Biden Selects Former Defense, Finance and Fossil Fuel Lobbyist to Head the DNC

President-elect Biden will name Jaime Harrison as his pick for chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), according to reports Thursday morning. Harrison, whose name had been floated in the press as the likeliest favorite of the Biden-Harris campaign for chair, was recently a U.S. Senate candidate in South Carolina. From 2008 to November 2016, Harrison was a principal at corporate lobbying firm the Podesta Group, where his clients included some of the Hill’s top spenders on lobbying. Harrison’s biography on the DNC website describes this period as, “After a few years working in the private sector, Jaime took on his current role as associate chair and counsel of the Democratic National Committee.”

Harrison’s past lobbying clients included Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Wells Fargo, BP America, Bank of America, and many others, according to lobbying disclosures. Harrison had previously worked as floor director and counsel for Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) from 2003 to 2006, before Clyburn became House majority whip in 2007, and he is said to have been put forward for chair in part through Clyburn’s crucial support of Biden’s presidential bid.

With the Podesta Group, Harrison specifically lobbied his former office at the House Majority Whip for each of those large corporate clients: Boeing, when the company was lobbying on the defense funding bill; Lockheed, when the contractor was also lobbying on defense appropriations; Wells Fargo, when the bank was lobbying on the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill; BP America, when the oil giant was lobbying on a clean energy bill that aimed to reduce global warming; Bank of America, when the company was lobbying on patent reform and derivatives market transparency; and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy, when the group was lobbying on renewables and other clean energy topics.

Other clients of Harrison’s after heading through the revolving door include defense contractor General Dynamics, trade association the Council Of Independent Tobacco Manufacturers, hedge fund Fortress Investment Group, Google, General Motors, and Wal-Mart, according to lobbying records. Harrison’s pharmaceutical industry clients include Amgen, Novo Nordisk, and Genzyme, around the crafting of the March 2010 Affordable Care Act, which had little effect on restructuring pricing in the prescription drug industry.

During the Obama administration and while Harrison was lobbying for them, Wells Fargo was hit with a steady stream of penalties for various forms of financial misconduct, such as having to pay $175 million in July 2012 to settle charges that it engaged in a pattern of discrimination against African-American and Hispanic borrowers in its mortgage lending.

In November 2012, Harrison’s client BP America paid a $525 million settlement for securities fraud related to its Deepwater Horizon oil rig spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. The company had understated the flow rate to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Bank of America also faced a slew of penalties from the Obama administration, such as in August 2009 when it paid $33 million to settle SEC charges regarding more than $5 billion in bonuses that it paid to executives of the failing Merrill Lynch when it acquired the investment firm.

Another of his clients, American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which represents coal companies like Murray Energy and Peabody Energy, fought against President Obama’s Clean Power plan and other climate-related regulations during the period in which Harrison was registered to lobby for them. In November 2016, Harrison told the Post and Courier about his corporate lobbying, “It’s how I pay back the $160,000 of student loan debt. It’s how I pay the mortgage for my grandmother. And I’m proud of my work…”

Harrison, who served as South Carolina Democratic Party chair from May 2013 to April 2017, is being praised as a pick popular with state Democratic party heads, and is believed to be in favor of allocating more resources to state organizing efforts. In his unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign, Harrison did invest in down ballot infrastructure and local organizing capacity, Brittany Gibson reported in early November at The American Prospect.

Since Election Day, the incoming Biden-Harris administration has taken a similar top-down communications style as the staff of current Chair Tom Perez, multiple DNC members told Sludge.

In the days after the election, a group of pro-reform DNC members sent a letter opening a discussion with Biden-Harris campaign leaders about transparency and accountability reforms in DNC rules—initially with 29 signers, growing to 37 signers, making up approximately 10% of voting DNC members who are elected by state parties or other caucuses. Pro-reform members say they have not received any acknowledgement or response.

During this past summer’s virtual meetings of the Democratic National Convention, a DNC Charter amendment from a Bernie Sanders delegate was rejected in a last-minute committee vote of 105 to 45. The proposal would have barred corporate lobbyists from serving on the DNC and permanently banned corporate PAC donations, after Perez in 2018 reversed a policy that prohibited contributions from PACs in the fossil fuel industry. Perez and the DNC Resolutions Committee earlier had nixed a presidential debate specifically focused on the climate crisis, with several corporate lobbyists and appointees of the chair voting against the resolution.

The chair election, as well as voting for other party officer positions such as secretary and finance chair, will be conducted digitally next week from Monday to Thursday. Until this past Monday evening, the 447 voting DNC members who elect leadership had not received instructions about how the chair’s race would be held amid the pandemic. DNC members told Sludge that national members have no official online discussion forum that enables them to communicate with each other, and that the DNC secretary’s office has not shared members’ preferred contact information between regional caucuses. The names, party positions, and outside affiliations of national DNC members, as well as those of convention delegates every four years in the presidential nomination and platform development process, are not released publicly by the DNC.

Questions from DNC members to the Biden-Harris campaign staff had not received a response since Election Day, several members told Sludge, and aspects of the election rules shared with members were incomplete, such as how second ballots would be conducted if no candidate received a majority on the first ballot vote. The DNC chair has a high degree of control over the party’s budget, which reached nearly $442 million in the 2020 cycle according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and included sizable contracts with vendors such as law firm Perkins Coie that also have large corporate clients.

This will be Harrison’s second bid for DNC chair, and this time, with the support of the incoming president, he is expected to win the vote. The party leader previously challenged Perez in the February 2017 race, but dropped his bid and endorsed Perez, citing “external pressure” on DNC members to support Perez or the other leading challenger, then-Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). Perez ended up narrowly winning on the second ballot after the Puerto Rico and New York delegations tilted in his favor in a closely contested race. In October 2017, Perez pursued a “purge” of DNC members who had supported progressive reforms such as budget transparency.