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Tom Perez Stacks the DNC Deck Against Progressives

A rogues' gallery of influence-peddlers and insider power brokers will run the party's powerful convention committees.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Ahead of the first major test for the Democratic presidential field next week in Iowa, Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez has selected his nominees for the 2020 Democratic National Convention committees. These nominees, confirmed by the DNC’s executive committee, will serve as the overseers for July’s convention in Milwaukee. Their mandate will include managing the convention’s rulemaking procedures, resolving disputes over delegate credentialing, and codifying the Democratic Party platform. Taken as a whole, these handlers wield tremendous power in shaping both the official party line and the logistics of selecting the Democratic presidential nominee, to say nothing of the way they will influence the course charted by a potential Democratic president.

Thus far, the Democratic presidential primary has been defined by Joe Biden’s bid to appeal to the center and his deep ties to the DNC’s core; the progressive push by the Warren/Sanders contingent, who are viewed as party outsiders; and the smattering of lesser lights jockeying for a position somewhere in between. Perez’s appointments, however, suggest that he would prefer to resolve this ongoing tumult by leaving little room for actualizing the leftward pull that the progressive left flank of the party has coaxed out of its colleagues through concessions—such as the cautious exploration, among moderates, of health care policies that are billed as effective alternatives to Medicare for All.

If the party’s blue-collar and middle-class base—demographics whom candidates routinely address during their debate-stage polemics—are truly the engine of the Democratic machine, it’s hard to see how their interests are represented by the 70-odd delegates, who derive their own socioeconomic standing from their careers at America’s top financial firms and K Street influence shops. In a country where ordinary people are left sagging under the weight of medical debt, student loans, ramped-up housing costs, and climate change inaction, these committee selections offer little comfort. To many, it’s something of a slap in the face.

It comes as no surprise that Perez has chosen to appoint centrist candidates from deep within the Democratic Party establishment. Many in this cohort, after all, delivered him the DNC chairmanship in 2016. But this particular convention roster is stacked with a uniquely egregious assortment of corporate lobbyists and vocal opponents to progressive policies. One featured player is centrist darling and top-dollar buckraker John Podesta, famously quoted in a leaked email as being “not opposed” to “grinding [Bernie] Sanders to a pulp.” “Where would you stick the knife in?” he asked, temporarily abandoning the “ground pulp” metaphor.

Podesta’s appointment signals a certain commitment to the Democratic Party’s old guard of fundraising hounds and comfortable power brokers. But this fealty is deeply embedded throughout Perez’s roster, which ensconces purebred party insiders at the top of the three most important committees.

Co-chairmanship of the DNC Rules Committee was awarded to Maria Cardona, a CNN contributor, former lead communication strategist for the Department of Commerce’s effort to pass the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, and most importantly, principal at the Dewey Square Group. This consulting firm has represented a diverse clientele: from the grocery and restaurant lobbies fighting against unionization efforts to big pharma and Starbucks. As The Intercept reported in 2016, DSG even consulted with the health insurance giants who sought to undermine key parts of the Affordable Care Act. DSG is also represented on the Rules Committee by the firm’s co-founder, Charles Baker, who cashed in after having secured favor within the party for years of lobbying and dues-paying as chief administrative officer for Hillary for America. Minyon Moore, another DSG principal, also found her way to a committee seat.

Cardona shares the top seat on the Rules Committee with Barney Frank, the former Massachusetts representative, who—despite his reputation for Sanders-style gruffness and a shared affinity for calling policies “bullshit”—has repeatedly railed against Medicare for All and the Green New Deal policies first championed by Sanders. Frank’s past attacks reached such heights of vitriol that Sanders formally requested the DNC remove him from his position in 2016, marking a break from Sanders’s typical unwillingness to make direct asks (rather than blistering invectives) of the Democratic Party machine. Below Frank and Cardona on the Rules Committee sit Alexandra Gallardo-Rooker (a senior adviser to the Bloomberg campaign), Christopher Lu (champion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership), and the Biden-backing mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Heading the Credentials Committee are Lorraine Miller and James Roosevelt, the same two chairs who denied Sanders’s aforementioned request to remove Frank in 2016. After leaving public service, Roosevelt built his career rocketing up the ranks of the health care industry to the position of CEO of Tufts Health Plan, before joining the boards of multiple health care associations. He previously held the title of co-chair for the Rules Committee since 1995 and ran interference during the height of insider brokerage allegations amid the Sanders-Clinton dustup in 2016. Miller and Roosevelt will oversee vice chairs Tonio Burgos, whose firm lobbied for the Constitution Pipeline, delivering fracked natural gas across New York, and Shefali Duggal, a powerhouse fundraiser who memorably sought upgraded VIP privileges for the 2016 Democratic convention in leaked emails.

