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Who's Who In The Race For DNC Chair — And Their Plans To Make Democrats Win Again

Against a backdrop of turmoil and after big losses in November, the Democratic National Committee votes this week for its next leader. The winner of the DNC chair race will very likely reflect whether the committee's voting members think it prudent to align their party with the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama camp, the Bernie Sanders camp — or neither.

With the fast-moving developments of the Trump administration, Democrats have struggled to focus their efforts. But the coalescence of a grass-roots resistance, seen in protests across the country, has generated new confidence and energy in those running.

The new chair will replace Donna Brazile, who took the job on an interim basis after Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned the leadership in July, when WikiLeaks released emails that appeared to show DNC officials discussing how to hurt Sanders in the primaries.

To get on the ballot, a candidate needs the signatures of 20 out of 447 voting members. The ballot goes out on Wednesday, then members will vote during the party's meeting in Atlanta on Saturday, in as many rounds as it takes for a candidate to garner 224 votes.

Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez is trying to solidify front-runner status: Last week he contacted DNC members, saying that he had locked in support from 180 voters. Rep. Keith Ellison, expected to be the main challenger to Perez, replied with a letter to members that said it was inappropriate for a candidate to try to "make the race sound like it is over," adding, "We are very confident in our whip count and are in an excellent position to win."

Here is a look at candidates Perez, Ellison, Jaime Harrison, Pete Buttigieg, Sally Boynton Brown and Jehmu Greene. Highlights from interviews with NPR and others indicate where they want to take the party:

Tom Perez

Perez, 55, represents the Obama camp — he was secretary of labor from 2013 until last month and was considered the most liberal member of President Barack Obama's Cabinet. Before joining the Labor Department, he was head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez speaks at the 84th annual Winter Meeting of The United States Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 21.
Nicholas Kamm / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez speaks at the 84th annual Winter Meeting of The United States Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 21.

What went wrong in 2016

"What voters heard was 'he's feeling my pain, he's feeling my anxiety. And what they heard all too frequently from the Clinton campaign was, 'Vote for me because he's crazy.' I will stipulate to the accuracy of that statement, but that's not an affirmative message," Perez told the Washington Post.

How the DNC can be more useful

"We have to up our game," Perez told NPR in January. "And the reason I'm running is because we have to make sure that we are providing help and partnership with the state parties. Organizing has to be a 12-month endeavor. You can't show up at a church every fourth October and say, 'Vote for me,' and call that persuasion. ...

"What I want to do if I have the good fortune of being elected chair is build a party infrastructure in partnership with our state partners so that we have organizers in place in urban, suburban and rural communities across America so that we are a force on important issues, whether it's voting rights, whether it's cybersecurity. And we need to have a director of cybersecurity at the DNC, which we currently don't have."

On whether Democrats should pursue obstruction or cooperation

"We need to take the fight to Donald Trump. If they're talking about deporting children, we're going to take the fight to Donald Trump. If Donald Trump wants to raise the minimum wage to $15, yes, I will work with Donald Trump. But you know what? If they are going to try to have a deportation task force and they're going to try to continue to deny climate change, you're damn right we need to fight. And we will continue that fight because this is a battle for the heart and soul of who we are as Americans," he told NPR.

Key endorsements: former Vice President Joe Biden, former Attorney General Eric Holder, former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius

Keith Ellison

Ellison, 53, represents Minnesota's 5th District, which includes Minneapolis and some of its suburbs. In 2007, he became the first Muslim elected to Congress.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) speaks during a news conference in front of the Capitol on Feb. 1.
Alex Wong / Getty Images
Getty Images
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) speaks during a news conference in front of the Capitol on Feb. 1.

What went wrong in 2016

"The thing is that before 2008, we had the 50-state strategy, and that is in fact still pretty popular among DNC members," Ellison told Vox in January. "As you notice, we did pretty well in 2006; we did pretty well in 2008. I think that's because we still had enough connectivity in place from that 50-state strategy, but as time wore on, the tremendous popularity of Barack Obama, his amazing rhetorical skills, his just unparalleled ability to explain things and to inspire people really is the fuel that we lived on. Because of that, we lost a lot."

