan Grim asked the group of seven candidates how many thought that Haim Saban, the Democratic mega-donor who levied the charges against Ellison, should apologize.

Everyone raised their hands except for Jehmu Greene, a Fox News political analyst running for DNC chair who said she abstained because Democrats should not entertain divisive “gotcha” questions.

“I don’t believe there is an anti-Semitic bone in his body,” South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison said of Ellison.

Ellison, who has rejected his decades-old remarks defending Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, said he has since reconciled with Saban.

The widespread agreement left little daylight between the candidates, framing the choice as more about the candidates’ resumes than their plans for the party. 

“I agree with every single word that everyone has said on this stage,” New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley said. 

“We are unified on 99 percent of this. The question is who has the record of doing this.”

The candidates all agreed on a similar diagnosis for a party that lost the White House and failed to make significant gains in the Senate and House in November, and also saw a massive decline in state legislature seats and governorships over the past eight years — a lack of investment in the grassroots and state parties. 

“The problems we had weren’t 2016 problems, the problems we had were because we abandoned the 50-state strategy,” Harrison said, a reference to the strategy employed by former DNC Chairman Howard Dean that helped build Congressional majorities ahead of President Obama’s election in 2008. 

“We sort of got drunk off of the fact we were able to elect Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama visits Chicago food bank ahead of Thanksgiving Michelle Obama's memoir is 2018's fastest-selling book at Barnes & Noble Dem bundler: Donors waiting on 2020 commitments until Beto O'Rourke makes decision MORE as president in 2008 and again in 2012 and lost sight that we needed to focus on state parties.” 

Sally Boynton Brown, the executive director at the Idaho Democratic Party, agreed but added that she believed the biggest mistake in the party’s recent history was the lack of an “overarching identity message.” 

We have to connect with their emotions, we have to connect with their pocketbooks and we have to connect with their values,” she said. 

“We need to start talking about what’s right and wrong, because I’m here to tell you that what’s happening leading up to this inauguration has been wrong.”

The specter of Trump’s inauguration on Friday loomed large, with Perez warning that the party should not be afraid to obstruct what it may see as Trump’s damaging decisions. 

“Donald Trump is what we call a target rich environment. But what we can’t do is go after him every time. You can’t meet him tweet for tweet,” he said. 

“We can hit him between the eyes with at two-by-four and treat him like [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellObama: Filibuster makes it 'almost impossible' to govern Ethics panel calls on House, Senate leaders to act on anti-sexual harassment bill Don’t fret the lame duck MORE treated Barack Obama.”

When asked how Democrats should handle the decision about whether to fight Trump, Ellison told the crowd the question has already been answered. 

"He's already shown us where he stands. He put Steve Bannon in the White House, who is a renowned white supremacist and a misogynist," he said of the former Breitbart News executive who will serve as Trump's chief strategist.

"He has already started to institute a rightwing program so we have to fight."

Perez and Ellison came in as the favorites, having worked the phones for weeks to build up endorsements.

Ellison, however, may have caused a political headache for himself, backing away from his prior pledge to ban lobbyist donations to the national party.

Ellison was praised by progressives earlier this month for vowing to reinstitute a ban on lobbyist donations to the DNC if he is elected chairman.

But he said Wednesday there needs to be a debate among DNC members about how to fill the budget hole that would create.

Ellison said he would put the matter to a vote of the 447-member body, rather than unilaterally ban the donations.

“If I become DNC chairman I won’t impose a policy it will be a Democratic process,” Ellison said.

“If it’s the will of our party, that’s what we’ll do, but it would bring the responsibility on to everyone’s shoulders because we’d have to go find that money.”