The much-heralded Democratic National Committee chairperson race comes to a close this weekend as national committee members vote for a new chair to replace Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who stepped down last year. A number of high-profile contenders are in the running, including Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, Obama administration Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison. The role of DNC chair entails fundraising for the Democratic Party, supporting state parties, and driving the general direction of party affairs. Regardless of who wins, in light of the contentious 2016 primary and November’s election results, this leadership election has implications for years to come.
While the DNC Chair race does not directly involve policy, its divisions shine a spotlight on cleavages within the party. Tom Perez, a Hillary Clinton ally throughout the primary season, claims to have nearly as many votes as he needs to win. Keith Ellison, however, a Bernie fan all along, contests that claim, despite not having his own whip chart. These two candidates are considered frontrunners, but each of them is very closely associated with one of the two main Democratic primary contenders. The primary, a divisive, drawn-out contest, became ugly at times, between the Berniebro phenomenon and the DNC’s clear favouritism towards Hillary Clinton. This back and forth, instead of fostering constructive debate, led to damaging mudslinging. Thus, the DNC race appears to be rehashing the Bernie-Hillary dichotomy that at times threatened to tear the party apart.
This is why Democrats should consider an alternative to Keith Ellison and Tom Perez. The DNC needs a chair unchained to perceptions of being the “Bernie candidate” or the “Hillary Candidate.” It is important to evaluate what kind of direction the party needs. Considering Hillary Clinton’s losses in Obama 2008/2012 states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, Michigan and Pennsylvania, perhaps Democrats should look for a candidate with experience in the Rust Belt and the ability to reach White working class voters along with members of the Obama coalition.
In South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, Democrats have an energetic, experienced candidate ready to move the party forward in a unified manner. Mayor Pete, as his many fans affectionately call him, is a 35 year old Rhodes Scholar and Navy reservist. As mayor, he has presided over the revitalization of South Bend, a postindustrial rust belt town turned technology hub. Adding to his impressive resume, Pete is an openly gay, “churchgoing, antique gun collecting” millennial. Who could better bridge the much-touted gap between the White working class voters Democrats lost this cycle and the new Democratic coalition of LGBT voters, youth, and other coalition groups than Pete Buttigieg? His ethos and experience combine to forge a path forward that incorporates all elements needed for long term Democratic victory. Instead of being associated with a presidential candidate, Mayor Pete is the candidate best suited to represent the entire Democratic Party.
Moreover, Mayor Pete’s platform is what the party needs. As a Democrat with red-state roots, he understands that state parties need a relative degree of flexibility. A top-down strategy ignores the fact that Kansas Democrats and New York Democrats have different needs, operate in different contexts, and face different challenges. His plan to build benches in all 50 states speaks to true concern for the future of the party not just in the White House or Congress, but on every single level of government. Finally, his platform represents a step towards unifying the Democratic Party, a key step for winning future races.
The DNC’s members face a weighty choice this weekend. Instead of rehashing the primary election’s divisions, they should pick Mayor Pete to lead the DNC. His candidacy is the bid Democrats need. Victory comes only in unity, and Mayor Pete is a progressive choice ready to turn the Democratic Party into a winning party once again.