Handicapping the Race for State’s Next Democratic Party Chief

The fiery, ever-quotable and occasionally profane Dwight Pelz is packing up his old campaign buttons, bumper stickers and posters and getting ready to fly the state Democratic Party coop. Eight years as party leader is enough.

“I’m flying out January 16 for four months in southeast Asia,” says the irrepressible Pelz, who truly has been the life of the party. “I’m going by myself to the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. I have no itinerary. Just drinking beer. I’m a lucky man.”

On Feb. 1, while Pelz is sipping Bia Saigon Lagers or the like, 176 members of the state central committee – one man and one woman from each county and legislative district – will convene in Vancouver to elect a new party chair.

Interviews with party leaders and committee members strongly indicate that the contest has narrowed between two strong contenders: Dana Laurent, former political director at Planned Parenthood Votes, and Jaxon Ravens, who has spent the past nine years as executive director of the state party.

Pelz is staying neutral and has declined to endorse either candidate. “Both of them would make strong chairs,” he says.

Pelz’s predecessor, Paul Berendt, has called 20 committee members and sent out letters on behalf of Laurent, the current head of Win/Win Network, a group that has worked to replace at-large elections for local offices.

Berendt, who hired Jaxon, calls him a “backslapper” and “good tactician,” while Laurent is “more of a real leader.”

The other two candidates in the race are Jim Kainberg of Olympia, who also served under Berendt as executive director, and Jay Clough, a Tri-Cities Democratic activist who in 2010 lost in his race to U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings.

The X-factor in the Feb. 1 contest, says political consultant Sandeep Kaushik, may turn on who Gov. Jay Inslee would prefer. His chief of staff, Joby Shimomura, last month threw her support to Laurent.

Another prominent political strategist, Christian Sinderman, offered this assessment: “Dana is a networker. She sees the big picture and would bring a lot of energy and perspective to the post. And Jaxon is a guy who has been quietly effective in keeping the trains running on time.”

Laurent, 41, is working hard. She says she’s logged nearly 2,000 miles already, traveling the state to meet personally with committee members. “This is an incredible moment in our party’s history and I want to start winning in all 39 counties,” she says. The fact that Democrats occupy eight of the nine statewide office is not reason enough to be confident of the party’s future electoral success, adds Laurent, who has been endorsed by the likes of venture capitalist Nick Hanauer as well as local SEIU union leaders and the Boeing machinists union. “We are winning statewide races, but by slimmer margins. If you take out Democratic tturnout in (Seattle’s) 36th and 45th legislative districts, you’d have Gov. Rob McKenna.”

Ravens, 45, says he’s feeling confident about his chances, citing the fact that he’s been endorsed by leaders of Democratic organizations in eight of the 10 congressional districts.

“What we want to do as a party is take back the state Senate and build on our majority in the House,” says Ravens.

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