POLITICS
03/06/2017 10:00 pm ET

Inside the DNC Unity Reform Commission

Can a factious 21-member study group save the Democratic Party?

Now that the Perez v Ellison prizefight has given way to duller and more complicated business, the media spotlight has moved on from the Democratic National Committee. But the broader ideological conflict within the party that gave the chair election its drama remains unsettled. Despite platitudes about teamwork and shared purpose from Tom Perez and his defeated rival turned “deputy,” Keith Ellison, the Democratic Party is still defined by a giant and crumbling cleave. The election didn’t bridge this divide so much as clear the area around it, setting the stage to resume the scene from last July in Philadelphia, when the combined forces of Bernie Sanders’ insurgency met the stone wall of the Hillary Clinton-controlled party establishment.

The unfinished business of Philadelphia will soon recommence inside the Unity Reform Commission. Though it will receive much less attention than the DNC chair fight, the commission represents the kind of power lever that makes the chairmanship meaningful in the first place. It is tasked with tailoring the shape of the 2020 nominating process, from primary structures to the future of superdelegates. The reform package it adopts — to be presented in a report to the DNC Rules Committee — will also influence the broader Sanders-wing crusade to transform the DNC from its current incarnation as a big-money patronage system for lobbyists, consultants, bundlers and party insiders.

The committee was born last July amid the chaotic Rules Committee meeting held at the party convention in Philadelphia. All afternoon, Sanders delegates presented motions and reform ideas that were ignored or rejected in party line fashion. (Pro-Clinton whips at the front of the room used thumbs-up, thumbs-down signals to instruct their delegates.) As frustrations mounted and eventually overflowed into open discord, DNC brass offered Sanders a compromise: Tell your followers to kick the can of reform down the road, and we’ll take up their ideas after the election. The deal called for a 21-member commission to “review the entire nominating process” as well as explore reforms to “empower rank and file Democrats [and] make the DNC less dependent on large contributions.” At the time, most of Sanders’ delegates were in no mood to delay reforms, but relented under pressure from their leader.

“It was a deal to save face for both campaigns after Sanders decided to kneel and kiss the ring,” said Brian Ertz, an Idaho environmental lawyer and Sanders delegate to the Rules Committee. “It felt staged. Like a trap the DNC had prepared in advance to shut us up.”

Eight months later, the “unity” in the commission’s name remains as aspirational as it was in July. Donald Trump’s victory over a DNC establishment-run campaign has emboldened the Sanders reform wing, even as the commission’s makeup threatens to replicate the structural advantage that allowed the establishment to wield Tammany Hall-style tactics in Philadelphia.

Here’s how it breaks down: Clinton gets to pick nine delegates and a co-chair, Sanders seven and a co-chair, and the DNC chair selects the final three members. Because the commission operates by majority vote, Perez controls what may amount to a swing bloc of three. (So far only Sanders has announced his slate.)  

Once upon a time, the appointment of a few party hacks to an internal study group wouldn’t warrant much attention. But the Unity Reform Commission represents the party’s chance to make serious changes before 2020 and avoid another Philadelphia. And that’s assuming the Bernie delegates will be Democrats next time around. The commission may also be the last chance to secure the allegiance of the new generation of activists whose future loyalty to the party is no sure bet.

While Clinton has yet to announce her Unity appointments, her choice of co-chair suggests the commission’s factions will line up according to a familiar script. Out of all of the people in the country Clinton could have chosen, she tapped Jen O’Malley Dillon, a party insider, “data analytics pioneer” and breathing embodiment of the DNC as a patronage system for wealthy donors and Beltway consultants. A former executive director of the DNC who helped run Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, Dillon is a partner at the billion-dollar D.C. consulting firm Precision Strategies — a company that has long been under contract with the DNC. Dillon is billing the very institution she is tasked with reforming. (She didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

“With Dillon as chair, that’s like two levels of corruption, right there,” said Nomiki Konst, a journalist and Sanders Unity delegate. “Sanders chose reformers who actually believe in things. I expect Clinton will stack the commission with the Neera Tandens, the Maria Cardonas — the same people with vested interests in the status quo. If Perez is smart, he’ll give Ellison a vote or two.”