What Democrats need to learn from Republicans

"I do not believe that Democrats have identified the fact that voter expansion has to be a strategic goal of ours, and yet Republicans clearly are aware that voter suppression must be a strategic goal of theirs," he told Vox. "They're actively suppressing the vote. They're doing it in 50 states. They're doing it with a PR program. They're doing it with a state legislative program. They're doing it with a city program, just simply not enough voting machines. They're doing it with a legal program. What are we doing? We're doing state by state. Oregon's doing great work, but what about others? This should be 50 pieces of legislation introduced in all states that expand the vote. That's clearly what we need to be doing. The DNC has to help do that."

How the Democrats can win

"Voter turnout has got to be something that is on the mind of every rank-and-file Democrat, every Democratic officeholder. We must, in terms of turnout, think in terms of expanding the electorate beyond the people who are the likely voters in the swing states. Turnout has got to be key," Ellison told Vox.

"When I was elected in 2006, my district had the lowest turnout in the state of Minnesota. Now it's the highest, and it's consistently the highest. ... We don't have no statewide Republicans. We used to. You remember Tim Pawlenty, who used to be the governor, and you remember Norm Coleman. Why can't a Norm Coleman or a Tim Pawlenty get back into statewide office? Because in the Fifth Congressional District, we spike the vote so high they cannot get in."

Key endorsements: Sen. Bernie Sanders; Sen. Elizabeth Warren; Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer; Rep. John Lewis; New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley, who dropped out of the DNC race over the weekend

Jaime Harrison

Harrison, 40, is chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party. He was previously executive director of the House Democratic Caucus and worked for the Podesta Group, a lobbying firm.

South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison speaks during the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 28, 2016.
J. Scott Applewhite / AP
South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison speaks during the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 28, 2016.

On what went wrong

"We got spoiled because we had the political phenom of Barack Obama. And we won in '08, and we won in '12, but we lost sight of it's not just about 1600 Pennsylvania [Ave.]. It's about also those folks who are working and representing people on Main Street," Harrison told NPR.

Where the party goes from here

"The people who are elected on local levels have just as much impact, if not more, on the day-to-day lives of citizens," he told NPR. "And so we can't just be focused on the White House. If we do what we have to do on a state level, then the White House is gravy. And that's the focus. ... And let me tell you this — look at the victories in 2006 and in 2008. Howard Dean started the 50-state strategy in 2006. I don't know if folks remember. The 2004 election was probably just as sobering of an election for Democrats. We lost everything. But what happened is Howard Dean came, enacted this 50-state strategy, and we won the House and the Senate back in '06. And then based on that foundation, we grew the majorities in the House and the Senate and added the president."

Why he should win

"If I become DNC chair at the age of 40, I'll probably be half the average age of the Democratic leadership in Washington, D.C. ... I bring a different perspective," he told NPR. "I will probably be the — if elected chair — probably the only person that's ever been on food stamps that's been chairman of the Democratic Party, the only chair that will have over $160,000 of student loan debt. I mean, I can relate to the story of so many in this country who started behind the start line and now are trying to become successful."

Key endorsements:Reps. James Clyburn, Tim Ryan, Marcia Fudge and John Larson

Pete Buttigieg

Buttigieg is the 35-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind. He is an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and left office temporarily in 2014 to serve in Afghanistan.

South Bend Mayor Peter Buttigieg speaks to reporters in South Bend, Ind., in 2013.
Joe Raymond / AP
South Bend Mayor Peter Buttigieg speaks to reporters in South Bend, Ind., in 2013.

Where the party needs to go

"One thing that I've noticed about the other side of the aisle is they are very patient in building their majorities. You know, you had organizations that started by running people for school board in the '80s and are seeing dividends on that now. And we've got to have the same patience," he told NPR. "We, as a party, can't treat the next cycle like it's the only one that matters. For example, you know, 2020 is a year that will have huge implications for redistricting. And so we've got to be looking at the statehouses, not treating the presidency like it's the only office that matters."

Why it's crucial to have a message that's more than anger

"There have been a lot of outrages coming from Washington in the last few weeks, and they rightly inspire a level of anger, but we can't have that be the only thing anybody hears from us. We've got to be talking about what our values actually are and what the policies are that flow from them," he told NPR. "When we're talking about things like the deportation rates, we should also be talking about the importance of family, why we believe it's important to keep families intact and allow families to stay together. Every time we're saying no to something, we've got to be saying yes to something else. And I do think that we can have an energy that is at or above the level of what you saw with the Tea Party."

