BALTIMORE — Watching the Democratic Party’s regional forum here last week, my mind kept flashing back to that nearly century-old Will Rogers crack, “I am not a member of any organized party — I am a Democrat.”
In normal times, the selection of a Democratic chair is one of those topics that primarily interest political reporters in the postelection doldrums and consultants hoping for future contracts. But with the Democrats in their worst shape organizationally since the 1920s, the choice of a permanent successor to Debbie Wasserman Schultz takes on larger-than-usual significance.
The race for party leader, which is slated to be decided at the Democratic National Committee meeting in Atlanta on Feb. 25, has been portrayed as a proxy war between the Bernie Sanders brigades backing Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison and the Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton establishment rallying around former Labor Secretary Thomas Perez.
But this is an oversimplification of the struggle to win a majority among the 447 members of the DNC. High-profile endorsements like Chuck Schumer for Ellison and Joe Biden for Perez matter far less to, say, a party official from Montana than the hopes of getting an additional $50,000 from the DNC to hire a full-time organizer.
The fascination with symbolism surrounding Ellison and Perez has obscured the potential kingmaker roles that could be played by the other three serious candidates in the race: New Hampshire party chair Ray Buckley; Jaime Harrison, his counterpart in South Carolina; and Pete Buttigieg, the 35-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
All three of these second-tier candidates have, in many ways, better claims to chair the DNC than the two front-runners.
Buckley — who has presided for a decade over a New Hampshire party that now boasts an all-Democratic congressional delegation — is the traditional backroom political technician in the race. His strength is institutional as the longtime head of the Association of State Democratic Chairs.
“We have a lot of flashy people looking to go on MSNBC to fire up the base,” he said in an interview in Baltimore, citing Elizabeth Warren as an example. “I have never believed that it is the primary role of a state chair or a national chair to elbow his way into being front and center.”
Buckley’s idea of a successful chairman was Howard Dean, who launched a 50-state strategy to rebuild the party when he took over the DNC in 2005. But Dean’s contributions to Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008 were unfairly dismissed by the victorious Obama forces. “What Howard instituted was supposed to be the foundation,” Buckley said. “It turned out to be the roof.”
The 40-year-old Harrison, a protege of Assistant House Democratic Leader James Clyburn, is running as the candidate of the forgotten Southern Democrats. Harrison also endorses the Howard Dean model, though he added puckishly in an interview in Baltimore that it should be “spruced up and modernized with a little Gen X flair to it.”
Graduating from Yale on a scholarship, after growing up in a poor African-American family in Orangeburg, South Carolina, Harrison is passionate as he talks of new ways to make the Democratic Party more inclusive. And, like Buckley, he stresses, “Being on television is not the fundamentals of party building. All you are doing is making yourself look good or feel good.”
South Bend, a Rust-Belt city of 100,000 in a Republican-dominated state, would not normally be a launching pad for a major career in Democratic politics. But Buttigieg, a Rhodes Scholar and Afghanistan veteran already hailed by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni as potentially the nation’s “first gay president,” offers more charisma than front-runners Ellison and Perez.
Buttigieg has also fervently embraced the anti-Trump protests, saying in a Monday phone interview, “We’ve got to make sure that the protests can continue to be about our values.” He contended that the pro-Obamacare protests, for example, “can reach some of the voters who really didn’t feel that the Democratic candidates were talking about them this last time around.”
With a total of 10 candidates running for DNC chair, it would seem obvious that the Democrats would be headed for a demolition derby in Atlanta. But remember that the entire electorate consists of political pros who prize deal-making over conflict. As a veteran member of the DNC said Monday, “This is the week to cut the deals because nobody wants a multi-ballot fight in Atlanta.”
The leading rumor, circulated by political insiders in all camps since Saturday, is that Buckley is close to hammering out a deal with Ellison. In exchange for endorsing Ellison, Buckley would supposedly be named to a new post in charge of the nuts-and-bolts operations of the DNC. It would be an arrangement more of convenience than ideology since Buckley would not naturally gravitate to the left-wing Ellison.
Even with Buckley’s help, Ellison may not have enough votes to win a majority in Atlanta, especially since Bernie Sanders is far from a beloved figure in the South. Some Democrats also remain leery of Ellison’s youthful ties to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, whom he repudiated when he first ran for the House in 2006.
Since these are the Democrats — naturally rambunctious and still dazed by Hillary’s defeat — all predictions about the DNC race should be nervously hedged. But the stakes are less about refighting 2016 and more about who can again make the out-of-power Democrats an organized and successful party.
Correction | An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that Nancy Pelosi had endorsed Ellison’s candidacy for DNC chairman. She has not made an endorsement.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: "Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer." Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.