Voting for the head of the US Democratic National Committee (DNC) has come at a critical time for the party battling to define itself.
After the 2016 election, Republicans took control of US House of Representatives, Senate, presidency and two-thirds of state governments.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned as the DNC chair last July last as leaks revealed the governing body of the Democratic Party favoured presidential candidate Hillary Clinton over Vermont senator Bernie Sanders.
The vote for a new leader will take place on February 25; the race has thickened with several prominent candidates putting forth their candidacy.
Many within the party, including Sanders – whose grassroots 2016 campaign for the Democratic nomination energised progressives across the country, have called for the party to move further to the left.
Sanders has thrown his support behind Keith Ellison, the progressive Minnesota representative and the first Muslim to be elected to Congress.
In January, the Justice Democrats movement was founded to challenge the Democratic Party from the left using grassroots funding and organising. The progressives are supporting 27-year-old air force veteran Samuel Ronan as their DNC candidate.
Ensuring universal healthcare and education, strict regulation of the financial sector, an end to the death penalty and removing corporate donations from the political process are at the top of their agenda.
Al Jazeera spoke with Ronan on how he sees the Democratic Party moving forward.
Al Jazeera: There are many figures put forward as new leaders and potential candidates for 2020 – Sanders, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker. Who do you most identify with?
Samuel Ronan: I am with all of our progressive brothers and sisters. I identify with Sanders’ message of bringing the party back to the people. Any candidates that truly wish to do that, I support.
With Booker, he’s probably a very strong name and a strong face, but when he sold out to the pharmaceutical industry, that was a huge issue. [Booker was one of 13 Democrats who voted in January against an amendment Sanders proposed that would allow pharmacists to import identical, but much cheaper, prescription medicine from Canada and other countries.]
I have to hold him accountable. It’s not that one thing should shoot you in the foot, and I don’t mean I’m against Booker. It’s easier to do once big money is out of the picture. If the political structure of the US didn’t allow big pharmaceutical companies to donate, this wouldn’t be an issue.
You want to move the Democratic Party to a position where corporations, foreign governments, and other “big money” players have no say in the decision-making process. You are against corporate donors. Where do you stand on donations from large trade unions and their impact on decision-making?
Ronan: They do deserve a spot at the table just like the American people. The problem is people sell their souls for money. Instead of standing up for their convictions, they allow themselves to pushed over, and it can happen with whoever is writing the cheques.
With unions, even though they’re our brothers and sisters, we can’t show favouritism to them either. If we go all-in for unions, we could potentially lose those who are non-union.
Right now, we’re not mature enough as a country, democratically speaking, to handle big money contributions.
Critics have said Democrats do not engage with the working class. In your view, what is the most effective way to energise the working class to vote for the party?
Having a blanket platform doesn’t work. We need to develop a way to speak to and mobilise the voters in Mississippi and Ohio, and you can’t use the same tactics for both.
We haven't been present in rural America for 30 years
But the baseline for the plan is that we have to truly and meaningfully engage. We haven’t been present in rural America for 30 years. We haven’t given a damn for the common people in 30 years.
You just have to open the doors to common people.
They’re passionate and energised to get things done. That is literally all it takes.
What do you think of parties such as the Democratic Socialists of America, which have seen membership rise since Sanders’ candidacy? Is there room for these movements in the Democratic Party?
Absolutely. The issue isn’t so much that there’s room for it, it’s how can they grow and proliferate? They’re young, they haven’t had the chance to grow. They’ve come a long way in the short amount of time. I think their message and energy is great.
With these new progressive movements, they’re starting from scratch every single day. In the short term, we need a movement that can face the broad spectrum of American culture from all walks of life. Right now, the simplest way to do that is to take over the Democratic Party and re-brand it in our image.
People have criticised Sanders for taking enthusiasm away from Clinton’s candidacy. Is there any danger in you challenging Keith Ellison’s candidacy?
Absolutely not. I am the better candidate. I am the more progressive figure. Just because I’m unknown doesn’t change that. We could have our cake and eat it. I’m not doing this to poke the eye of the tiger.
It’s the same divide and conquer candidacy, but progressives are doing it. If Ellison or Sanders were to endorse me, that would change the game … it would give voice to the American people, which is what we fundamentally lack.
I’ve said it before, I love Ellison to death. I think he’s had a great career. He was the best one [for Sanders] to pick at the time. I believe that, now, I am the best candidate.
Follow Creede on Twitter: @creedenewton