Denis McDonough, best known for serving as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff (though cinephiles may also recall John Hamm’s portrayal of McDonough in The Report, which depicted his effort to slow-walk the release of information related to the CIA’s torture program) also made the cut. Appointed as co-chair to the platform committee, McDonough also sits on the vulture’s perch at Rework America Task Force, a bipartisan leviathan of corporate interests attempting to, unsurprisingly, “remake America’s workforce”—all with the help of its dedicated founding partners at Walmart, Boeing, Kaiser Permanente, McKinsey, and Microsoft. Danielle Gray, senior VP and chief legal officer for Blue Cross Blue Shield, holds a vice-chair seat on this committee, alongside Jake Sullivan, a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and the former national security adviser to Joe Biden.

Other notable committee appointments went to former senator Heidi Heitkamp, who now sits on the board of the hawkish neoconservative (John) McCain Institute; former Obama official Carol Browner, who voted down radical climate change initiatives in 2016; Harold Ickes, described by the Times as “Bill Clinton’s Garbage Man,” for both selling access to the president and whipping support after the Gennifer Flowers incident; Alex Padilla, accused of suppressing progressive independent voters in California; and Michael Steed, founder of the Paladin Capital Group, which settled with the state of New York in a pay-to-play scheme involving a New York pension fund. Paladin Capital has also invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a homeland security fund headed by a former CIA leader and an assortment of military generals.

Regardless of committee members’ explicit or covert preference for presidential candidates, the corporate affiliations of these appointees and their outspoken refusal to cede any ground to progressive policy positions are wildly at odds with the preference for integrity valued by the majority of Democratic voters. Additionally, Perez’s appointment strategy introduces a slew of risks ahead of the inevitable general election showdown. For a political party that has presented the electoral defeat of President Trump and the greed and corruption he embodies as its highest priority in 2020, champions of democratic transparency and corporate accountability are few and far between on the DNC’s latest roster.

Moreover, health care reform—the issue consistently ranked as most important among Democratic voters—gets short shrift in this roster of appointments, outside of the former health care industry lobbyists who have steadily moved up within the DNC’s ranks. Climate change, also consistently ranked as a top issue for voters, has few advocates among these committee appointments. The movers and shakers of a nascent labor resurgence, fighting for fair compensation and workplace protections, are also found in short supply. With the Sanders campaign painting itself as the vanguard against the forces of corporate concentration and machinelike party rule, Perez’s appointments seem as though they were engineered to fan those flames, instead of neatly defanging the Vermont senator’s argument.

A lonely Sanders supporter in a sea of hostile committee members, Our Revolution chair and former president of the 700,000-strong communication workers union Larry Cohen also made it onto the Rules Committee—albeit with few friendly faces in the crowd. During the contentious battle for the DNC chairmanship that erupted between Tom Perez and Keith Ellison in 2016, Cohen wrote in the Huffington Post: “It makes no sense that Tom Perez would run a campaign where he starts with that donor base and others that represent more of the same... Of course Tom will bring a lot to this debate. But for those of us that have been battling for real change for decades, we know which side we must be on.” It’s the one instance in which Perez heeded the old saying that it’s better to have your enemies inside the tent, pissing out, than the reverse. He may come to regret not following that ancient wisdom more faithfully, though it could be a nation of struggling, striving citizens who will ultimately pay the price.