Bernie Sanders is opening old wounds.
Sanders’s recent swipe against former Vice President Joe Biden has angered Democratic party officials, who are accusing the onetime Democratic presidential candidate of refighting a bitter primary season that ripped the party in two.
The independent senator from Vermont has also infuriated supporters of Tom Perez, a top contender for Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman, after an unprovoked attack against the former Labor secretary.
Sanders, who backs Perez rival Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) for DNC chairman, has shaken up a race that has until now featured few fireworks.
The DNC campaign changed this week after Biden endorsed Perez for chairman. Sanders let loose, saying that it’s time to move beyond the “failed status-quo approach” of Biden and Perez.
The remark has elicited a furious response from Perez’s supporters, who accuse Sanders of relitigating his Democratic primary fight with Hillary Clinton when the party needs to unite behind a new leader.
Sanders’s critics are firing back, noting that he isn’t even a member of the Democratic Party.
“It is very concerning that Bernie Sanders is so intent on taking over a party that he’s not even a member of that he’d insult the beloved vice president — and really the president — about a failed status quo approach,” said Texas Democratic chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, a Perez supporter and one of 447 DNC members who will vote in late February to elect the next chairman.
“This is coming from a man who is not even a member of our party,” Hinojosa continued. “We lost an election and all of a sudden we’re all a part of a failed status quo? When he puts Joe Biden and Tom Perez in this category and paints with a broad brush he insults all of us. This is an election between loyal, qualified Democrats who love our party and the country. There’s no need for him to lower himself to that level.”
Sanders’s statement was emailed from his political account and did not come from Ellison’s campaign for DNC chairman. A spokesman for Sanders has not returned a request for comment.
The seven major candidates for DNC chairman have agreed not to attack one another and have largely kept to that promise.
But Democrats involved with the race have been frustrated by press reports characterizing the contest as a proxy battle between the party’s leftist Sanders wing, represented by Ellison, and a more moderate Barack Obama-Clinton wing, represented by Perez.
Ellison has run as a unity candidate, framing himself as someone who can bridge the divide. While he has support from figures on the left, like Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), he has also garnered endorsements from more establishment figures like Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.).
Perez, meanwhile, has the support of Biden and other White House officials who Sanders casts as the establishment. But Perez also boasts an impressive progressive resume, with stints as Labor secretary and as a Justice Department civil rights attorney.
But Sanders’s statement adds fuel to the notion that the race to be the next party leader will be a statement about whether the grassroots or the establishment wins out.
“I’m disappointed in that,” said South Carolina Democratic chairman Jaime Harrison, himself a candidate for DNC chairman. “This is my message to everybody—the 2016 primary is done, over. Sen. Sanders, Sec. Clinton, both were not victorious in 2016. We need to focus on how we become victorious in 2018, how we become victorious in 2020…we have to stop the infighting because somebody may win the battle, but ultimately we’ll lose the war.”
Some supporters of Ellison, like DNC vice chairman R.T. Rybak, another voting member, believe the controversy is being blown out of proportion.
“From the beginning people have tried to project a proxy fight onto what is, in reality, a pretty tame tactical discussion about how Democrats organize,” Rybak said. “It’s not as sexy as a narrative about Bernie-Hillary revenge, but the reality is we’re looking forward, not back.”
And Jeri Shepherd, a voting DNC member from Colorado who backs Ellison, noted that Sanders said in his statement that he considers Biden a friend has “a lot of respect” for Tom Perez.
She argued that those who took offense to Sanders’s remark are themselves looking for any reason to reignite the Sanders-Clinton debate.
“Bernie is not one to make personal attacks. That’s not his style,” Shepherd said. “The irony is that many of us aren’t interested in rehashing the primary, but there are some who are and who still see Bernie supporters as interlopers into the party. They’ll feel how they want to feel, but I don’t think it’s productive to read too much into what he said.”
For many Democratic operatives, though, the “failed status-quo” remark was an ad hominem attack typical of Sanders, one that evoked bitter memories from the primaries.
“The DNC forums and these campaigns for chair have all been about unity, unity, unity, and Bernie put out a different message,” said one Clinton ally. “He’s opening these old wounds and it looks to me also like his ego is at play. Perez and Ellison are cut from the same progressive cloth. Either one would be a strong leader.”
Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist whose firm handled communications for one of the DNC chairman forums, noted that Sanders can join the Democratic Party but has repeatedly declined.
“He doesn’t get to set the standard for a party he’s not a member of,” Simmons said. “It’s up to those 447 longtime members of the party. If he’d like to have a vote, he should join the Democratic Party. We’d love to have him. The truth is we can’t win without the Bernie wing, but we also can’t have someone who is just a voice for Bernie Sanders. The lines are not that clear. There is overlap.”
Still, it’s a fight that some progressives, emboldened by Sanders’s surprisingly successful run and energetic protests against President Trump, are eager to have.
“Bernie was right,” said Jonathan Tasini, a prominent progressive organizer who is backing Ellison. “The party is in a shambles. For the people who were at the helm to pretend like that isn’t the case is just whistling past the graveyard. This is a fight for the soul of the party and two very different views about what the party should do and stand for. It’s not a bad thing to have that debate.”
But most liberals are at ease with Ellison and Perez as the top two contenders and eager to put the divisions revealed during the 2016 campaign in the rearview for good.
“I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interest to overstate what’s at stake,” said Gara LaMarche, president of Democracy Alliance, an influential network of liberal activist groups. “Both candidates have a strong connection to social progressive movements and want to democratize the party. Whoever wins, the other side shouldn’t feel as if they lost the fight for the soul of the Democratic Party.”