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Perez under pressure: the DNC chairman is in the hot seat as Nevada caucuses loom

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As Iowa Democratic Party officials struggled with an epic meltdown on the night of February 3, unable to tally the results of their first in the nation caucuses with their new app, Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez was a thousand miles away at his Washington headquarters on Capitol Hill.

Not wanting to be a distraction, as one DNC official put it, Perez had stayed in Washington rather than travel to Iowa, though his absence was viewed with suspicion by several Iowans. As the night wore on, and the delays stretched past midnight, Perez was perpetually on the phone, staying in constant touch with Democratic officials in Iowa and trying to offer whatever help he could. By the time he left the DNC offices around 4 a.m., returning just a few hours later, it was apparent this was no mere hiccup. The Democrats were dealing with a nightmare scenario.

Over the next several days, Perez focused on damage control — fielding tough questions from the media, reassuring the campaigns the problems were isolated to Iowa, and listening to party members who were angry and embarrassed over the mess.

Last week on Capitol Hill, Perez even conducted an apology tour of sorts, meeting privately with select members of various Democratic constituencies to calm concerns about the integrity of the primary process, according to three people with knowledge of those meetings. He also called several House Democrats directly to head off a rumor that a petition was circulating calling for his ouster.

Now, with the Nevada caucuses one day away, Perez remains under close scrutiny. The Iowa debacle angered both party leaders and the rank and file, especially once it became clear the DNC had a larger role than previously understood in choosing and securing the faulty app. In a statement, the DNC said, “We were not involved in selecting the app” but that they hired a vendor to help the Iowa party with security for the app.

The Nevada state party has since abandoned the app, switching to a different online tool at the last minute. In the week leading up to Saturday’s caucus, there remain worrisome reports of confusion there.

This time, Perez will be on the ground in Nevada, according to a DNC official. The intended message is that the Democratic nominating process is in good hands. But Perez’s presence also means he and the national party will assume more responsibility for what happens — good or bad.

Interviews with more than a dozen Democrats in and out of Washington reveal a deep unease amid some corners of the party with Perez as chairman. Beyond the Iowa disaster, Perez has also pushed for changes and presided over a primary process that moderates complain has benefited Sen. Bernie Sanders, who they worry could be a problematic general-election candidate. Others in the party criticize Perez for allowing a billionaire and former Republican, Michael Bloomberg, to force his way onto the debate stage long after candidates of color dropped out.

That’s not to say that Perez is without support. He maintains strong allies who insist he’s brought the national party back from its low point in 2016, when email hacks uncovered ugly details about the party’s inner workings and led to the resignation of then-chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz just months before Hillary Clinton lost the presidential race.

Even defenders of Perez acknowledge the impossible task he’s been handed.

“The DNC is always everybody’s punching bag when something goes wrong. Always,” one DNC member sympathetic to Perez told CNN. “The job is a thankless one.”

Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist, former DNC spokeswoman and CNN contributor, put it more bluntly. “You’re not going to be everyone’s favorite person,” she said.

But while the consensus is Perez inherited an unenviable mess, his critics say he hasn’t done enough to fix the problems. They cite lackluster fundraising numbers and changes to party rules that overcorrected problems that arose in 2016. There is also the growing unease among some Democrats that the party will head into the general election dangerously split, fueling criticism, merited or not, that the DNC is being mismanaged under Perez.

“What is the value of him as chair?” said one senior Democrat who has inside knowledge of how party leaders are feeling. “He is not a good fundraiser. He is not good on TV. The members don’t like him.”

Enemies in Iowa

In the days following the Iowa caucuses, Perez was persona non grata among several state Democrats. His tweet on February 6 calling for the Iowa Democratic Party to immediately begin a recanvass struck some as an unsupportive intrusion at the expense of the beleaguered state chair, Troy Price.

Perez’s interview on CNN the next day, February 7, didn’t help, as he deflected questions about whether he deserved some of the blame.

“Well, again, the Iowa Democratic Party runs the caucus. OK?” Perez said. “What happened was unacceptable. At the same time, we came in there. We want to make sure that everything is right.”

