DNC chair contenders seek unified front against Trump

Tempers flare between Democrats and FBI director
Tempers flare between Democrats and FBI director

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Story highlights

  • Democrats hold their first of four forums to select a new chair
  • Rep. Keith Ellison and Labor Secretary Tom Perez are leading contenders

Phoenix (CNN)Over and over, the candidates to helm the Democratic National Committee stressed Saturday that they're waging a new fight against Donald Trump -- not re-fighting the old one between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

Their race is no proxy battle, and the party is now unified around the cause of stopping Trump as he prepares to take the oath of office, the seven contenders said.
Now, they are asking the party to decide the type of resume and experience that can lift the party from 2016's wreckage.
    There's the grassroots progressive organizer, Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota. There's the nuts-and-bolts "turnaround artist," Labor Secretary Tom Perez.
    Then there's Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who proudly boasts that -- unlike Ellison, who endorsed Sanders in the Democratic primary, and Perez, who was close to Clinton -- he had nothing to do with the 2016 race.
    They and four other candidates to become the next Democratic National Committee chair officially kicked off the race with a forum here Saturday.
    They are competing to lead an organization beset by accusations -- based largely on a limited debate schedule and stolen emails published by WikiLeaks -- that the DNC improperly put its thumb on the scales in the 2016 contest between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
    Each offered plans to ease lingering tensions.
    Ellison said he'd hold at least one monthly chair's call with DNC members, at least one monthly regional call and at least one monthly live-streamed event connecting the party's chair with its grass roots.
    Perez promised to invest in and empower state-level Democratic parties, saying he would help them "take Howard Dean to scale" -- referring to the "50-state strategy" coined by the last winner of a wide-open DNC chair's race.
    "I believe the DNC needs a fresh start, too, and I believe that I can deliver that fresh start," Buttigieg said.
    The Phoenix gathering was the first of four "future forums" Democrats are holding ahead of their election of a new national chair in Atlanta in February.
    The race is wide open, though Ellison and Perez boast the most support from big-name party figures. All seven candidates greeted steady streams of DNC voting members, with about one in eight of the 437 who will select the next chair in attendance Saturday.
    For 90 minutes, the seven candidates pitched their own resumes -- but beyond approving head-nods, all but ignored each other.
    All agreed that Democrats need to face Trump with a united front. And that the party must make voting access a foremost priority. And that Dean's "50-state strategy," launched in 2005, is a model to which the party must return.
    Mostly, they stressed that -- despite Ellison's early endorsement from Sanders and support from many Sanders-aligned progressive groups, and Perez's close ties to both Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama -- the DNC race isn't a proxy for Sanders vs. Clinton, round two.
    "You know, people ask me, 'Are you a Clinton Democrat or a Bernie Democrat?' Guys, I grew up in South Carolina and all I've ever been is a Democrat," said Jaime Harrison, the South Carolina state chairman.
    Ellison made a point of name-checking Clinton before Sanders, and told the crowd he ultimately supported both candidates -- Sanders in the primary and Clinton in the general election.
    "We need to unify, no matter who we supported in the primary," Ellison said.
    "This is a 'where were you?' moment, and that's why I got in the race," Perez added.
    "United, we will be able to fight back and fight back successfully," said New Hampshire state chairman Ray Buckley.
    Buttigieg offered himself as a clean break from 2016 -- and a voice from the heart of Trump country who could speak to the concerns of the working-class voters who have bolted from the Democratic Party.
    "A lot of the people who live right down the street from me know he's not a good guy. They voted for him anyway," Buttigieg said of Trump.
    Democrats, he said, spent too much time hammering away at Trump and not enough communicating with voters who "were saying, who's talking about me?"
    The 34-year-old mayor is a Rhodes Scholar, Afghanistan veteran and openly gay elected official in a conservative state. Buttigieg said he "started 2017 in a deer blind with my boyfriend's father."
    There's a reason none of the Democratic candidates wants to cast the race as Sanders vs. Clinton, part two: It would make winning the race much more difficult.
    Ellison knows opposition from Clinton- and Obama-aligned forces would put a hard cap on his potential support -- part of why his campaign played up the endorsement of Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer.
    Perez, meanwhile, knows that with several other candidates in the race, being the establishment pick isn't enough -- and that the "establishment" label is a trap in a party that has moved rapidly to the left.
    The other candidates' belief is that both Ellison and Perez will eventually top out shy of the votes they'd need, and a third alternative acceptable to all the party's factions will emerge.
    Also in the race are Idaho Democratic Party executive director Sally Boynton Brown and Fox News analyst Jehmu Greene.
    "I'm sure," Greene joked, "a lot of you are sitting out there saying, 'Jeh-who?'"
    There was some evidence that the 2016 tensions haven't eased entirely.
    Boynton Brown brought props -- including a giant clear globe ornament that she said should represent the party's communication, rather than what she called a siloed structure that exists today -- and called for the creation of a "grievance council" within the DNC.
    "Until we start actually looking at who has issues with each other and bringing it down to the individual level," she said, "we're not going to solve this."