Tom Perez Is a Good Progressive. That Is, and Isn’t, the Point.

There have always been two sides to the Bernie Sanders Revolution: progressivism and populism. The progressivism is found largely in the policy substance – single-payer health care, strong financial regulation, aggressive action to combat clime change, to note three prominent examples. The populism is more found on the procedural side – small-dollar individual donations instead of money from corporations and lobbyists, grassroots movements instead of decisions by connected insiders, open primaries instead of superdelegates.

The establishment side of the Democratic Party, at long last, may be starting to get progressivism. The Platform Committee at the 2016 convention produced a solidly progressive document. Tom Perez is the furthest-left cabinet official the Democrats had since Robert Reich, and while Clinton fired Reich, Obama promoted Perez and gave him a long leash. The real progress for left-liberalism represented by the shape, and even the outcome, of the 2017 DNC Chair race should not be under appreciated. Casting Perez as a centrist in the Clintonite mold does him a great disservice. That there is a DNC Chair that is even in the neighborhood of someone as liberal as Tom Perez – at that he comes specifically from a labor political background – should itself be seen as a victory for the progressive wing of the party.

Which is not to say progressives have no grounds to complain about his selection, and his recruitment into the race, by the party boo-bahs over Keith Ellison. Rather, it misdiagnoses the problem; as great as Perez himself is from an ideological and policy progressive, the effort to recruit a candidate as a block the populist unity candidate because he was <i>too</i> popular among the Sanders wing was a consummate insider power move, meant to maintain power for a Boomer-dominated, established elite rather than share it with the ascending future of the party.

Those most loyal defenders of the DNC have a tendency to cite the liberalism of Perez and declare progressive opposition to his candidacy irrational. These people aren’t even wrong on the question of procedural populism; as far as I can tell, they don’t even seem to know that it exists at all. The number of pro-Clinton bloggers who managed to believe that it was the Sanders side that made this a proxy war, apparently wholly ignorant of the circumstances of Perez’s entry, is surprising. At best, they dismiss the argument as a pretext. “How can you object to a candidate recruited into the race to maintain the establishment’s monopoly on power? He’s a liberal fer chrissakes!”

Their behavior reminds me of the glib “show me the quid pro quo on a vote” argument they used to dismiss Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street money problem. They never took that history and relationship seriously; and what’s more, they never acknowledged that the Bernie supporters took it seriously either, dismissing the entire critique of the financial connections between Wall Street and the top of the Democratic Party as a ginned-up one-liner for the 2016 primaries. (Perhaps this sort of thinking explained why they were so confident that disgruntled Sanders supporters would come home in the general election to the same degree as disgruntled Clinton supporters in 2008). Just to cement their inability to get it, they treated the whole topic not as a debate over a core structural flaw of a our politics, but as a character attack against Clinton as an individual.

One of the key teachings drilled into me in city planning school was that true public and stakeholder backing of a plan could only be achieved through a letting go of control, and the ceding of actual power in decision-making to the stakeholders. If Democrats who side with the Democratic establishment in the ongoing dispute actually want to achieve party unity, put the Obama coalition back together, and have that progressive activist wing feel that they have a home in the party and vote like it, then they’re going to have to stop their campaign to monopolize power within the party, and make the types of reforms in how the party works that the Ellison candidacy, and the practical agenda he advocated, represented. What they did instead on Saturday was to vote against Barack Obama’s ban on corporate money, and then vote in favor of the candidate the establishment put in to block Ellison. We’re going to have to hope that former labor organizer Tom Perez demonstrates more of a clue over the next few years than the people who put him into power have.


Keep Lowell High Downtown

Over at Dick Howe’s blog, City Councillor Daniel Rourke issues a call for unity and civility in the debate over whether to keep Lowell High in its current location, or to build a new school at the Cawley Stadium site out by the edge of town in Belvidere. He writes:

Those in favor of relocating the school next to Cawley Stadium reason that a campus lifestyle, ability to build from the ground up and no disruption to the learning environment for students over the next five years as their main factors in moving from its current site…Whatever reason a Lowell resident has for wanting it Downtown or at Cawley is a valid one and should be respected.

