The D.N.C. Chairman Knows No One Is Happy. Neither Is He.
WASHINGTON — Some Democrats say the party’s presidential debate stage is too big.
Some say it is too small.
Some say it is too white.
Nothing the Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez does is just right.
“I’ve had days where I’ve gotten calls, literally, one after another, from person A, who I have great respect for, who said, ‘You’ve got to help. We need a narrower field,’” Mr. Perez said from the couch in his office, four blocks south of the Capitol. “Then person B calls saying, ‘The field is too narrow.’”
Being a national chairman for the party that doesn’t hold the White House is among the worst jobs in American politics. It’s a high-profile position with little power. There is endless grief from fretting party regulars and nonstop comparisons to the president’s party, which has the president himself as its chief fund-raiser.
Mr. Perez never aspired to be Democratic Party chairman. But weeks after Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton, he was privately urged to do it by President Barack Obama, under whom he had served as labor secretary. Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas, among others, thought it was important to have a Latino at the head of the party. He joined other Latino officials who gave Mr. Perez a nudge during a late-night session at the Capitol Hill townhouse of Henry Muñoz, who was then the party’s finance chairman. Mr. Perez won an endorsement from former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Now Mr. Perez presides over a much-maligned primary process that has led to a largely white December debate stage. And the rules he wrote have wound up benefiting his onetime D.N.C. chair opponent, the young man who won by losing in 2017: Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.
Since Friday, Mr. Perez has twice found himself the subject of coordinated pressure campaigns from the Democratic presidential candidates whose contest he is overseeing. First, the seven candidates who are set to debate Thursday threatened to boycott over a labor dispute at the university in Los Angeles where the event is scheduled to take place. Then, in a separate matter, nine candidates, spurred by the struggling Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, called for the D.N.C. to lower qualification thresholds for the party’s debates in January and February.
Mr. Perez has been personally working the phones to elected officials and labor leaders trying to resolve the conflict in Los Angeles, but he has not been receptive to candidates who are upset about missing the debates. He has already decided, he said Wednesday, that for the January debate, candidates will be required to reach both donor and polling thresholds, not one or the other, as Mr. Booker’s letter requested.
He didn’t say if the thresholds would increase from the December requirements — 200,000 individual donors and at least 4 percent support in at least four qualifying polls, or 6 percent support in at least two early-state polls.
Mr. Perez did indicate that he may scrap the thresholds altogether or substitute early-state results, or use a combination of both, as qualifying metrics for the five debates the party is planning for February, March and April. Eliminating the donor threshold could allow Michael R. Bloomberg, the white self-funding billionaire and former New York mayor, to win a debate stage slot while the party’s candidates of color may still fail to make it.
It’s a particularly fraught moment for Mr. Perez. But whoever took over the Democratic Party in 2017 was always going to have a lot of work to do. The D.N.C. reached its nadir when Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was forced to resign during the party’s 2016 national convention after it emerged from hacked emails that she had helped rig that year’s primary to help Hillary Clinton, and had scheduled debates to limit exposure for Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
After winning the hard-fought contest to lead the party, Mr. Perez pledged to conduct the most transparent presidential nominating contest in memory. To avoid any appearance of favoritism, he embraced the metrics of polling and donations in the hope it would create an even playing field with rules accepted by all.
At first, they were.
When party officials first briefed all the presidential campaigns about the rules in late February, none complained.
But the pressure to qualify for debates soon created a field of haves and have-nots, with cash-strapped candidates dumping what funds they had raised into social media ads, trying to make it past the initial 65,000-donor threshold and onto the stage for the June and July debates.
Mr. Perez now faces a singular situation: The first Latino Democratic chairman is the man whose guidelines have excluded the current black and Latino candidates from the debate in Los Angeles on Thursday.
Criticism of the rules increased after Senator Kamala Harris of California ended her campaign earlier this month despite having qualified for the December debate.
But Mr. Perez said he felt no guilt about the fact that the stage would not feature Mr. Booker, the leading remaining black candidate, or Julián Castro, the former housing secretary whose twin brother was among those who wanted Mr. Perez to take the job in the first place.
“I’m not doing the polling,” Mr. Perez said. “I’m a huge fan of Cory Booker. I think the world of him. I worked with him dating back to when he was mayor. And if voters are disappointed that he hasn’t qualified, then when they answer the phone, they need to express their preference for Cory Booker.”
