Sunday, April 23, 2017
When There Is No Over-Riding Philosophy, There Can Not Be Unity.
WASHINGTON — Rarely has a municipal election in a midsize city ignited such a fierce national debate over what defines a Democrat. But the election this spring for mayor of Omaha is pitting abortion rights activists against economic populists and threatening the party’s unity as it regroups to confront President Trump.
Part of the twist: The populist side’s standard-bearer, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, is not even a Democrat.
“This is very raw,” said Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, conceding that “after the presidential election, there is still this ongoing debate about identity politics versus economic opportunity.”
Mr. Sanders and the new leadership of the Democratic National Committee touched a party sore spot this week when they took their “Unity Tour” to Omaha to rally for a mayoral candidate who opposes abortion rights. Mr. Sanders, repurposing the themes of his presidential bid, told a crowd of about 6,000 on Thursday night that the candidate, Heath Mello, 37, would be a future star in the Democratic Party who could help break the grip of big money on the nation’s politics.
Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, a prominent abortion rights advocacy group, called it a betrayal, especially of the women who have fueled the “resistance” that has energized Democrats since Mr. Trump’s unexpected triumph.
“It tells your most active political base that we’re just negotiable political property,” Ms. Hogue said of the statement sent by Mr. Sanders and Representative Keith Ellison, the Democratic National Committee’s new deputy chairman, who appeared with Mr. Mello. “Since the election, women have been engaged on the front lines of every progressive fight. So what message does it send for the party to start this tour with an anti-choice candidate?”
Mr. Mello, a practicing Catholic, supported a Nebraska State Senate bill requiring that women be informed of their right to request a fetal ultrasound before an abortion. The anger over that position reflects a long-running argument among Democrats over whether, or how much, to support candidates who depart from party orthodoxy on abortion.
But the ferocity of the dispute this time reveals a much deeper debate on the left: Should a commitment to economic justice be the party’s central and dominant appeal, or do candidates also have to display fealty to the Democrats’ cultural catechism?
An Omaha mayoral election on May 9 may seem an unlikely place for this fight to play out, but a collision was inevitable. Despite being the most sought-after Democrat in the country today, Mr. Sanders is actually an independent and self-described democratic socialist animated chiefly by class uplift. But the clamor for his attention comes as the party is increasingly defined by its positions on issues related to race, gender and sexuality.
The wounds from his clash with Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary clearly have yet to heal, in large part because the overarching debate between them has yet to be reconciled.
Mr. Sanders has emerged as the most popular active politician in America, according to a new survey by Harvard University and Harris Insights and Analytics, and his presence is demanded in Democratic campaigns no matter the political tint of the region. Yet his recent moves have infuriated some progressives.
First, Mr. Sanders campaigned with Tom Perriello, the Virginia Democratic candidate for governor who supported some anti-abortion measures during a single term in Congress (though Mr. Perriello has apologized for doing so).
Then Mr. Sanders pointedly declined to campaign for Jon Ossoff, a Democrat running for an open House seat outside Atlanta, deeming him insufficiently populist. (Mr. Sanders issued a statement on Friday offering his support for Mr. Ossoff.) Not only is the Ossoff race the highest-profile campaign of the moment, but the Republican nominee, Karen Handel, is loathed by the abortion rights movement for her role as an official at the Susan G. Komen foundation in separating that group, the nation’s largest breast cancer organization, from Planned Parenthood.
Then Mr. Sanders arrived in Omaha for Mr. Mello, after persuading the Democratic National Committee to make the rally a part of a party-sanctioned tour.
Coming against the backdrop of Mr. Trump’s election and the wave of new, female-led activism in opposition to a leader they believe is a repugnant misogynist, many female progressive leaders are adamant about keeping reproductive rights front and center. And they see the matter of Mr. Mello as an opportunity to send a statement to the party’s leadership.
“It is incredibly important that people within the progressive movement and Democratic Party realize that women are sick of this” stuff, said Erin Matson, a Virginia-based abortion rights activist, “and we’re not going to take it anymore.” (She used a more pungent word than “stuff.”) “What Bernie doesn’t seem to realize,” she added, “is that the abortion rights movement has really bucked up and gotten some tough ovaries in the last couple of years.”
Tom Perez, the party’s newly elected chairman, had been campaigning with Mr. Ossoff in Georgia when Mr. Sanders was in Nebraska. But in interviews leading up to the event, Mr. Perez was unapologetic about supporting Mr. Mello, who has recently said that although he personally opposed abortion, he would uphold abortion rights as mayor.
Yet after the backlash, Mr. Perez retreated. He conducted some quiet diplomacy, telephoning Ms. Hogue and Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, according to Democrats briefed on the calls. Casting aside their efforts at unity, Mr. Perez’s aides blamed Mr. Sanders for the event, putting out word that it had been the senator’s idea to include the rally on the tour and criticizing him for not vetting Mr. Mello.
By Friday afternoon, Mr. Perez had issued a far more strongly worded statement. “I fundamentally disagree with Heath Mello’s personal beliefs about women’s reproductive health,” Mr. Perez said. “It is a promising step that Mello now shares the Democratic Party’s position on women’s fundamental rights. Every candidate who runs as a Democrat should do the same because every woman should be able to make her own health choices. Period.”
In an interview on Friday, Mr. Perez further toughened his language, saying he respected those Democrats who “have personal beliefs” against abortion rights but warning them not to pursue such policies in office. “If they try to legislate or govern that way, we will take them on,” he said.
Not every liberal sees the issue as so clear-cut. Ms. Weingarten, who was a Clinton supporter, argued that the question of whether to focus on economic justice or social issues was “not an either-or” proposition. The red-and-blue-state tour that Mr. Sanders and the Democratic National Committee officials are on “conveys to the public that the Democratic Party is first and foremost a party of economic opportunity,” she said.
That back-and-forth is an extension of Democrats’ soul-searching after losing an election that they thought they would win. Many Democrats believe that Mrs. Clinton erred by not making economic populism more central to her campaign against Mr. Trump, relying instead on a mix of cultural liberalism and character attacks.
Just as the Republican establishment battled the nascent Tea Party over conservative purity after its 2008 loss, Democrats are enduring internecine strife over what it means to be a progressive.
“Anytime your party is out of power, you face a choice,” said Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist. “Do you want to hunt down heretics or seek out converts?”
Mr. Sanders and his supporters are the ones preaching inclusion, at least on social issues.
“Every single Democrat is not necessarily pro-choice,” said Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator from Cleveland and an ally of Mr. Sanders. “And Democrats need to understand that, and not vilify people because of it.”
Holding up her city’s mix of African-Americans and heavily Catholic descendants of eastern Europeans, Ms. Turner said economic justice bound Democrats together. “I was raised in the black church, and my momma would probably be rolling over in her grave over how I stood up for reproductive health because I was raised a different way,” she said.
Jane Kleeb, the Nebraska Democratic Party chairwoman, helped organize the event for Mr. Mello and has since come under attack for saying that Democrats were “pro-life” and “pro-choice.” She offered no apology.
“If the abortion rights groups are truly serious about cross-issue organizing,” she said, “they should know the foundation of that has to be economic issues.”