The black rope is in front of me, about waist-level. It prevents me from crossing over. On the other side is the gathered professional class of the Democratic party: everybody here is a mayor of something or other. On the opposite side of the rope is Literally Everyone Else. About twenty feet away from me, at my 2 o’clock, is the amplitudinous Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, and the much smaller (in physical stature and in relative power) former Mayor of Baltimore, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who is also here pressing the flesh. There are nudge-nudge scenes happening across the hall. Tom Perez, the former Secretary of Labor under Obama who will be sworn in later as DNC Chairman, is sitting with his family about nine feet away from me. There are three kids, all of whom are wearing “Team Tom” shirts. He has a fatherly hand on his son’s back, and it’s sweet and makes me like the guy, even though I’d rather Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN), his competitor, have the top spot.
This is the Democratic National Committee Chairmanship Election in Atlanta. The event was held in a conference room in downtown Atlanta’s AmericasMart, on Saturday, February 25. The year 2017 featured the first competitive chair election in recent memory. A chair election is usually the equivalent of prom court: we all know who will get it, just cut the fuss and send us the crown. But this year represents a proxy fight unseen in the halls of the Democrats since God knows when, and it has just shocked everyone worth shocking. To recap, the Democratic Party, which was supposed to be saved by
1) The Obama Coalition
2) Trump electoral folly
3) Demographic changes
was captained by Hillary Clinton, who lost to Trump. Clinton lost to Trump. If you think that those four words are uncontroversial, you do not know the Democratic Party. Later in the day, a large, doughy man in his early twenties will wave his finger in my direction and try to explain to me that Hillary cannot lose, that the Russians Did It All, and that she is the most popular politician alive. As I smile and walk away, he will scream after me “And I’ve never even heard of Paste magazine!” Nobody may criticize Mother.
Anyway, the Democrats are now at their lowest point since the 1920s. Ellison, representing the resurgent left/Bernie wing of the party, had large momentum since earlier in the year, but Perez, who is the establishment’s certifiable dude, came in, and made it a race. So, like the war in Vietnam, Hair Metal vs. Nirvana, the Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones, the Patriots vs. the Falcons and every other single feud in our society, this battle is a proxy war for other, larger forces.
Perez and Ellison (neither of whom I got to talk to) both seem to understand this and take it in stride. They are friends, and have actually spent time hanging out, starting when Perez was Labor Sec and made frequent business trips to Ellison’s home district in Minneapolis. They associate frequently, according to reliable reports.
It goes without saying among the Democratic faithful that since Perez is a Latino and Ellison is a Muslim, and that either victor represents a huge advance for a party which used to represent the Solid South—and furthermore, since these two demographics are being regularly and repeatedly screwed by the Trump Administration, the more prominent these gentlemen are in the councils of opposition the better.
The room itself is a conventional trade-show hall. Roughly the size of a largish waiting room at a mid-size city bus terminal. The front of the hall is all DNC delegates from the various states, set along tables; four hundred and thirty-five people, same as the population of the House of Representatives.
A vaguely Rotarian dais is placed up front, where the action will happen. I mentioned that black rope dividing the space in half. Physically, the center of the room is the raised platform of big important cameras which are capturing everything, and make the thoughtful observer reflect on the extent to which politics and media are just flabbergastingly intertwined. Same as it ever was. Behind the cameras is a huge spread of chairs where every other interested party who isn’t vocationally involved in the contest will sit, and, upon occasion, stand and cheer. That’s on the left side of the hall. On the right is where the professionals will gather: DNC techies, hangers-on, bloggers (there’s a separate room for them), consultants of various stripe, and yours truly.
First thing to know about attending meetings of political organizations: they are all basically the PTA, but scaled up according to the power represented in the room. It’s still the PTA though. Even though many of these people represent concentrations of political will and lifetimes spent accruing influence, the whole gathering has a city-council-at-the-library vibe. Politics, even at its biggest, has a charmingly shabby air to it. There is money and glamour and fame at its higher peaks, but it has never really changed at the low end. It makes perfect sense that in the 19th century and for part of the 20th, politics was a game which percolated upwards from taverns and bars, and that saloonkeepers ran for and won offices of state.
