In what some within the Democratic Party say could be a watershed moment, an excerpt from a new book by former interim Democratic National Committee chairwoman Donna Brazile raises new concerns about the organization’s influence in the 2016 presidential primaries.
The excerpt from Brazile’s new book, “Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns that put Donald Trump in the White House”, was published Thursday in Politico magazine and potentially shows the depth of coordination between the DNC and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. The book also explores whether the contest between the former secretary of state and Sen. Bernie Sanders was weighted against the Vermont lawmaker.
Brazile, a former ABC News political contributor, said she was shocked when she heard that the Clinton campaign had entered into a joint fundraising agreement with the DNC long before it was clear that Clinton would be the party’s nominee.
“The funding arrangement with (Hillary for America) and the victory fund agreement was not illegal, but it sure looked unethical,” Brazile wrote. “If the fight had been fair, one campaign would not have control of the party before the voters had decided which one they wanted to lead. This was not a criminal act, but as I saw it, it compromised the party’s integrity.”
The tell-all has drawn swift reactions from Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii. President Donald Trump also weighed in.
Two former DNC executives told ABC News Friday they were unaware of the scope of the financial agreement between the Clinton campaign and the organization.
“The victory fund money was supposed to be spent between the campaign and the state parties during the general,” said Jim Zogby, a former member of the DNC’s executive board during the 2016 elections. “It was a violation of agreement and process.”
Reacting to the news Thursday on CNN, Warren said the revelations reveal a “real problem” with the DNC, and that she agrees with the notion that the Democratic nomination was “rigged” for Clinton.
“What we’ve got to do as Democrats now is we’ve got to hold this party accountable,” Warren said, adding that new DNC Chair Tom Perez has to do more to bring Sanders’ supporters into the nomination process.
“He’s being tested now, this is a test for Tom Perez, and either he’s going to succeed by bringing Bernie Sanders and Bernie Sanders’ representatives into this process, and they’re going to say it’s fair, it works, we all believe it, or he’s going to fail,” Warren said.
In a video released Thursday night, Gabbard, an early Sanders supporter, said the news reveals just how much the DNC and nomination process needs to be reformed.
“This is further evidence of a party and a campaign finance system that needs to be completely overhauled and reformed. These reforms must empower the people and take back our party from the special interests of a powerful few,” Gabbard said.
Another former DNC staffer took issue with how Brazile characterized the agreement between the DNC and the Clinton campaign.
“The JFA (joint funding agreement) was signed and made public a year before Donna became chair. Bernie was offered one too and chose not to use it. We should be thanking Brooklyn for funding the DNC when no one else was. Donna is just wrong about this,” the former staffer said.
President Trump also weighed in on the issue today — attempting to divert attention away from potential links between his campaign and Russia during the 2016 election — saying that he always felt he should have faced Sanders in the general election.
A broken system?
Among the claims Brazile makes about the current state of the Democratic Party is the charge that President Barack Obama left it in very poor financial shape.
“Obama left the party $24 million in debt — $15 million in bank debt and more than $8 million owed to vendors after the 2012 campaign — and [the party] had been paying that off very slowly,” Brazile wrote.
A spokesman for the former president’s office did not respond to ABC News’ request for comment.
“It is dramatic overstatement to say that President Obama bankrupted the party. The fundraisers the president did were some of the best that happened for the party,”said R.T. Rybak, a former mayor of Minneapolis and a former vice chairman of the party.
Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University, says it’s not abnormal for a party to have to recover after a two-term president, but that the current division within the party after 2016 is more severe.
“It is true that usually when a two-term president leaves that his party often is in trouble, but I think there are many who agree that this is on the worst side of the spectrum, and so the party is paying a price for it,” Zelizer said.
Zelizer also said instead of arguing about the 2016 election, Democrats should focus on a more universally agreed upon target.
“I think the best thing [Democrats] can do is to keep the focus on President Trump, who all Democrats would probably agree is not good for the country,”
A case for reform
Zogby told ABC News he hoped Brazile’s book would buttress reform efforts.
“If we do not reform, we cannot unify and if we cannot unify we cannot win. So to me reform is simply a way of bringing the factions of the party together so we can function as a unified whole,” he told ABC News.
As a member of the unity commission charged with helping reform the party, Zogby and other members of the panel appointed by Sen. Sanders have been pushing for a stronger and more transparent governance structure.
Specifically, they suggest options such as an open and transparent budget that will be proposed and voted on by the executive committee, an internal judicial review board, budget oversight committee, and a ban on conflicts of interest.
Zogby argues a judiciary review board would allow candidates or state officers who have grievances a place to be heard internally.
“If we do not create structures to solve these problems in-house then the only time we ever get to deal with problems is when they break in the news … a scandal or a problem and then we have to address it,” he said.
Other members of the unity commission speculate the reason there has been pushback on budget transparency is because too many paid consultants also have holding voting power in the party.
In addition to the work being done on the unity commission, former Sanders supporters and new voices need to be represented on the leadership teams, reformers say.
Just last month, Perez removed Zogby and others from their posts on the executive committee. The move angered a lot of progressives in the party, who accused Perez of purging people who either did not back him for his chairmanship position or backed Sanders during the primary.
“This is our party too,” said Rania Batrice, who worked for Sanders and advised the DNC during the general election. “The voices at the DNC have to be balanced.”
However, others say those pushing reforms are overlooking the progress made.
“There is nothing wrong with the Democratic Party that cannot be solved with democracy,” said Rybak, the former DNC vice chairman.
He cites the very public and drawn-out election the party went through in February to elect Perez amid other leadership posts.
“This is the most democracy we have had in party leadership in years,” he said. “It is a huge difference.”