Democrats Elect Obama’s Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez As New Party Leader

(Photo: Erik S. Lesser, epa)

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 presidential 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, the party’s first Latino leader, won with 235 votes in a second round of balloting after coming one vote short of a majority in the initial round. His opponent, Rep. Keith Ellison, co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, received 200 votes. A group of Ellison supporters reacted angrily at the tally and stormed out 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,” he said, referring to struggling Americans.

A former Department of Justice civil rights lawyer, Perez emphasized his résumé 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 essentially became a two-way race in the final stretch. Former Vice President Joe Biden and former Attorney General Eric Holder endorsed Perez. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and other progressive leaders, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., favorited Ellison.

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. But Ellison is also a powerful speaker who could have excited the party’s progressive base.

Former President Obama congratulated Perez on his win and his choice of Ellison as deputy. “What unites our party is a belief in opportunity – the idea that however you started out, whatever you look like, or whomever you love, America is the place where you can make it if you try,” he said in a statement.

The greatest challenges facing Perez will be uniting Democrats and rebuilding a party infrastructure in need of major overhaul. Democrats not only lost the White House but also both chambers of Congress in the past couple elections. At the state level, the party now controls the legislature in just 13 states, compared to 32 controlled by Republicans amid widespread complaints the DNC focused its resources on presidential races at the expense of local party building.

“We are suffering from a crisis of confidence, a crisis of relevance. We need a chair who can not only take the fight to Donald Trump … We also need a chair who can lead turnaround and change the culture of the Democratic Party and the DNC,” Perez said in a final appeal to DNC members, emphasizing the importance of “working to elect from the school board to the Senate.”

Party officials and keynote speakers made no attempt to conceal tensions between some Perez and Ellison supporters. “There’s no secret that there’s division, even in this camp,” said Rev. Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr. who addressed the crowd ahead of the vote. “We came here in different ships and boats but we’re all in the same boat now,” she said. “If we don’t come together as brothers and sisters, we’re going to perish as fools.”

Perez consolidated support in the final moments of the race when other candidates, including South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, a dark horse who drew significant attention, dropped out.

Perez’s challenge now will be preventing his party from making the mistakes Republicans did in responding to their own grassroots rebellion. Just as the Tea Party pulled the GOP further to the right, there is a progressive pull to the left after a heated primary battle between Clinton and Sanders, who frequently drew connections between her and Wall Street interests.

“Bernie did not get a fair shake” from the DNC leadership, said Brian Ellison, a Detroit pastor and one of Keith Ellison’s brothers, and “people are very upset about that to this day.”

But even before Perez announced Keith Ellison as his deputy, Ellison made an appeal for unity. “We’ve gotta walk out of here with unity not just between the candidates” but between party members, he said. “Trump is right outside that door — and not just Trump but Trumpism.”

“You are the ones who can bring comfort to people fearing a ban or a wall or losing their Social Security,” Ellison added. “The American people need us in this moment.”

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SOURCE: USA Today – Heidi M. Przybala