There are sharks in these waters, sure, but if you really wanted to be a Stephen King villain, you would work for Wall Street. The image of the sleek Blackberry political predator is one cooked up by Hollywood. There are a cluster of eloquent young guys here all trying to be the next Obama—but they all seem more like the helpful hall monitors than princes of darkness.
Veep is inaccurate when it speaks of rancor and carnivorousness—most of the people in the Democratic Party and in politics in general tend to be highly sociable, earnest strivers of the Student Council set—but it is one-hundred percent correct on the strange this-is-surreal mien which pervades the business. The air reminds me of a theater camp where everyone went to a good school on the East Coast and dresses very well.
For example, when I arrive, I will hear the Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander make a pleasing speech about the future of the Democratic Party. He looks like a version of Lance Armstrong with a decency gene and a human soul, and comes across like the kind of dude who will one day have Morgan Freeman narrate video clips of his actions. Ten minutes later, I will go to the restroom and be surrounded by people in very expensive suits bashfully saying “Excuse me” to each other. I go to the sink and try to find the soap. I glance up and Kander, or someone who looks just like him, is standing next to me. “Yeah, I can’t find it either,” he says. We both search together for several moments.
Two other facts about politics to keep in mind, which may explain the air of this gathering, which is somewhere between family reunion, gathering of the Ancient Order of the Masons, grassroots uprising, techie pow-wow, yuppie prom, and beefy-union-guy-rally. First: being in politics as a professional pol means you spend most of your time asking for money. That’s a fact, Jack. The least powerful elected official in this room has spent a lot of time asking for lucre on the phone. That’s Skill One on the electability chart, and may explain why so few people are willing to pursue this career, for all the power it represents. You attain great power, but in a republic, puissance is only gettable through a never-ending series of abasements. Political life in a democracy means you sit in a room and people tell you what they need, every day, until you retire or die. That doesn’t mean screaming matches or fist fights or icy threats, but it means transacting business in this way all day every day. If you have no stomach for humiliation or being called to account by your constituents and the money guys, you have no business being involved in public life.
Second: politics is really an entire ecosystem and way of life. Like feudalism with its skalds and glove-makers, or communism with its commissars, this is an economic system which maintains a self-perpetuating constellation of consultants, advocates, in-laws, media flunkies, and aspirational weirdos. The most fascinating people I will meet at the DNC are, for lack of a better term, the groupies who cluster around public life: old pros, people who have been attached to the party for various reasons over the years, apostles of single-issues.
It’s a weird place, political gatherings. If you care about conventional glamour, wealth, and fame, then this is not the place to be. The Oscars are the day after the DNC meeting. This is the National Leadership Get-Together of the World’s Longest-Lasting Political Party in the World’s Most Powerful Nation, and it seems to be comprised of the aunts and uncles of the Academy. If Madonna was to walk in, everyone would flock to her. She would be the biggest star in the room. But de Blasio or any middle-seniority Congressman has, by rough calculation, more influence over the day-to-day life of the average person than the Material Girl. To me, a liberal kid who grew up in one of the most solidly Republican cities in America, it is Woodstock, and probably what Israel feels like.
Donna Brazile, the outgoing chairwoman and talk-show-head who slipped questions to the Clinton campaign, is in her element here, and it shows. She directs the crowd to start voting, and they will, in a moment. There’s a video documentary of her which does not mention her participation in the leak, but it is a very nice depiction of her rise and importance within the party. When Brazile is not in official-comment mode, she is quite funny. Later in the day she will refer to leaving behind a bottle of Johnny Walker and anonymous heroes who helped the DNC recover from the cyberattacks. Indeed, the air of suspicion and paranoia hovers over the hall. Trump and Hacking: the twin hobgoblins of the Donkey’s party.
All online indicators about the divide in the Democratic side are physically true. Half of the people in the hall are wearing formal attire—suits and dresses—or street wear (I had imagined that bowties were solely the province of the conservative movement, but no). The other half are kitted out in a T-Shirt or some associated piece of regalia which indicates TOM or KEITH. Of this latter, branded group, they are split roughly down the middle. Keith’s color is green, and Tom’s is blue. The back of Tom’s shirts say STOP FRETTING START FIGHTING. The Party will sort of do both, it turns out.
