One of the reasons I thought the Democratic Party was about to turn the page on the acrimony of the presidential primaries was because the two leading candidates to run the Democratic National Committee were speaking the same language. Not only that, the campaign waged by former labor secretary Tom Perez and Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., was devoid of vitriol and personal attacks.
The two men have similar visions for the Democratic Party, where it should go and how it must get there. They both want it to reach all Americans in every zip code. And they both were eager to take the fight to President Donald Trump, the better to harness the anger and organic activism against him.
But the illusion that all was kumbaya in the age of Trump came crashing down around me during an MSNBC interview I did with Jane Kleeb, state Democratic Party chair in Nebraska.
She was for Ellison. And in the moments before the second ballot would make Perez the party leader, Kleeb unleashed an attack that took me back to the Democratic primary battles between Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
“There is a huge gulf between the grass roots in the streets and the party establishment, and I don’t think anybody else can actually take those pieces of wood and build a bridge between those two folks,” said Kleeb. “Tom Perez not only supports the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership], he also supports Keystone XL pipeline and the Dakota access pipeline. Those three issues are main issues for voters and I don’t see how he can represent the progressive wing of the party knowing that he supports those issues.”
When I asked Kleeb later if she would stand with Perez if he did indeed win, she added, “It’s his responsibility to build a bridge. Not mine. And there’s a lot of bridge that needs to [be] built.”
Perez won, which caused some Ellison supporters to yell, “Not big money, party for the people.”
That, and the emphatic speeches calling for unity by both men, especially by Ellison, were more examples of how the wounds opened during the primaries have yet to heal.
“I am asking you to give everything you got to support Chairman Perez. You love this country. You love all the people in it. You care about each and every one of them,” Ellison said in his call on everyone to support Perez. “Urban, rural, suburban, all colors, all cultures, all faiths, everybody. And they are in need of your help. And if we waste even a moment going at it over who supported who, we are not going to be standing up for those people.”
Although my colleague James Downie believes the onus is on the DNC establishment to let in new ideas, the Ellison-Sanders wing of the Democratic Party upset over the Perez victory do neither themselves nor their issues and party any good by continuing to stew in a roiling cauldron of rage over last year’s primary battles.
As I clapped back at an untold number of dead-enders for Sanders on Twitter, fighting the last war while President Trump takes a Republican sledgehammer to the Obama legacy and tries to institute a new normal where corrosive chaos and incompetence replace a true reverence for the Constitution and governance is idiotic.
Kleeb gets this. By Sunday morning, Kleeb told me on MSNBC’s “AM Joy,” “I’m very excited for Chairman Perez. He not only started to build that bridge. I feel like he’s building an entire house and making sure that progressives and those who supported Bernie and Rep. Ellison are actually at the table.”
Perez’s first move within moments of becoming DNC chairman was to make Ellison deputy chairman of the party. A smart, unifying move in what I can only hope will be an unending series of them. For his part, Ellison announced that Perez would be his guest at the president’s address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday.
The energy needed to build and maintain that house Kleeb mentions is already out there in the streets as the American people make their voices heard on everything from Obamacare and Muslim bans to disregard for transgender school students and indifference towards anti-Semitism. To harness that energy into a potent political force, the Democratic Party must be as focused and determined today as the GOP was during the rise of the tea party in 2009.
For that to happen this Democrat-on-Democrat fight must end. Now.