WASHINGTON — Democratic activists, still stung after losing the White House in the 2016 election, will decide which path they’ll take to rebuild their party when they vote Saturday in an unusually competitive contest for Democratic National Committee chairman.
At their conference in Atlanta, Democrats are expected to elect either Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) during the party primaries, or Tom Perez, who backed Hillary Clinton for president, from a field of seven remaining contenders.
“This is one of the times that the future direction of the Democratic Party is at stake. We’re going to have to decide whether we’re going to go to sharp left or stay center left,” said Nassau County Democratic Party chairman Jay Jacobs.
Hanging over the election is the mistrust of Sanders’ supporters, who charge the DNC rigged the primaries for Clinton, and the belief that Democrats lost touch with rural and working-class voters, who helped elect Donald Trump president.
At a debate Wednesday night, all eight contenders agreed that Democrats must take the fight to Trump over his policies and bring the thousands of anti-Trump protesters into the party.
Jacobs and Robert Zimmerman, Long Island’s DNC committeemen, said they will vote for Perez. He is also backed by former Vice President Joe Biden and South Carolina Democratic chairman Jaime Harrison, who quit the chairman race Thursday.
“I am supporting Tom Perez because I believe that he will be able to bridge the divide, given his background,” said Jacobs, who noted the country is still “center right.”
Ellison is supported by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the state Democrats’ vice chair.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said they are staying neutral.
Emerging as a possible compromise candidate if neither Perez nor Ellison attain a majority is South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Bittigieg.
Perez and Ellison each would bring baggage to the post.
Perez, the labor secretary in President Barack Obama’s second term, supported the now discarded Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, putting him at odds with workers who defected to Trump. “I take a back seat to no one for what I accomplished at the Labor Department,” Perez said at the debate.
Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress in 2006, has Jewish critics who question his defense in the 1990s of a group accused of anti-Semitism and his pro-Palestinian views as a congressman.
At the debate, Ellison called those criticisms “false allegations.” He cited support from Jewish groups, called himself a “stalwart champion of a two-state solution,” and said, “It is critical that we speak up against anti-Semitism.”
Zimmerman said, “The battle for chairman is not the real challenge for the Democratic Party. The real challenge is making the Democratic Party relevant.”