I’m standing near the sign which indicates the EASTERN REGIONAL CAUCUS. After Brazile has given her valedictory, she opens the floor to the candidates. Tom goes first. Perez has this tone of voice that is both soft and gravelly, like John Leguizamo or Telly from the nineties film “Kids.” Appearance-wise, the former Secretary strikes me as a dehydrated Giuliani, but likable. There’s a goatee which nobody can figure out. A man who I talk to later, who has known Perez since the Maryland days, will say that the facial hair is a little-comprehended fact of Tom’s rise to prominence: why would you keep it? But it’s clearly worked for him.
Tom’s address is standard stuff: we goofed, gotta change, there must be a fifty-state strategy. Everyone here seems good and righteously pissed about the coasts sucking up all the money; upset in that low-key way which has coalesced out of hundreds or thousands of closed-room private conversations of the raw What-The-Hell-Are-We-Doing-Here variety. Half of the DNC stands for Perez, and I figure that’s all she wrote for Ellison.
Keith is introduced by the American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who is practically John the Baptist for him, and goes on to raise a level of hell during her fiery nominating speech that seems remarkable until I remember she’s a union leader. I would not want to be President Trump within reach of her arm.
Then Keith speaks, and the average-Joe section of the room is overwhelmingly, almost appallingly for him. To be clear, there is a large section of people in those green shirts who have been very obviously organized beforehand, but this does nothing to tamp down the enthusiasm in the room. I’m watching the actual DNC reps. Approximately half the members stand up to applaud, and for the first time, I begin to think Keith has a chance. Speaking tactically here, Ellison is not a brilliant speaker, but a functional one. Physically unremarkable as well, but perhaps that’s for the best. The job is not a beauty contest.
The content is more of the same: we need a new party, fifty states and seven territories exist, we must speak to the rest of America. Ellison tells the crowd “You are the very best hope of Americans.” He is aware the grassroots are with him. “I go to a lot of marches and protests and I recommend you do too … We’re here because we lost a thousand elections. Organizing is how we’re going to win.”
“Trump is right outside that door,” Ellison says. When he goes on to list all the rights that the Administration is taking away, such as a woman’s right to choose, etc., a man behind me whispers “The right to vote.” Trump weighs heavily on this hall, as he will on the Academy Awards thirty hours later.
The other contenders for chair make their speeches. The young Mayor of South Bend, Pete Buttigieg has the second-biggest shocker of the day. He announces in the middle of his speech that he withdraws: “We saw the potential of doing well on multiple ballots … but we can do the math,” “Holy shit,” somebody within my earshot says. “We need not to treat the Presidency like the only office that matters,” he says. Applause, applause.
He thanks his husband and proceeds to make a very moving speech about how the chairmanship is not about policy, but “is soulcraft” and there is the potential for good and evil in all of us, and I’ll be damned if there are a few dry eyes less in the room than before. It’s clear to anybody you talk to afterwards that Mayor Peter has just done something very unusual and quite brave, and everybody in this hall is in concurrence that a Serious Future is probably in the works for this charming, sincere guy. From a cold-eyed point of view, this makes sense: Buttigieg does not have the same level of support which Perez and Ellison can muster. He has no voting bloc to trade for favors and withdrawing is the sensible conclusion. If he leaves early, he does not have to suffer the indignity of a low vote count. Still, he’s prominent enough to draw attention, and this is honestly the classiest and most endearing way to withdraw from anything, and makes Nixon’s “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” speech after losing the Governor of California race seem just as monstrously ungrateful as it was at the time. Look, everyone in the room is pretty much concluding they’re total human garbage next to Mayor Pete at this point. Later, as he’s passing my position on the rope, where I am standing with Judy, my new friend, I will say “Pete! What do you think about these results?” And the Mayor of South Bend will turn to me, and although he has the vague metaphysical shielding which emanates from any famous person or individual who receives a constant stream of focused attention on a regular basis, he is just as gracious in person as he was on stage, and says “Well, of course I’m disappointed in the results, but I’m just glad to be here with the rest of the Democratic Party, and I’m looking forward to the future.”
