On Sunday, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii announced on “Meet The Press” that she would be stepping down from her post as a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and endorse Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.
“As a vice chair of the DNC, I am required to stay neutral in Democratic primaries,” Gabbard said. “But I cannot remain neutral any longer.”
“The stakes are just too high,” she continued. “That’s why today I’m endorsing Sen. Bernie Sanders to be our next president and commander in chief of the United States.”
Gabbard’s decision to step down finalised the public rupture within the top DNC brass that began last fall, when Gabbard told The New York Times that she had been disinvited from the Democratic debate in Las Vegas by Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the DNC chair.
Gabbard strongly protested the number and dates of Democratic presidential debates, which critics asserted were intentionally scheduled to tip the scales in favour of Sanders’ rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
And while Wasserman Schultz took a beating in the media from fact-checkers, comedians, and even some candidates, some Democrats worry that the spat may have damaged the image of one of the DNC’s most experienced yet unheralded stars: DNC CEO Amy Dacey.
A career party operative who worked on her first campaign when she was 8 years old, Dacey manages the day-to-day operations at the organisation while keeping in constant contact with state parties and often serving as a lead negotiator or go-between in disagreements among the different high-profile campaigns and actors.
She came to the DNC after serving as executive director at Emily’s List, where she oversaw the expansion of the organisation’s membership reach to over 3 million members from just under 200,000.
Emily’s List president Stephanie Schriock, who met Dacey in 2002 while working on the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told Business Insider in a February interview that Dacey was a rare kind of high-profile political manager who had navigated contentious campaigns largely without making enemies.
“I have worked in Washington, D.C., now, in and out of the business, for two decades. We are in a town where there can be lots of sniping and back-biting and positioning around other people to succeed,” Schriock said before pausing. “I never hear anything bad about Amy Dacey.”
Former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, who worked with Dacey at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and then-Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, agreed, saying that while he often observed staffers who craved the attention that their bosses received, Dacey had long been valued in Washington for keeping her head down.
“There are people who say, ‘OK, the candidate can lose, but I can be a star,'” Gibbs said. “Amy is just one of these people that is just very happy to be outside of the adulation and the flashbulbs and much more comfortable in the doing.”
‘Rebuilding the Democratic Party’
Though she has largely stayed out of the spotlight during her two years at the DNC, Dacey has been the driving force executing the expansion of the organisation after several years in which the organisation played second fiddle to the president’s reelection campaign, which expressed little interest in the party’s long-term goal of building up state Democratic parties.
The DNC has scaled up significantly over the past year for the open election, clearing much of its 2012 campaign debt, improving its already superior voter file, and quadrupling the size of its digital staff in anticipation of an election that will be heavily fought online.
“She really is the implementer of the vision of rebuilding the Democratic Party,” said Luis Miranda, the DNC communications director.
Gibbs said the CEO made tackling the debt her immediate first priority, as she knew it would inhibit the organisation from tackling growing challenges, including investing in voter-identification technology and helping rising stars in state elections. As of January, the organisation had about $7.5 million in debt and just over $5 million cash-on-hand, according to the FEC, significantly down from the just under $20 million the organisation had when Dacey joined in 2013.
“I think if Amy hadn’t been leading the DNC, I think that the stories that are written about the DNC now would include that they still have a pretty clear chunk of debt on their books,” Gibbs said. “After the 2012 race, they’re $20 million in debt. I think if it weren’t for Amy, they’d still be dealing with that.”
While the RNC consistently outpaces the DNC in fund-raising, Dacey said Democrats were likely to retain a technological and informational edge for years over the GOP.
“If you build on that cycle after cycle, in terms of the direct, on-the-ground voter engagement, you’re going to have more rich data,” Dacey said in an interview earlier this year. “And that’s certainly where you’re going to have a more competitive advantage, and it’s a multimillion-dollar investment from us, and we’ve been doing that for a while now.”
Still, the spat over the debates and the DNC’s decision to temporarily bar Sanders from accessing the voter file in December annoyed some Democrats, who feel that the difficult, often unglamorous work that Dacey has focused the organisation on over the past several years has been overshadowed.
Even those who have been publicly critical of the chair make exceptions for Dacey.
Former Mayor R.T. Rybak of Minneapolis, a DNC vice chair, surprised observers late last year by publicly criticising Wasserman Schultz’s decision not to consult cochairs before deciding on the number of debates.
While Rybak acknowledged that he stood by his previous criticisms of Wasserman Schultz, in an interview with Business Insider he was adamant that he had a “deep respect” for Dacey, who he said was the point player attempting to smooth over differences between the different campaigns and interests within the party.
“Even when the chair and I were having a public and private disagreement, Amy was doing exceptional work trying to solve the problem, bridge the issue, and include more people,” Rybak said. “I think she’s done a great job navigating through some really rocky waters.”
‘We are going to win this race if we don’t eat each other’
Observers note that beyond the intraparty squabble that has made headlines, Dacey remains far more concerned about the immediate threats looming over the organisation, especially the fund-raising deficit against its Republican counterpart.
The DNC also increasingly competes with Democratic-aligned super PACs, which can raise unlimited sums of cash for campaigns.
“What is the DNC do in an era in which it may actually be easier to go find three people to give $10 million each than it is to build a series of financial networks to also raise $30 million, and do the same thing in an election?” Gibbs said. “I think the super PAC era entered in this notion of, ‘How do you act as a party committee?'”
Gabbard’s decision to endorse Sanders also illustrates a more pressing issue: the rupturing of the Democratic Party and the lack of enthusiasm for Clinton’s candidacy among younger voters.
Democratic leaders acknowledge that the increasingly aggressive primary between Sanders and Clinton has exposed rifts in the party that threaten to break up the coalition that carried Obama to victory in 2008 and 2012.
“We are going to win this race if we don’t eat each other,” Rybak said. “The part where I have found her to be most focused on especially is trying to keep reaching out to different parts of the party. Which isn’t easy right now.”
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