Democrats chose President Obama’s former Labor secretary, Tom Perez, as the person to lead them out of a political wilderness of heavy losses at every level of government over the past eight years and amid tensions between moderates and progressives about how to rebuild the party after Hillary Clinton’s unexpected loss to Donald Trump.
Perez’s election as the next Democratic National Committee chair is a reflection of the party’s leftward tug – all of the contestants packaged themselves as progressives eager to tangle with Trump on voting and civil rights and economic policies favoring the wealthy.
Perez won with 235 votes in a second round of balloting after coming one vote short of a majority in an initial round. A group of supporters for his opponent, Rep. Keith Ellison, co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who received 200 votes, reacted angrily and stormed out of the room chanting “no big money. Party for the people.”
Within moments, Perez announced he would make Ellison a deputy chair as the room erupted in applause. Ellison urged everyone to support Perez. “If we waste even a moment going at it over who supported whom we are not going to be standing up for those people,” referring to struggling Americans, he said.
A former Department of Justice civil rights lawyer, Perez emphasized his resume fighting against former Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona on immigration issues, stopping voter ID laws and taking on Wall Street in the aftermath of the foreclosure crisis.
Yet he was also the more establishment-aligned alternative in what had essentially become a two-way race in its final stretch. Former Vice President Joe Biden and former Attorney General Eric Holder endorsed Perez. Ellison was the favorite of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and other progressive leaders, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
Ellison’s confrontational style raised some concerns about his ability to connect with white working-class voters in the Rust Belt states that flipped to Trump in 2016. Pennsylvania, for example, hadn’t voted for a Republican president since 1988. Yet he’s also a powerful speaker who will excite the party’s progressive base.
HEIDI M. PRZYBYLA