The people vying to run the Democratic Party in 2017 were a better reflection of the demographics of the party’s voters than the 2020 presidential candidates who will debate this week.
There was Mr. Perez, the son of Dominican immigrants who rose to be Mr. Obama’s labor secretary. Representative Keith Ellison, an African-American who was the first Muslim elected to Congress, had the backing of Mr. Sanders. Jaime Harrison, an African-American who was chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, had broad support in the South.
And then there was a cadre of candidates with marginal support from the 447 members of the Democratic National Committee, like Mr. Buttigieg, a gay white man; the consultant Jehmu Greene, an African-American woman from Texas; and Sally Boynton Brown, a white woman from Idaho who was then the executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party. Ms. Greene and Ms. Boynton Brown both said they ran because they wanted to see women compete to lead the party.
Nearly three years later, Mr. Perez arguably has the most thankless job among his top 2017 rivals. Mr. Ellison is the attorney general of Minnesota. Mr. Harrison is in the midst of giving Lindsey Graham of South Carolina the toughest re-election fight he has faced in his time in the Senate. And Mr. Buttigieg has risen from obscurity to lead the recent polls of Democrats in first-in-the-nation Iowa.
Mr. Buttigieg, who had scant support in the D.N.C. race, nevertheless displayed the skills that would later propel his rise in the presidential contest. He was a prolific fund-raiser: He collected more than $500,000 — five times more than Mr. Harrison, who had significant backing of party members from the South. Mr. Buttigieg brought groups of volunteers to party events, a practice he would repeat to demonstrate enthusiasm at Democratic cattle calls this year. And he won a celebrity endorsement from Cher.
During a series of forums and debates for the leadership post, Mr. Buttigieg often mentioned that he was “the only candidate” who had attended a Women’s March the day after Mr. Trump’s inauguration. This suggestion infuriated the rest of the field, who on that day had gathered at a donor conference in South Florida hosted by David Brock, a Clinton supporter who sought to rebuild the party’s fund-raising machinery to combat the Trump administration.
When the chair candidates debated at a forum in Houston the weekend after the Women’s March, Mr. Buttigieg introduced the slight. Ms. Greene confronted him as they walked off the stage.
“He looked me in the eye and said, ‘This is a competition, you say whatever you need to say to win,’” Ms. Greene said. “That’s when I saw who the real Mayor Pete was.”
(Mr. Buttigieg’s senior adviser, Lis Smith, said his “recollection is different, but he was proud to stand with the people of South Bend during the first historic Women’s March.”)
In the end, Mr. Buttigieg received one vote.
Mr. Perez defeated Mr. Ellison on the second ballot — the vote for Mr. Buttigieg had prevented him from earning a majority on the first ballot — and took over a party in shambles. State operations had shriveled to almost nothing. Sanders supporters didn’t trust Mr. Perez or the committee.
His highest-profile assignment was always going to be shepherding a presidential primary that featured the largest, most diverse field in modern history. This year, he became the de facto winnower of a group that once numbered more than two dozen — a winnowing that many have taken issue with.
“The stage is missing racial diversity and critical voices with the absence of Booker and Castro,” said Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, a super PAC that targets black voters. “There has to be some thought about addressing the structural barriers that hurt viable candidates that do not come to the contest with personal wealth.”
There are few concrete proposals for change that might get either man on a future debate stage. But there are plenty of suggestions: Eliminate the polling threshold, or use a polling threshold just of black women; perhaps mandate more polls of South Carolina, or maybe use a metric like early-state staff and offices.
“It’s not a fair playing field,” said Steve Phillips, a San Francisco financier who led a now-defunct super PAC backing Mr. Booker. “People are quick to say, ‘Don’t give special treatment,’ but that mind-set does not acknowledge that there was unequal treatment even at the beginning of this process.”
That’s an argument Mr. Perez does not accept.
Asked if he’s happy about the outcome of his debate qualification policies — a contest Thursday that will feature six white candidates and Andrew Yang — he reiterated his satisfaction with the process.
“Everything that we have done has been completely fair and transparent,” he said.
Is he interested in being responsible for charting a Democratic presidential primary again?
“I will be a one-term D.N.C. chair, O.K.,” he said. “You can write that one down. Yes, I will be a one-term D.N.C. chair. Ask my wife.”
Lisa Lerer contributed reporting.
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