Several of the most prominent figures within the Democratic Party convened Saturday morning at the Renaissance Center in Detroit for the Democratic National Committee’s seasonal executive committee meeting, where the committee discussed its transition and strategy for elections going forward.
As one of the first such meetings for newly-elected DNC Chair Tom Perez, much of the talk centered around the “culture change” he intends to effect within the party. After narrowly defeating Rep. Keith Ellison (D–Minn.) in the contest for chair in February, Perez received criticism for being part of the party establishment that had failed to listen and appeal to the more progressive wing of the party. During the meeting, Perez sought to show he understood the need for change within the party, emphasizing a turn toward a culture of inclusion.
The organization of the meeting room itself, Perez said — with four long tables arranged into a square, so all of the over 50 members of the executive committee were facing each other — was proof of that.
“One of the dimensions of this culture change has to be our interaction with our members,” he said. “We’ve heard loudly and clearly that you are under-utilized. We are changing that. And we want to change that together. I’ve asked a lot of people who have been to many executive committee meetings, ‘What has often happened?’ And all too frequently, many of you have been able to walk out not having been called on to offer your opinions on anything.”
The second dimension of the culture change, Perez said, was rethinking the committee’s mission statement.
“We have to clarify, because it seems to me that the de facto mission statement of the DNC had been that we are here to help elect the President of the United States, the Democrat, every fourth year,” he said. “And it’s borne out in our structure. So we have absolutely changed our mission statement. Our mission statement is to elect Democrats up and down the ticket, from the school board to the senate.”
Ellison, who Perez named deputy chair moments after becoming chair himself, said the culture change needed to include the way the party interacts with voters as well as its own members.
“The way that we’re going to win elections is not only by persuading people but also by getting new people into the fold that we haven’t talked to,” he said. “90 million people didn’t vote in the last election that were eligible to do so.”
Many members of the committee reacted positively to Perez’s message, saying they had already experienced a change in the few months he had been Chair.
Earl Fowlkes, who has been a member of the DNC for eight years and the Chair of the DNC’s LGBT Caucus for four years, said it was the first opportunity he’d ever had to speak in an executive committee meeting.
“Basically, I see us having 3 protocols,” he said. “And one of them is the right to advise the leadership, the other is the right to warn leadership, and the other right is to be consulted by leadership. And I think when those protocols are not adhered to, as they haven’t always been in my time here, the DNC is off-kilter, because we represent the core constituencies of this party, and we have to be in the mainstream of the decision-making process so that we can strengthen our party.”
Other members, however, expressed they still didn’t feel included by the party.
Louis Elrod, President of the Young Democrats of America, pointed out that for the level of support for Democrats from young people, they weren’t very well represented in the committee. Asking how many of them were millennials, fewer than five people at the table raised their hands.
“Even being the Democratic Party, knowing that we have this generation leaning towards us, we still do not have the voice — in numbers at least — that we need,” he said. “We have existing infrastructures that no one invested in last year. No one. No one invested in our organizations to try to turn out young people, at all. And if that continues again, we are going to lose heavily in 2018.”
Before Elrod finished with his remarks, however, Perez cut him off, citing the need to give everyone the opportunity to speak in a short period of time.
“I’m sorry, but it’s the first time I’ve been given access to talk to you here,” Elrod said.