On whether town hall protests are a good strategy

"I think the important thing right now is to really lift up our voices and speak to the values that make us Democrats. You know, one of the things that's striking about the town halls is a lot of them are very specifically about issues like whether people are going to have their health care taken away," he told NPR. "And the more we can have this discussion focus on how ordinary people are going to be affected by the decisions that are being made in Washington, then the better chance we have of reconnecting with a lot of parts of the country that didn't really feel like they were in touch with the Democratic Party in the last go around. ... Compromise is only possible when the other party is working in good faith. And if there's one thing that Democrats in Congress in Washington learned the hard way about congressional Republicans it's that there's not a lot of people there in good faith."

Why he should win

"We're all saying that we've got to engage a new generation. We've all said that we need to get back to the state and local level. And so my contention is if we're saying we want engage a new generation, bring in a leader from a new generation. If we're saying we want to compete and win in red and purple states, find somebody who's been competing and winning in as red a state as it gets, Mike Pence's Indiana," he told NPR. "And if we're recognizing that the solutions are not going to come from Washington, D.C., put in somebody who doesn't get up in the morning and go to an office in Washington, D.C., every day."

Key endorsements:former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, former DNC Chair and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland

Sally Boynton Brown

Boynton Brown, in her early 40s, has been the executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party since 2012.

On what went wrong

"Well, I really think that we have lost focus as a party. I don't think we have any overarching identity message. We've let the Republicans frame the debate and frame our party for a really long time. And, frankly, I will say that in losing the amount of statehouses that we've lost, we've also allowed them to legislate. And what we know is that they've been passing really dangerous voter suppression laws, really stripping Americans of their rights and their freedoms," she told NPR in January.

"And we have not had an organization who's designed to fight back. We have 57 state parties who have been doing that to the best of their abilities. But it's time that we had a DNC really designed to look at not just the president of the United States and that seat but every single seat all the way down to school board and city council and county commissioner seats."

On what's next

"Ultimately, I think the Democratic Party's job is to save democracy and to be the fighters for freedom," she told NPR. "Republicans have been stripping us of our freedoms. There's a lot of evidence to suggest that our constitutional rights can be under fire in this next administration. And we absolutely must be of powerful voice to push back on anything that potentially is going to come down the road."

Key endorsements:California DNC member Christine Pelosi

Jehmu Greene

Greene, 44, is a former president of Rock the Vote and was a political analyst at Fox News. The daughter of Liberian immigrants, Greene cut her teeth as the executive director of Texas Young Democrats. She also worked in the private sector as president of WakaWaka, a solar social enterprise.

Jehmu Greene, formerly president of the Women's Media Center, at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
Jason Kempin / Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival
Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival
Jehmu Greene, formerly president of the Women's Media Center, at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

On superdelegates and caucuses

"We have to re-imagine our structures and processes. It is time to retire the outdated concept of superdelegates. That does not mean — and I say this as I look at the DNC members who are all superdelegates — we have to find a new way to honor the veterans of the party, to honor our elected officials. We have to stand shoulder to shoulder and understand that innovation and transformation is powerful, and it is possible if we do it together. It can't just start or stop with superdelegates. We also have to take a good, hard look at caucuses. Because as a party, if we are not walking our values and [are] electing a nominee through a system that disenfranchises shift workers and the disabled and seniors, and communities that we say make up this great party of ours, then we are not the Democratic Party that we claim to be," Greene said at the DNC's final forum for chair candidates.

What the DNC needs in a leader

"We have to have a DNC leader who is willing to speak truth to power and say very specifically, 'I acknowledge the wounds of Bernie Sanders's supporters who feel that they were left out of this election unfairly. And I also acknowledge the wounds of Hillary Clinton's supporters who feel that sexism and misogyny has been too rampant in our party and in the media on how she was treated.' And we have to have a leader who will speak truth to power to this institution of the Democratic Party and say, 'We ourselves have sexism, racism, and bigotry within our own ranks and we have too much complexity.' ... The Obama years were great in the lifting us out of recession, but they decimated the DNC. The Clinton campaign treated this institution with disrespect. And so we need a leader who is going to speak truth to power and put actual specific plans in place."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 20, 2017 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Sen. Chuck Schumer as the Senate majority leader. He is the minority leader.
Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.
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