As a proponent of the downtown site, I agree wholeheartedly that the ability to build from the ground up and no disruption to the learning environment over the next five years are valid, even compelling, arguments, and I very much respect them. I wish wholeheartedly that a downtown building project could boast those advantages, and recognize that the complications of renovating an old building and of operating a combined high school/construction site during the school year are serious drawbacks to choosing to keep the high school in its current location.

HOWEVER, and I say this with as much civility as I can muster, I do not respect the argument that preference for a “campus lifestyle,” in contrast to a downtown, urban lifestyle, is a valid argument that should be respected by Lowellians. It is a terrible, insulting argument that should be forcefully rejected by people who care for this city. It has at its root a level of contempt and hostility towards urban life that is incompatible with the appreciation for walkable urbanism and Lowell’s history that have been so essential to this community’s revitalization, and if I may say, the rebirth of our self-respect, over the past two decades. It is ultimately a viewpoint that relies upon the idea that downtown and places like downtown are inferior to the suburbs, and that only a suburban school can be a good school. It is the sort of argument I would expect from someone at the end of a suburban cul-de-sac who thinks that Lowell is a hell hole and refuses to come here for fear of being mugged, and I feel a little bit betrayed that people from Lowell are making it. I’m used to defending Lowell to people from the suburbs, but I shouldn’t have to defend Lowell to people from Lowell. Councillor Rourke talks about being respectful, but there is a nasty heart of disrespect in this position that is deeper than whether the people making it use polite words and indoor voices.

And it wouldn’t even work, anyway. Look at Central Plaza, which was supposed to be a major shopping mall attracting people from throughout the region. Ooh, look, we’re almost as conveniently located as a suburban mall, with access almost as easy as a mall by the highway, and almost as much parking!

How did that work out? WHERE’S MY AEROPOSTALE?!?

A city will never succeed in being as good at being suburban as a suburb. If you’re trying to avoid the stigma of an “urban school” by building in Belvidere, you’re running the same fool’s errand. People who look down on Lowell are still going to think “Lowell High School” and snicker – but if we build at Cawley, they’ll be able to point to our own decision to run away from the downtown and try, inadequately, to be just like the ‘burbs as proof that they are right.

The Stakes in Atlanta: Another 2016 or Another 2008 in Four Years

For many years, Democrats have been lecturing progressives about the importance of political pragmatism, defined as settling for someone other than their preferred candidate – someone much closer to the New Democrat party establishment than they prefer – in internal Democratic Party elections. They have been urging this, they insist, not out of a hostility to progressivism or the effort to move the party to the left, and not out of a desire to maintain their own power within the party, but in order to secure a large-enough electoral coalition to win the general election. And for years, progressives have been suspicious that this argument is a pretext for simple opposition to progressive politics and to political figures who are not creatures of the party establishment. Some progressives, such as me, find this argument compelling, and some do not. The portion of progressives who buy it varies from election to election, and when the degree of skepticism reaches sufficient heights, enough progressives bolt from the Democratic coalition, by staying home or voting third-party, to produce the Democrats’ defeat. That’s how Bush was election in 2000. It’s how Trump was elected last year. Some make the case that Reagan’s election in 1980, after Ted Kennedy primaried Jimmy Carter with the support of the left, fits this pattern.

During the 2016 Democratic primary, that level of skepticism reached a new peak. Contributing to this trend were revelations of establishment Democrats putting their thumb on the scale in their own interest, of contempt and hostility towards Sanders and his voters among the avowedly-neutral Democratic National Committee, and of their candidate telling a room full of rich donors that her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal was merely a “public position,” a ruse to fool the rubes. Meanwhile, the avowed pragmatists were pulling out all the stops to nominate someone with a 56% unfavorable rating to be our candidate for the presidency – even as they continued to preach the same message of pragmatic self-denial to progressives. Under these circumstances, it was entirely unsurprising that a larger number of progressives would dismiss their pragmatism argument as a self-serving scam.

