The event hosted by the Huffington Post and SMPA welcomed seven hopefuls who want to be the next leader of the Democratic National Committee. A second on-campus forum will take place Monday night.
By B.L. Wilson
The candidates seeking to lead the Democratic Party each said they know how to best move the party forward after 2016 elections that ended with Republicans winning the White House and maintaining control of Congress.
The seven—a congressional representative, a political organizer, several state party representatives, a former cabinet member and a mayor—are running to lead Democrats as chair of the Democratic National Committee. They shared their views Wednesday during a debate at the George Washington University.
The contenders traded ideas during the event sponsored by the Huffington Post and GW’s School of Media and Public Affairs. The Huffington Post’s Lydia Polgreen and Ryan Grimm moderated the debate at Jack Morton Auditorium.
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) was greeted by cheers from the audience. He said the party should replicate nationally the kind of grassroots, door-to-door effort that he said helped to turn his state into a Democratic stronghold.
"[The increased voter turnout] kept Trump away in Minnesota this time," he said. "There are no Republican legislators in my district, and there were when I got there. We have got to knock on doors, organize and go to 50 states.”
All of the candidates said they support a 50-state, grassroots strategy, a term coined by former DNC chair Howard Dean who was in the audience.
Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, asked the group from the audience whether a grassroots strategy would work in “a resource constrained environment” with a number of state legislatures up for grabs in 2018.
South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison said that the party could learn from the Republican Party, which “doesn’t give up on any state.”
Former Fox News analyst Jehmu Green told the crowd that the DNC needs an experienced organizer and communicator. “We do not need another politician. Been there, done that,” she said. “Electoral work is critical, but it is not going to happen successfully if we are not building the next generation of organizers,” Ms. Green said.
Amara Manoogian, a GW graduate student in global communications who grew up in Michigan in a pro-union family, asked the candidates what they would do for Democrats at the state and local levels.
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg answered that the DNC too often acts as if all that matters is winning the White House.
“Good old grassroots organizing, neighbor to neighbor,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “We’ve got to recognize that that, and not from Washington on down, is how we’re going to rebuild our party and get the majority we need.”
All of the candidates said staying true to the Democratic Party’s message and progressive values were key.
Sally Boynton Brown, the executive director of Idaho’s Democratic Party, said the biggest mistake Democrats made in the 2016 elections was not having an overarching identity message nationally.
“We can’t just keep attacking Republicans.” Ms. Boynton Brown said. “We are the people that lift everybody in America up, and we need to start talking about that.”
Ms. Polgreen, one of the moderators, asked former Labor Secretary Tom Perez whether someone from the administration whose successor lost the national election should be put in charge of rebuilding the party.
Mr. Perez said that Democrats need to remember three things: Data analytics are no substitute for making house calls in rural and urban areas; the message of jobs and economic opportunity is the way to move forward; and the party must aggressively fight voter suppression, a key part of the Republican playbook.
“We got to play offense and defense,” Mr. Perez said, by fighting purges of voter rolls and laws requiring voter ID.
Ray Buckley, chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said the choice should come down to which candidate can actually implement the strategies on which they mostly agree.
“New Hampshire, when I was growing up, was a deep red state.” Mr. Buckley said, noting that his state’s congressional delegation now is “all female, all fighters.” “They’re all going to make sure that everybody’s voice is heard in Washington,” he said.
Another forum is scheduled for Monday at 7 p.m. at Jack Morton Auditorium. Wait-list tickets are available. Alternately, viewers can join via live-stream. Registration for both is available here.