SC’s Jaime Harrison now among 4 seeking Democratic chair, including Labor Secretary Perez

Can South Carolina Democratic Chairman Jaime Harrison overcome a challenge for national party chairman by Labor Secretary Tom Perez?
Can South Carolina Democratic Chairman Jaime Harrison overcome a challenge for national party chairman by Labor Secretary Tom Perez? AP

South Carolina’s Jaime Harrison’s bid to become national Democratic Party chairman got tougher Thursday, as Labor Secretary Tom Perez joined the race.

That makes four candidates who want to lead the ailing party. The other two are Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who has the strong backing from the party’s more liberal wing, and Raymond Buckley, the well-regarded New Hampshire party chairman.

Perez announced his bid Thursday in a call with party officials. Party insiders now suggest that it’s a race mainly between Perez and Ellison.

Harrison, South Carolina Democratic chairman, and Buckley could benefit because the race is not a typical political campaign but a game of insider maneuvering, where candidates methodically go down their alphabetical lists of Democratic National Committee members, calling or visiting each one.

The approximately 447 DNC members will pick the winner when the party meets in late February in Atlanta.

“It’s still a wide open field,” said Donald Fowler, former national and South Carolina Democratic chairman.

While the party is looking for a fresh, dynamic person who could overcome the battering in the November elections, they also want someone adept at strengthening the party at the state and local levels.

Betty Richie, a DNC member from Graham, Texas, said Harrison is the only one who’s called her so far. Richie, who heads the party’s rural council, found she and Harrison had much in common.

“I like what he said,” Richie said. “He explained his state is a rural state.”

Harrison cites the Republican experience as a warning and a template. Outgoing GOP Chairman Reince Priebus had chaired the Wisconsin Republican party, and Ronna Romney McDaniel, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice as his successor, is the Michigan party chairman.

Priebus was hardly a household name when he won the national chairmanship after seven rounds of voting in 2011. He proceeded to pour resources into building the party at the grassroots level. Next year, Republicans will control the White House, both Houses of Congress and 33 governorships, and Priebus will become Trump’s White House chief of staff.

“Republicans understand that building states means building a foundation,” Harrison told McClatchy.

While he praised Perez and Ellison for their service, he said only he and Buckley understand how to revive state parties.

“None of these other guys, except for Ray, has had to worry about a state party budget,” Harrison said.

Then why not vote for Buckley? Because, Harrison said, “I’m the only one with experience in a red state. That’s where the growth has to happen.”

He also maintained he can “bridge the gap between Main Street and Capitol Hill.” He knows the party’s congressional leaders, since he was the chief vote counter for then-House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.

Harrison’s first challenge is to become better known among the party regulars. “I really don’t know a whole lot about him,” said Vallena Greer, a DNC member from Jackson, Mississippi.

Ellison is getting strong support from backers of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., as well as incoming Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. Pete Gertonson, chairman of the Nez Perce County Democratic Party in Idaho, met Ellison a year ago and was impressed. “I think quite a lot of him,” said Gertonson, a former DNC member.

The AFL-CIO is also behind Ellison. The executive council of the 12.5 million member organization voted overwhelmingly last week to endorse him, and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Ellison would “focus on year-round grassroots organizing.”

Greer is not a fan of Ellison. He’s been under fire from some Democrats for his past defense of the Nation of Islam, whose leader, Louis Farrakhan, has made anti-Semitic remarks. Ellison renounced his association with the group 10 years ago.

“I don’t think he’d be effective advancing the Democratic Party,” Greer said.

Perez announced his chairmanship bid saying “we need to listen to Democrats at every level.” His appeal, say insiders, is his Dominican heritage and his Buffalo, N.Y., upbringing. And, said former Kentucky Democratic Chairman Patrick Hughes, “he’s not some old party guy” tied to ways of the past.

At 40, Harrison is the youngest of the candidates. He was the executive director for the House Democratic Caucus at 30, and because he’s younger, he says he understands the concerns of millennials.

Harrison’s challenge is getting better known. “He’s chairman of the South Carolina party. That’s all I know about him, “said Keelan Sanders, a Democratic activist in Jackson, Mississippi.

Hughes, though, won’t rule out Harrison, calling him an “emphatic insider ... doing really good things in South Carolina.”

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid

Candidates live at forums

Democrats plan four forums in 2017, open to the public and streamed live, where the candidates for party chair will talk about themselves and their plans. The first is scheduled Jan. 13 in Phoenix, with additional forums in Houston, Detroit and Baltimore.