Today, the ability of the Democratic Party to win the 2020 election depends primarily on one factor: the ability to win back the loyalty of those progressives who failed to pull the lever for Hillary Clinton. While the party’s Congressional and state legislative future may or may not require winning over some segment of Trump voters, winning the presidency does not. The Obama coalition, if it can be put back together, can not only deliver the presidency, but will do so by increasing margins in each subsequent quadrennial election for the foreseeable future. The pragmatic consideration most important for turning Donald Trump (or Mike Pence, should Trump fail to complete his term) out of office in 2020 is the necessity of healing the rift brought about during the 2016 primary, and not exacerbating it.

Tomorrow, the Democratic National Committee will pick a new Chair. The election is going to come down to Keith Ellison, the unity candidate who has the support of the insurgent faction as well as a substantial number of figures from the establishment faction; and Tom Perez, a candidate who, while an admirable liberal, enjoys support only from among the Clinton side, and who was encouraged by the White House to run in order to deny the seat to a candidate from the Sanders faction. One of these candidates has demonstrated the capacity to bring together the party’s factions – that is, to satisfy the essential pragmatic need the party faces today – and the other, regardless of his merits, has been unable to win support beyond his side of the divide. If the body that votes for DNC Chair roughly represented the electorate that chooses Democratic presidential nominees, Ellison’s coalition of Sanders supporters and some Clinton supporters would ensure his victory. But the party figures voting tomorrow are not a reflection of that primary electorate; they are a reflection of the party insiders who backed Hillary by such lopsided margins in the 2016 “endorsement primary.”

The election of Keith Ellison will bring alienated Berniacs back into the Democratic fold, while the election of Tom Perez will, fairly or not, drive them away. Ellison winning the chairmanship will accomplish two essential objectives. Obviously, the ascension of their preferred candidate to the top job in the Democratic Party will give Sanders supporters a reason to support the party. What may be less obvious: the sight of the barons of the Democratic Party agreeing to settle for Ellison despite their preference for Perez, for reasons of pragmatism, will demonstrate that they are willing to practice the very same pragmatic self-denial that they have been preaching at progressives for so long, and thus restore their credibility in making that argument. The opposite result will produce the opposite outcome – the Berniacs whose relationship with they party has already taken such a hit will see their broadly-popular candidate rejected merely because he is popular among them; and they will see the very people who attempt to sell them on the notion of taking half a loaf for the common good refuse to do so, once again, when it is their turn.

The election of Keith Ellison will put the Obama coalition back together and make a Democratic victory in 2020 overwhelmingly likely. The rejection of him will likely produce another progressive-defection election in four years. That’s what it comes down to.

It’s time for the powers-that-be to put the good of the party above the maintenance of their status within it.


Dammit, Clio Chang of The New Republic is a better writer than I am!

It appears that the underlying reason some Democrats prefer Perez over Ellison has nothing to do with ideology, but rather his loyalty to the Obama wing. As the head of the DNC, Perez would allow that wing to retain more control, even if Obama-ites are loath to admit it. Sanders has been accused of re-litigating the primary in his criticisms of Perez, but the fact that Perez was pushed to run, while Ellison was quickly and easily unifying the left and center, seems like the move most predicated on primary scars.

And not just a better writer, but a better analyst! I blunder around writing things like, “Ellison’s candidacy is a continuation of the Sanders campaign,” describing the Congressman entirely as the candidate of the Bernie wing, and depict Charles’ Schumer’s endorsement in terms of his acquiescence to that wing. I then describe Perez in equal-but-opposite terms:

But structurally, in the role he plays in this race, Perez is the Clintonite establishment’s pick nonetheless, and while I applaud the move to the policy left, his campaign is still fundamentally about countering and limiting the influence of the Sanders movement.

Chang, having taken her smart pills, dismisses the false equivalence between the two. In the paragraph below, italics represent figures that are affiliated with the Sanders wing, while bold represents figures from the current establishment:

Ellison, a congressman from Minnesota, has been endorsed by leaders across the Democratic spectrum, including Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Representative John Lewis, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. He has captured the support of young progressives, with over 200 millennial leaders signing a letter backing his bid…Perez, Obama’s former secretary of labor, reportedly entered the race after being prodded by Obama’s White House. He has been endorsed by former Vice President Joe Biden, former Attorney General Eric Holder, and the heads of DNC caucuses for women, Hispanics, and rural voters.

