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Ailing Democratic Party looks to grow grassroots

ATLANTA -- The political organization electing a new chairman here Saturday is called the Democratic National Committee, but to hear members tell it, in recent years it might as well have been called the Committee for the Promotion and Protection of Barack Obama (and Hillary Clinton).

That didn't work out so well.

Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, and other Democrats up and down the ballot suffered devastating losses in November.

So the task facing the next Democratic chairman -- quite possibly former Labor Secretary and Snyder native Thomas E. Perez -- is huge.

It's turning a party infrastructure built for presidential races into a genuine national party that will make deep inroads in local, state and federal races everywhere – even in Trump country.

Echoes of Clinton vs. Sanders, as local Perez vies for DNC chair

That task appears to be first and foremost on the minds of DNC members. And while there appears to be a deep split over who should be chairman, with Perez and Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota the leading candidates, there is little debate over the direction in which the party must go.

Perez talks not just of a 50-state strategy, but of a 57-state strategy where Democrats appeal to voters in America's territories as well as its states.

And, Ellison takes things one step farther, saying on his website: “Beyond a 50-state strategy, we need a 3,143-county strategy.”

Democrats are uniformly calling for that change because, in the words of Perez, "the DNC’s a black hole, and we have a crisis of confidence because it is.”

Privately, DNC members – even those who supported Clinton in her primary battle against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders – trace the DNC's troubles back to Obama and his hand-picked party chairs, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida.

Members said Kaine – and especially Schultz – ran the DNC as if it were a political arm of the Obama White House, raising millions to spread the party's message nationally without investing much in party-building at the state and local level.

Schultz's tenure at the DNC ended when Wikileaks released emails last summer that indicated that the committee favored Clinton over Sanders.

Those revelations prompted calls for change at the DNC that only grew louder after the November election, which proved once and for all how devastating the Obama years were for down-ballot Democrats. The party lost control of both houses of Congress during his tenure. The number of Democratic governors dwindled from 25 in 2009 to 16 today. And the number of Democratic state legislators nationwide plummeted by more than 1,000.

Democrats now routinely complain about the party apparatus and its performance under Schultz. Some DNC members said they couldn't even figure out how the party was spending its money, though it was clear that it wasn't spending money on local races because it was so focused on the presidency.

"I think the New York delegation actually feels very much the same way," said Byron W. Brown, Buffalo mayor and New York State Democratic chairman.

Now, though, Brown believes change is certain.

"There is going to be a real focus on the local and state level, all the way down to the school boards," he said.

That's the way the DNC's aspiring leaders talk.

Rep. Grace Meng of Queens, a party vice chair who is running for re-election, talks about a DNC that offers media training and fundraising help for candidates at all levels, in all parts of the country. While she's focused much of her work on getting millennials and minority communities involved with the Democratic Party, she's also reached out to the party's Rural Caucus.

"We should at least show up" and work to field strong candidates in red states as well as blue ones, she said, noting that the DNC can help by investing in field organizers and state parties.

Bronx Assemblyman Michael Blake, who is also running for one of the four vice chair slots, talks about "building the party's bench" by helping Democratic candidates for city councils and school boards, while simultaneously working hard to engage young people in the work of the party.

"You have to make sure that you belong with the resistance," Blake said.

The resistance, of course, is the groundswell of opposition that President Trump, a Republican, has felt since taking office.

And so far, Democratic leaders said, people are calling local party headquarters and volunteering to help.

"We have never more people sign up to help than we have in the last three weeks," said Iowa Democratic Chairman Derek Eadon.

"We saw people coming to us the day after the election," said David A. Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. "We will have more people running for office than ever, at all levels."

That's the sort of thing that Howard Dean, former Vermont governor, presidential candidate and Democratic chair, wants to hear. Dean endorsed Pete Buttigieg, the charismatic young mayor of South Bend, Ind., for DNC chair, saying Buttigieg could do better than any other candidate in getting millennials involved.

During his tenure as Democratic chair a decade ago, Dean pioneered a "50-state strategy" that led to gains up and down the ballot, only to see that strategy abandoned during the Obama years.

Now, Dean said Friday, it's time for the party to go back to its future.

Speaking at a luncheon for Buttigieg, Dean said: "The party needs to be fundamentally reorganized from the bottom up."

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