“The idea that Perez would distance himself from the Iowa Democratic Party is really to protect himself,” said Jack Hatch, the 2014 Democratic nominee for governor of Iowa who remains active in the state party. “That’s when you needed the national party chairman to step up and defend us, and he didn’t.”

Perez’s public comments may have hastened the inevitable: Price’s resignation on February 12. Iowa Democrats and some frustrated DNC members argue that the focus on Price obscures the role the DNC played in the caucus process, including its awareness of and involvement in securing the faulty app.

“Tom Perez has to answer a lot of questions and can’t throw Troy Price under the bus,” Mike Kiernan, a former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, told CNN. “It’s evident now that the DNC was intimately involved with the software that malfunctioned.”

The DNC official said Perez has been in touch with the Nevada Democratic Party to ensure there’s not a repeat of Iowa.

“He’s been talking regularly with the party and making sure they have lessons learned,” said this official.

The charm offensive

One week after Iowa, Perez was back on Capitol Hill. According to a DNC official, as well as multiple Democrats who spoke to CNN, there were rumors that one of Perez’s most vocal critics, Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, was planning to circulate a petition to call for his ouster. That, plus a letter signed by four senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus raising concerns about Iowa and voter security prompted Perez’s charm offensive with Democratic lawmakers.

According to multiple Democrats with knowledge of his actions, Perez met with select members of the House Progressive Caucus — the CBC, and Bold PAC — the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to calm members’ concerns about the integrity of the primary process. He also called House Democrats directly to head off the rumor of the Fudge petition.

Through a spokeswoman, Fudge (who has previously called for Perez to step down) denied to CNN she had drafted or even considered a petition against Perez.

Members of the CBC have long been mad that Perez eliminated a potentially decisive role for superdelegates on the first ballot at the convention and are now unhappy at what they view as a lack of diversity in key appointments, including for committees at the national convention. Also, lawmakers say they have been blindsided by some of Perez’s decisions, saying they need to be kept in the loop.

“They really don’t understand how to talk to members,” one Democratic source said of the DNC, venting frustration at Perez in particular.

At a private meeting with five members of the CBC last Thursday, Perez tried to alleviate concerns on several fronts, but lawmakers left with lingering worries.

Rep. Karen Bass, chairwoman of the CBC, told CNN the focus of the meeting was mainly on the security of the six remaining Democratic caucuses. But she said they also discussed diversity within the ranks of the party as well as how to foster “better communication” between the DNC and congressional Democrats.

While Bass said the meeting was not contentious, and “no one was calling for his removal,” she said there were still persistent complaints about several matters, including diversity in DNC appointments. Asked if Perez alleviated concerns about its handling of Iowa and the upcoming caucus states, Bass said lawmakers remain worried.

“I think that people might feel a little better because of the communication. But I don’t think it would be accurate to say that people felt fine afterward,” she said.

All about Nevada

In the immediate future, however, Perez’s fate could come down to what happens in Nevada this weekend. The early reports are not encouraging.

For the first time, the Nevada Democratic Party is allowing early caucusing before the actual event Saturday. That has complicated the already esoteric process for determining the winner of a participatory caucus.

Presidential campaigns have been told to contact early caucusgoers in Nevada who did not complete ballots that are now considered invalid, raising more concerns the results will be incomplete or unreportable on Saturday.

The process of melding the ranked choices of these early caucusgoers with active participants means precinct officials will have to conduct a complex bit of math to arrive at a correct count — using a new web-based calculating tool to replace some aspects of the app from Iowa. That has meant more training of volunteers and local party officials to quickly bring them up to speed.

One volunteer who spoke with CNN earlier this week, Seth Morrison, did not sound confident about the ability for Democrats to juggle all the details with counting votes properly at the caucus.

“Probably 60% chance that there will still be problems,” Morrison said, although he noted things were looking up since before the party began training the volunteers. “But it was an 80% chance yesterday.”

UPDATE: The story has been updated to include a statement from DNC about its involvement with the app used by the Iowa Democratic Party.

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