The DNC Chair Is Feuding With His White House-Installed Lieutenants
Table of Contents
- Chair Jaime Harrison is being locked out of staffing and operational decisions, sources tell Insider.
- The conflict centers on Harrison and two top DNC officials: Sam Cornale and Mary Beth Cahill.
- Harrison loyalists say he needs more latitude so the party can get back on track.
Allies of Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison are sounding the alarm about an internal party feud over whether he’s being given the latitude he needs from his White House-installed lieutenants to succeed ahead of the 2022 midterms and 2024 presidential race.
Three people close to Harrison pointed to frustrations about how much he is being looped in on staffing and operational decisions and say he’s warring with other DNC officials over who controls the party’s valuable voter data. They say Harrison, a potent fundraiser from South Carolina, hasn’t been given the leeway he needs to be an effective chair.
“They’ve taken this African American candidate and tokenized him,” one of the people familiar with Harrison’s frustrations with the DNC told Insider. “They put him out as the figurehead of the party but haven’t actually given any ability to shape its future. At a point where we are coming off this election now, and they’re going to try and pivot towards 2022, instead of empowering him, they’ve completely disempowered him.”
The internal feuding comes at a pivotal moment for Democrats. Their party is divided over big policy matters like how far to go on issues like voting rights, the climate crisis, and dramatic increases in federal spending on social programs. President Joe Biden’s poll numbers have hit new lows, and last week’s loss to Republicans in the Virginia gubernatorial contest has Democrats fearing even more painful results one year from now as they try to hold onto their slim majorities in Congress.
With that as a backdrop, party leaders told Insider they are concerned with what they describe as a simmering conflict between Harrison and top DNC aides approved by White House deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon, the Biden administration’s direct line to the party’s official apparatus ahead of 2022.
The contention centers on Harrison’s relationships with his senior advisor Mary Beth Cahill as well as Sam Cornale, the executive director of the DNC. Cahill is a longtime fixture of Democratic politics, having served as interim CEO of the DNC beginning in 2018 and campaign manager for John Kerry’s 2004 White House bid. Cornale got his start as a field-office manager for Barack Obama and later helped manage the DNC during the 2018 midterms. Both got their current DNC positions courtesy of the Biden White House.
“The staff decisions are being made by Sam and Mary Beth, and they’re not consulting with Jaime on anything,” one of the people familiar with Harrison’s frustration told Insider.
Why the DNC chair matters
The White House’s relationship with Harrison and the DNC will have a big influence on the party’s prospects in both 2022 and 2024.
Democrats are trying to protect a narrow House majority and defend the Senate while selling Biden’s recent policy victories on the economy, the child tax credit, and a $1 trillion infrastructure bill that’s on track to soon become law. Among other things, the DNC is responsible for messaging and strategy for Democratic candidates up and down the ballot across the nation, and an official there said it has invested tens of millions of dollars toward that effort for the upcoming midterm cycle.
Harrison’s team also faces the task of building an organization to support Biden’s reelection bid in 2024 — should he run again. But if the 78-year-old Biden doesn’t run, Vice President Kamala Harris or whoever else secures the nomination atop the ticket will inherit the party’s assets and infrastructure, including things like its massive email list.
A prolific fundraiser, Harrison raised a record-breaking $130 million in 2020 mounting an unsuccessful Senate challenge to Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. Despite losing that race, he ascended to the DNC job as a protégé of Rep. Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip who also gave a significant boost to an otherwise-wounded Biden with an endorsement before the 2020 Democratic primary in Clyburn’s home state of South Carolina.
When Biden nominated Harrison back in January, he stressed the need to elect Democrats across the country in the coming years. “To do that is going to take tireless leadership, committed to strengthening Democratic infrastructure across our states,” Biden, then the president-elect, said in a press release.
While the 45-year old Harrison has the party chairmanship, it’s Biden’s political team that handpicked his staffers when it nominated him. That’s an arrangement that is not uncommon for the new administration when its party controls the White House. Biden’s operation installed Cahill, then the DNC CEO, and her lieutenant Cornale as executive director, Politico reported in February.
A dispute over a driver
The tensions inside the DNC cover a number of topics.
There are questions about who should be holding onto the party’s critical voter data. Democrats familiar with the matter said Cahill and O’Malley Dillon have been trying to centralize the information with a third-party organization outside of the DNC. But the people around Harrison argued that it should stay right where it is under DNC control.
Another friction point came weeks ago when the DNC approved a slate of new party delegates who will have a critical role in all manner of Democratic decision-making. Harrison had submitted a list of names to the White House to fill 75 at-large appointments, but the White House rejected nearly every name he wanted, according to two people familiar with the interaction.
Then there’s a recent episode that played out on the ground amid the Virginia gubernatorial campaign that Harrison confidants say paints a larger portrait of the tensions between the DNC chairman and his own White House-approved leadership team.