Note which of the candidates has support from both establishment figures and from Berniacs, and which has support that comes exclusively from one side. There is no symmetry here. Keith Ellison is the unifying candidate who can win the support and mend the rift between both sides of the party, while Tom Perez is exactly what his candidacy was intended to be: the candidate of the party establishment exclusively, sent out to oppose the Sanders wing. (Hey, I was right about that part!)

The party is split. One candidate in this race has demonstrated the capacity to bring it together and win support of both sides, and one has not. Many people, myself included for a quite some time, dismissed the degree of alienation that Sanders supporters felt towards the party after the shenanigans during the primary (meaning everything from the DNC’s thumb on the scale to fake news stories invented and propagated by the Clintonite establishment, including the sitting DNC Chair) and assumed they would come back into the fold in the same numbers as Clinton supporters in 2008. Many of those observers now spend their days cursing the left for not turning out for Clinton or defecting to Jill Stein and Gary Johnson. They very openly and literally define the alienation of the Bernie wing as the primary reason Donald Trump is President.

You’d think that people who are passionately opposed to the election of a Republican President, and who blame the insurgent/establishment breech for causing it, would be highly motivated to heal that breech. But, on the other hand, the action that could prevent a similar performance in 2020 would also come at a cost for them. Instead of having exclusive control of the party, they would have to share it. Not give it up, but share it. As the endorsements of Tom Perez and the circumstances of his entry into the race demonstrate, he is the exclusively-factional candidate, brought into the race to stop a Sanders backer when that Sanders backer began demonstrating the capacity to win broad support from both wings. If it had been just Our Revolution and Nurses United that endorsed Keith Ellison, there likely would have been no casting about for an establishment alternative. In contrast, Keith Ellison is the unity candidate, not merely the Berniac candidate like I claimed, as his endorsements demonstrate. That is the choice that voting DNC members have – not the Sanders wing vs. the Clinton wing, but party unity vs. factionalism forever.

I’ll let Chang have the last word:

There is no case for Perez that cannot be made for Ellison, while Ellison is able to energize progressives in ways that Perez cannot. The question that will be answered on Saturday is whether Democrats have more urgent priorities than denying power to the left.

The Motivation For Backing Perez Over Ellison Is To Put Sanders Supporters In Their Place

Bernie Sanders’ endorsement of Keith Ellison for Chair of the Democratic National Committee is a golden opportunity for the Democratic establishment in general, and the DNC in particular, to mend fences from the 2016 primary.  With the DNC itself being viewed by half the party as corrupt and hostile to progressivism, the elevation of Bernie Sanders’ most prominent endorser to the top office would go a long way towards giving Sanders supporters, and others disgusted by the behavior of the Committee during the primary, a high degree of confidence that they can trust it going into the next two election cycles. Some major establishment figures such as Chuck Schumer, recognizing the importance of winning back this trust in order to secure progressives’ support for the party, have endorsed Sanders. They know where the future of the Democratic Party lies, and they know that a big, substantive public embrace of the Sanders movement is necessary to secure that future. Unfortunately, there is a sizable faction of the party that have no interest in doing so, or at least, value that interest less than denying the Sanders faction a win.

Many incumbent Democratic elites, (and their wanna-bes on the internet), are actively repelled by the ascendency of the Sanders coalition, and hostile towards them and their grievances about the nomination process. It is from them that the Tom Perez campaign comes. Not just the support for his campaign, but its very existence. Notably, Perez, along with former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm and Vice President Joe Biden, were approached by White House figures and urged to run for DNC Chair. This was not a case of the White House choosing among the candidates in the race, but of getting their guy into the race. Tellingly, they began casting about for a candidate only after Ellison vaulted into the lead on the strength of Sanders’ endorsement.