And while the words are pro forma, the affect is so genuine and straight out from the heart, that of course this man has a future in politics. And to be honest, if you told me at any point in my life I would want to take a bullet for any person who in any way, shape, or form represents Notre Dame football, I would have told you to stuff it in your opium pipe, but I’ll be damned if me, Judy, and everybody else on that side of the rope line isn’t ready, eager, and willing to take not one bullet, but several hundred rounds of unfettered machine gun fire for our pal, the Honorable Mayor of good old South Bend, Indiana, your friend and mine, Peter Paul Montgomery Buttigieg.
Sally Boynton Brown, the Exec Director of the Idaho Democrats, is running too. She has the vaguely East Coastian air of about half the people here, but comes across as a highly relatable, likable person. She is being recommended by Christine Pelosi, daughter of the former Speaker of the House, who begins her speech by saying “You might be asking what is an urban instigator like Christine Pelosi doing supporting Sally?” I check left. I check right. Literally nobody is asking that. Also, there is no vaping in this hall, praise God and all the Superfriends.
Everybody else on the dais has a schtick of some kind or another. There’s one candidate, an apparently registered airman named Sam Ronan, who seems at first to not have a realistic view about his chances. Then again, he has absolutely nobody backing him, you really want to cheer for him anyway, since he got here to prove a point: anybody can do this. I will talk to Sam later; he will cross over to the mortal side of the rope to talk to Alexis Edelstein, the Founder/CEO of Berniecrats of California. Edelstein is an intense, charismatic personage of indeterminate age who has been filming the whole kit and caboodle on his phone. We talk about the fracas before us, and what it portends for the Democratic-Party-to-Be.
There is a wide agreement by everyone here, both over and under forty, that the Democrats of the past are over, and there must be Major Changes. This is why Perez and Congressman Ellison sound so much the same. Everybody who has their head firmly dislodged from their rear orifice understands that a change is coming. The forces of Bernard Sanders have just helped pull off a minor miracle in taking over the California Democratic Party. Edelstein is a person to know, so it makes sense Ronan has come to chat him up. Sam is fairly good, but you must be very good here.
Jehmu Greene, the former chair of Rock the Vote, is a perfectly nice woman but keeps repeating this phrase “We are the Democratic Party, y’all.” There’s other stuff in between the repetition but it’s all supporting architecture until we get to another go-round of the recurring phrase. It’s always tough making conclusions about people based on how they address the masses, since that can be so deceiving—how many people do you know who come across the same way in public and private life? Later, I will see her and Sally hug two friends on the other side of the rope and wonder what kind of people they are when not involved in advocacy of the commonweal.
Peter Peckarsky is a professorial dude (an attorney) from Wisconsin who appears to have been welded together from the exploded remains of John Kerry and Michael Dukakis, as portrayed by Sam Waterston. He has some excellent points to make about hacking, finance reform, and everything else under the sun. The man clearly knows his stuff, but goes on far too long and the crowd is growing restless.
None of these people are objectionable, but everybody here knows what the main event will be.
Brazile calls for paper ballots. Shock and awe among the crowd. She tells us that Wi-Fi is a no-go since the Russians set to riding, and so we must be wary. R. T. Rybak, former mayor of Minneapolis, swings by and tells us that if Tom loses on the first ballot, Keith wins. Edelstein thinks that if Ellison doesn’t win, that large numbers of people might leave the party.
We speak of the grassroots movement. The remarkable thing, Edelstein says, “is that nobody is leading it; it’s organic.” Bernie’s supporters and the grassroots want change, in the nation, and in the party. “A lot left after the DNC in Philly. It was such a slap in the face. The disenfranchisement of millennials.” The physical arrangement of the floor is almost too metaphorically perfect. I think of how strange it is: the most influential people in the party are ten feet away from the grassroots, but it might as well be as be a full forty light years away, as distant as that new septet of exoplanets they discovered a few days ago.
“Trump gets bupkus!” Judy tells me.
The ballots go off to the counting room. Tabulation takes ten minutes of real time but ten thousand hours subjectively. Brazile comes back to inform all of us watching this elaborate papal conclave that the margin for victory is 214 votes. Tom has 213.5 and Keith has 200. Cries, shouts, applause. Brazile has some trouble reading the paper. “Get your glasses!” somebody from the front part of the room yells. Brazile announces there will be a second ballot.