When Harrison hit the trail in Virginia, he needed a driver and staffers. He had spent months marshaling party support for what was supposed to be Terry McAuliffe’s victory against the GOP candidate Glenn Youngkin, with the DNC draining nearly $6 million into the race.
But when he arrived in the Old Dominion for the final week of the crucial off-year gubernatorial race, he had to borrow a low-level staffer from an outside Democratic group, three people familiar with the incident told Insider.
Even then, the DNC declined to book the driver a room at Harrison’s hotel, forcing the staffer to drive some two hours each way to pick him up.
A Harrison confidante in recent days told Insider the incident with the driver demonstrates a more troubling dynamic at play between Harrison and his DNC leadership.
“It’s just reflective of a much larger issue,” the person said. “They’ve essentially pushed him out of making decisions at the DNC.”
Harrison pushes back
People familiar with Harrison’s situation told Insider that some of the party’s recent struggles, including in the Virginia loss, represent the first public signs that the White House is not using Harrison effectively.
“There’s deep frustration amongst Jamie and also DNC members who know that Jaime is not being empowered here, that he isn’t given the same level of respect and resources that previous chairs have gotten in the same way past chairs have been,” said a person who’s been briefed on the feuding.
“Jaime is very unhappy and wants Mary Beth removed,” added another Democratic strategist aware of the internal disputes.
In an interview on Tuesday, Harrison denied that there was tension between him and Cahill, saying he had just joined a call with her. “Folks can interpret whatever they want, but Mary Beth is a dear friend,” Harrison said. “She is a great colleague at the DNC.”
Harrison did not deny that he had to borrow a driver from an outside group. He said it was a matter of being fiscally responsible.
“At the end of the day, I got to where I needed to be,” Harrison said when asked about the episode.
“Dude, that’s not even a story,” he continued. “One of the things is I’m trying to make sure that we save money and do things so that we can spend the money on what really counts, which is our Red State Fund that we have set up for our red states and for other things. So at the end of the day, if I wanted a driver, I would have gotten the driver. I’m the chair of the DNC. There’s no staffer that is going to tell me what I can and can’t do.”
A DNC aide cut off the call when Insider asked Harrison whether there was a dispute about where the party’s data should be held. Then, hours after the interview ended, the DNC sent Insider an additional statement from Harrison.
“The DNC along with our partners in the White House are a cohesive team that is firing on all cylinders in order to put Democrats in the best possible position to win,” Harrison said. “Anything suggesting otherwise is flatly untrue. Each and every day, I am proud to be a part of this team and the critical work we are doing.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
‘A fucking buzz saw’
The first midterm election cycle faced by a new president is indeed often a brutal one. That’s why Democrats aware of the tensions inside the DNC say this is anything but the right time for these feuds.
“We have to be in a position where we allow Jaime Harrison to cook,” said Bakari Sellers, a former member of the South Carolina House of Representatives.
“It’s existential for the party,” added another senior Democratic strategist briefed on the Virginia staffing incident. “We’re headed into a fucking buzz saw next year, and people are working on their own agendas and vendettas.”
South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson, a Harrison backer who succeeded him atop the state party’s leadership, expressed frustration with whoever is responsible for treating Harrison poorly.
“Why is he not being afforded the same thing that Tom Perez and Debbie Wasserman Schultz were afforded?” Robertson told Insider, referring to two recent previous DNC chairs. “Jaime Harrison should be treated with the same respect as any other chair, especially with the tensions and security issues we have in the nation.”
Robertson, who became aware of the dispute while campaigning in Virginia, said he plans to ask questions about the matter during the next DNC meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, in December. “The fact is, someone at the DNC has instructed staff to treat the chairman like a staff organizer and has refused to pay for or provide staff support and transportation and potentially lodging while he has been doing his official duties,” he said.
A Democratic strategist told Insider that the dispute between Harrison and the White House is having an effect on state parties that are behind on resources ahead of 2022 and while nonprofits emerge to offset that disparity. “The drama is spilling over,” this person said, adding that “the DNC is an afterthought, with Harrison fighting with JOD,” using a common shorthand for O’Malley Dillon.
Several Democrats did push back when asked about the tension described by Harrison’s associates.
“The DNC is a long-running institution and is a very different role than he’s had in the past, and I think amplified out of proportion by his allies who don’t understand it,” one party veteran said.
Another person familiar with past DNC operations said that two of the party’s former chairmen — Tim Kaine and Tom Perez — did not have personal drivers. Wasserman Schultz did have a driver because she was a Florida congresswoman at the same time.
As for relations between Harrison and O’Malley Dillon, a person familiar with the two Democratic power brokers said they “have a solid working relationship and are in frequent close contact.” Another person said the DNC and White House worked “very closely” with Harrison on his requests for at-large delegates. “And he got some of his top choices,” the person said.
On Tuesday night, Biden joined Harrison for a long-planned virtual grassroots DNC event. They had friendly exchanges on the importance of rural outreach and discussed issues including infrastructure, early-childhood education,
internet, and healthcare. There was no visible sign of tension.
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