Why did this happen? What made it so important that Keith Ellison be stopped? The usual answer in this situation is to prevent someone who is considered too liberal from ascending to the office, but that answer makes no sense in this case. Perez’s supporters themselves are quick to insist that there is little-to-no difference between the candidates on policy or ideology – and they are largely correct. Tom Perez is a very progressive leader, one who championed voting rights and fought police abuse while running the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, then turned the long-moribund Department of Labor into a vigorous defender of workers’ rights in areas like wage theft, union organizing, and workplace conditions. I supported putting Perez on the 2016 ticket instead of Tim Kaine, largely so he could serve as a progressive influence on Hillary Clinton and, who knows, maybe use the office of Vice President to become, arguably, the most progressive POTUS in American history. I fully expect to support him in future races. Some of the commentary about him from Ellison supporters, such as describing him as a “neoliberal” or a “centrist,” has been quite unfair. His record shows him to be, depending on one’s point of view, the most progressive figure in the Obama administration, or the most acceptable progressive to the party establishment.  So, clearly, this motive here is not about ideology. Another possible explanation is that they consider Perez to be better on the organizing and strategizing aspects of the DNC Chair job – but once again, there is very little to choose between them. Ellison is renowned for his organizing skill, having turned his Congressional district from the lowest-turnout in Minnesota to the highest. The two candidates’ statements during the campaign on these matters have been nearly identical. The biggest difference seems to be that Perez opposes a ban on accepting donations from lobbyists, while Ellison supports it but makes clear that he will not push the issue in the Chair role. Again, the Perez supporters themselves laud Ellison as an organizer and strategist, and acknowledge the lack of daylight between them.

But if the differences between the two candidates are so minuscule, why was it so important to the establishment Democrats to get Perez into the race in the first place? Clearly, there is something more going on in the Ellison-Perez contest than the merits of the two men individually. The answer is factional power.  Ellison’s candidacy is a continuation of the Sanders campaign (which itself was the continuation of a longer effort to move the Democratic Party in a progressive direction). This effort has never been limited to policy, but also to make the Democratic Party a more grassroots organization, in which the role of mega donors is reduced, greater participation by ordinary voters is encouraged, insiders are not given unfair advantages in party nominating contests, and outsiders are drawn in and welcomed – in short, to weaken the grip of party insiders and big money. We Berniacs openly acknowledge this. Bernie Sanders acknowledges this, though with enough polite misdirection to avoid serious offense.

There has, however, been a concerted attempt by people who identify with the Old Guard to claim that this is a one-sided fight, and that only Ellison supporters are thinking in terms of the ongoing debate between the establishment and insurgent wings of the party. This assertion is nonsense. At its core, the Perez campaign (initially begun as the “Find Someone To Run Against Keith Ellison Campaign”) is an attempt to resist that reformist movement – if not on ideology and policy, then on matters like how the nominating process works and who the party responds to. In choosing a solid policy-progressive like Perez to be their candidate, the Party establishment has demonstrated an awareness of the importance of progressivism in their political appeal. This is very good, and represents a major win for the progressive wing. Tom Perez is certainly no Tim Kaine or Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (the last two Democratic Party Chairs). But structurally, in the role he plays in this race, Perez is the Clintonite establishment’s pick nonetheless, and while I applaud the move to the policy left, his campaign is still fundamentally about countering and limiting the influence of the Sanders movement.

The Clinton faction wanted to use the Tom Perez candidacy to send a message about who has the upper hand in this party. I’m sure the outcome of Saturday’s vote will do exactly that, but I’m beginning to suspect it won’t be the message they wanted to send. With the recent endorsement of Ellison by former opponent Ray Buckley, the momentum in this race has shifted. Most outlets are now treating Ellison as the frontrunner.

Good. This party needs change we can believe in. I only hope that the promising political future of Tom Perez doesn’t suffer as a result of the establishment’s ill-judged effort to throw its weight around.

The Lowell Police Department Is Not Donald Trump’s Immigration Gestapo

In response to the Trump administration’s assault on immigrant communities in the United States, a group of concerned Lowellians organized a City Council petition to adopt a Trust Ordinance, modeled on that of Boston, directing the Lowell Police Department not to comply with immigration detainer requests except in cases of serious violent crime. I spoke in favor:

Good evening Mr. Mayor, City Councillors, and Mr. Manager. The last time I was before you, it was to oppose a brutal dictator who was attempting to impose his agenda within Lowell, to the detriment of the relationship between Lowell’s immigrant community and the local government. Well, here we are again.

