In fight to define party in age of Donald Trump, Sanders followers want to transform it from the bottom up by taking control of low-level state and county posts
The followers of Sen. Bernie Sanders, shown above last week, are aiming to transform the Democratic Party’s power structure, starting with the lowest-level state and county committee posts. Photo: mandel ngan/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
By Reid J. Epstein and Janet Hook
Wall St Journal
Feb. 22, 2017 – In Washington, Democrats are grappling with what it means to be a minority party in the age of Donald Trump. In the rest of the country, populist followers of Sen. Bernie Sanders are mounting a sustained effort to answer the question from the bottom up.
In California, supporters of the 2016 presidential contender packed the obscure party meetings that chose delegates to the state Democratic convention, with Sanders backers grabbing more than half the slots available.
In Washington state, they swept to power at the Democratic state central committee, ousting a party chairman and installing one of their own in his place. Sanders acolytes have seized control of state parties in Hawaii and Nebraska and won posts throughout the party structure from coast to coast.
Those gains come from an under-the-radar blitz in a debate over the future of the party following its bruising 2016 losses. While Democrats nationwide have put the focus on President Trump, the Sanders wing of the party has engaged in an intramural fight to remake the party in a more populist, liberal mold.
“It is absolutely imperative that we see a major transformation of the Democratic Party,” Mr. Sanders said in an interview last week. The party has “to do what has to be done in this country, to bring new energy, new blood.”
The party will choose its new chairman on Saturday at a meeting in Atlanta. Some in the Democratic old guard harbor concerns that a sharp turn to the left could alienate centrist voters, jeopardize the party’s position in the next presidential election and, before then, lead to primary challenges to incumbent Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections.
The Brevard County, Fla., Democratic Party’s executive committee meeting in Rockledge drew a full house last week. Photo: Jacob Langston for The Wall Street Journal
“Is the Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren wing of the party going to push us too far to the left?” asked former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who also served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “Only if they start going after incumbent moderate Democrats in primaries like the tea party did.”
Last week, a group of former Sanders campaign aides launched a super PAC with the explicit goal of mounting primary challenges to Democratic incumbents. Party leaders are urging Democrats to focus on fighting Mr. Trump and his GOP allies instead of turning their fire inward.
For now, the strategy of Mr. Sanders’s followers is to infiltrate and transform the Democratic Party’s power structure, starting with the lowest-level state and county committee posts that typically draw scant attention.
Brevard County Democratic Executive Committee chair Stacey Patel, standing, spoke at the meeting last week in Rockledge. Photo: Jacob Langston for The Wall Street Journal
“From where I come from in the Bernie movement, people believe that there are permanent obstacles to change,” said Larry Cohen, the board chairman of Our Revolution, the political organization that grew from the 2016 Sanders presidential campaign.