Three factors complicate this arrangement: first, several members of the committee have already left to go to the airport, so proxy ballots are passed out. “Don’t fold them,” Brazile tells the crowd, “Show some love to that counting room!”
A few minutes later, a woman with a New York accent will walk down the aisle dividing the Eastern Regional Caucus, and ask “How we doin’ heah?”
Second factor: there are now several candidates with votes to give away, since there is space for party for wheels ‘n’ deals of the most subterfuging Byzantine kind. Of course, this could all be the most shameful projection on my part. There may be pre-arrangements worked out beforehand. But even for those of us who want a transparent world of political refinement, it is fun sometimes to pretend there is a smoky backroom with Cold War-era phones, filled with men and women in shirtsleeves saying “I will give you everything except the District.”
Third factor: Perez is all but Mr. Chairman at this moment. However, due to the rules, the floor is open for the candidates to withdraw. Brazile asks if there’s anybody who wants to remove their hat from the ring. Several, as it turns out. This takes up a fair amount of time and adds to the general tension in the room. Could it happen for Congressman Ellison? Rumors everywhere.
Here’s something they don’t tell you in the history books: Whenever big events happen, nobody knows what’s going on.
The room at this time bore a striking resemblance to a party broken up by cops. Lots of milling around, people talking, discussions, ballots held in hand. Eventually, Brazile tells everybody to hurry up. We are told Howard Dean is in the hall, but I have not seen him.
Back to the counting room again. We wait another ten minutes. Brazile returns: the margin of victory has gone up. Breathless hush falls over the crowd.
Perez has it.
Two events occur simultaneously: a cheer goes up from the front of the room, and a cry of anger from the back. There’s a pause of roughly three seconds and then the crowd up front jumps to its feet and so do the folks in the back, they’re standing now, and a sizable group of twentysomethings wearing green KEITH shirts are chanting
—despite repeated hisses and shushings. If you needed an illustration of the Democratic party in the Post-Hillary era, there it is. 235 out of 435 votes is what it took for Perez.
While this is happening, the former Secretary of Labor has mounted the dais to give his speech. His first official act is to nominate his friend, Keith Ellison, as the deputy chair of the Democratic Party, which surprises everyone around me. Nobody saw this coming, but in retrospect, it strikes the observer as a canny, pretty obvious political move. Anything else would have meant a major rupture in the fabric of the coalition. There’s also the subtext that if the activists are not kept happy, they can simply go around the Party and do their own thing. Later on, I will sit down and read a pamphlet produced by the Democratic Municipal Leaders, which reads “Cities, towns, boroughs and villages are Democrats’ last line of defense against a gathering red storm.”
Ellison gave a short speech, asking for unity, saying in effect that everyone who had supported him ought to support the Party now. Perez, now vested with full chairmanic authority, told the crowd in his valedictory that “January 20 was an undeniably important day, but January 21st was be just as important.”
What can I say about the result? Perez was not asked for or particularly wanted, except for the Powers That Be. For a position that they said didn’t matter, the establishment fought like wolverines trapped in a dryer to keep it. There was widespread Spartacus-level support for Ellison at the grassroots and, from all appearances, on the other side of the black rope. But here we are. Perez was a last-minute choice and Obama struggled for him. Those of us who had watched his Presidency closely were surprised to see him fight for anything; it was astounding to behold. In this light, it doesn’t matter that Perez and Ellison are extraordinarily close on policy matters and that they will march in lockstep, or that Perez seems to be an extremely nice man who is genuine about a power-sharing arrangement with Ellison. The powers of the land wanted this point, and it showed. Even a symbolic victory for the grassroots was a bridge too far. Once again, the Establishment candidate triumphed. They lost in November, and they won in the room. Figure that one out.
Later, Ellison and Perez would come out to a press conference wearing each other’s buttons, and even to a snarky political commenter, it was adorable, like best friends deliberately wearing each other’s clothing. Both men seemed tired as hell. They were speaking very softly. This was in the bloggers’ room. A blonde-haired African-American woman dressed as a pageant winner walked around the room. She may have been a pageant winner; it was unclear.
Curt Ries, an Ellison backer, described himself as “disappointed,” although with the postscript that “any time that there is a progressive in the leadership, that is a good thing.” He said it was a shame they hadn’t listened.