I am here tonight in defense of community policing in Lowell, which is under threat as it has never been before. A quarter century ago, the Lowell Police Department set out to find a better way to protect our community while developing positive, cooperative relationships with the residents of neighborhoods like the Acre, the Lower Highlands, Lower Belvidere and Centralville. Rejecting the failed “occupying army” model of policing in the aftermath of the L.A. riots, a visionary leadership helped develop and implement a system that delivered. They adopted tactics such replacing anonymous cruiser patrols with officers walking regular beats and becoming familiar figures in the neighborhoods. The officers worked to increase positive, friendly interactions with the police, especially among young Lowellians. They trained and learned deescalation tactics, and to remain polite and professional during confrontations, as opposed to just asserting their power and demanding compliance. And it worked. Lowell saw its crime rate plummet throughout the 1990s, while at the same time the police improved their image among the city’s youth, and its diverse immigrant communities. A quarter century of commitment to community policing principles have brought us to where we are today, and that is a very good place. A strong bond of trust exists between Lowell’s police and its residents.

But now, due to developments beyond our control, we find that relationship threatened by federal immigration policy. People in this city are afraid, and they have reason to be afraid. The new administration in Washington is seeking to coopt local police into a federal “Deportation Force,” and threatening to withhold federal funding if we do not comply. We need to make the right choice here. If Lowell allows itself to be bullied into betraying the very communities the LPD has worked so hard to build relationships with, we will flush 25 years of committed community policing work down the drain in six months. As for the argument that “legal immigrants” have nothing to fear, it turns out that people don’t like it when you deport their aunts and brothers and neighbors, or rat them out to those who do. People also don’t like to be stopped and investigated and questioned by police, even if they eventually let you go. Those aren’t positive interactions that build relationships. The are frightening and intrusive interactions that destroy relationships.

I understand that there are a variety of opinions in this city, in this chamber, and probably even among this body about federal immigration policy, and I can live with that. But what we need to insist upon is that federal immigration policy remain federal. The police in Lowell cannot become de facto immigration officers, or it will destroy everything they have worked so long to achieve.

The City of Lowell loves community policing, and it loves federal money. Man, do we love federal money! And for years, the two went hand in hand. We got federal money to do community policing; yay! But now, we may have to make a choice, and God help us if we make the wrong one. If this city loses some funding, we can buckle down and pick up where we left off in four years. But if we sell out the immigrant communities in this city for 30 pieces of silver, they will remember. Their children will remember. We will destroy the community policing relationship for generations, and we will be back to the days of teenagers throwing bottles at police cars. I urge this body to take the opportunity tonight to reject that path – to give clear, unequivocal guidance to the LPD that they are to continue to adhere to the values that have served this city so well for so long. Thank you.

The decision of the Council was to submit the matter to the City Manager for a report. Most of the Council appears to view the issue as, in Councillor Mercier’s words*, “a solution in search of a problem.” And, indeed, the Lowell Police Department** has for many years had an informal policy of not even collecting immigration status information from suspects, or anyone else for that matter. The majority of the councillors made it clear that they are in agreement with the LPD’s policy, or at least give them the well-earned benefit of the doubt. If their position is that want to eat their cake and have it too – that is, to have the policy without making it official and endangering federal funding – I can respect that. Still, the proponents will have achieved a win, even without the ordinance passing, if the Council and Manager confirm their support for the LPD’s practices, and the LPD itself is sent the clear message that the Council will have their back on this matter.


*To the “Socialist Alternative” fellow I met in the hall: there is really no call to be interrupting Councillor Rita Mercier as she is speaking from her chair in the council chamber. She has more than earned the right over the years of her public service to speak her mind.

**I owe Police Chief William Taylor an apology. Sir, I have slandered you in my mind. During the process to choose the chief, I was hoping that Arthur Ryan would be elevated, or perhaps Acting Chief Deb Freidl would be given the post permanently, since I trusted them to vigorously pursue a community policing strategy, while I considered Taylor more likely to backslide. His tenure in office, especially his response to the immigration issue, has proven me wrong. Chief Taylor, you are a true successor to Ed Davis.