If Clinton and Perez do load the commission with Beltway-bubble insiders, they are guaranteed an education in the reform energy and ideas animating the party across the country. The Unity Reform Commission will draft its recommendations after conducting a listening tour across the country, where local party activists will share their priorities and make the case for, say, abolishing superdelegates. Jane Kleeb, the newly elected Nebraska Democratic Party chair and a Sanders delegate to the commission, says she expects those rooms to be full of vocal reform advocates.

“The seven of us [Sanders delegates] have a responsibility to make sure these listening sessions are filled with people who believe we need structural reform,” said Kleeb. “We understand what we’re up against, but we’re going in with the attitude and the promise and the hope that we are going to reform our party. The Perez and Clinton folks need to grasp that we are a growing number of party leaders and the base. I hope they don’t try to shut the process down. We will be very loud to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Not all of Kleeb’s colleagues on the commission expect such an uphill battle, or even see Sanders nominees as a distinct faction. Lucy Flores, a Sanders-nominated Unity delegate from Nevada, says she is approaching the commission on the assumption that all 21 members are equally committed to supporting reforms that democratize the party and reflect growing demands to “get more aggressive about a working people’s agenda.”

“I wouldn’t characterize the delegates according to ‘blocs,’” said Flores. “I hope that everyone, regardless of who appointed them, will look at the superdelegate process, and everything else that we’re tasked with, and figure out what’s best for the people and values we represent. As cheesy as the name is, it’s called the Unity Commission for a reason. I think we need to talk about what’s happening now and in the future, and stop rehashing what happened in Philadelphia.”

In one important way, the commission promises more than a Philadelphia rehash. Ellison’s appointment to deputy chair by the victorious Perez was greeted by many Sanders backers as a fig leaf ― a meaningless gesture meant to paper over real differences. But Ellison’s position is more than just a seat at the table. He also holds the power of a possible public resignation. Now that Ellison has been invited in, a departure in protest would make major news. That dynamic is not lost on Perez, and could serve to influence who the chair picks for his critical seats on the commission, and how the process is guided.

“Tom believes that the Unity Commission must consist of a diverse mix of people that represents his inclusive vision for the party and that will help achieve the goals of the commission agreed to by supporters of both Sen. Sanders and Sec. Clinton,” a Perez spokesman told HuffPost. “Tom is also committed to working hand in hand with Deputy Chair Keith Ellison and other officers to make sure that our party represents the shared values we’ve all fought for.”

For Sanders delegates and supporters, meanwhile, the ghost of Philadelphia lingers. Last summer’s collision with a contemptuous DNC establishment was a traumatic event for many — especially those who were shut down by an imperious Barney Frank in the Rules Committee meeting. “We showed up with more than 50 reform ideas we’d spent time on, but they never intended to hold a real debate,” said Ertz, the Sanders delegate from Idaho. “They had [the commission] ready to go as a way to stop democratic deliberation. Commissions are where populist momentum goes to die.”

Josh Fox, a Sanders delegate to the 2016 Platform Committee who is influential among fracking activists, is doubtful about any effort to reform a party soaked through with corporate cash. He left the convention in Philadelphia profoundly disillusioned, and suspects the commission may have been devised as a way to limit third-party candidacies in 2018. “If you really wanted to show unity, you’d have gotten this done in two weeks,” said Fox. “Look at the time frame of the commission. Candidates have to declare for 2018 now, but this Unity process stretches out until next year. It forces people to wait on the reforms until it’s too late for midterms.”

“And anyway,” added Fox, “how do you have ‘unity’ with Goldman Sachs? How do you have ‘unity’ with gas lobbyists?”

These are fair questions. They are also common ones among the activists who will pack the commission listening sessions in the coming months. Those hearings will feature the same ideas Sanders’ delegates advanced last summer, and may prove crucial in ensuring a different result.

“Before, the commission would have been an inside-baseball process for party elites and loyalists,” said Flores, one of Sanders’ more consensus-minded delegates. “Now, people are paying attention and participating. They’re on fire. And that’s a good thing.”

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