Democrats have a real fight on their hands for party chair. On Thursday, Labor Secretary Tom Perez announced that he would be running Democratic National Committee chair — a key leadership and fundraising position for the party during the upcoming Donald Trump years.
His stiffest competition comes from Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, a co-chair of the Progressive Caucus who has secured the backing of Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Chuck Schumer, and a host of labor groups. Also in the race are New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Raymond Buckley and South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison, who are considered long shots at this point.
It’s unclear right now who has the upper hand. Ellison enjoys the firm support of the ascendant left at a time when that wing of the party feels vindicated by the failure of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. But Perez is expected to have the backing of the Obama White House and its allies, who command power and sway with the more establishment wing of the Democratic Party. (Barack Obama himself is not expected to make an endorsement.)
“Keith is clearly ahead. But I think the race is very fluid. I don’t think anyone has the votes right now to win outright,” Minnesota Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party Chair Ken Martin, who has endorsed Ellison, told my colleague Andrew Prokop.
Ultimately, though, the elite-level backers will only have so much sway over the outcome of the DNC race, which will instead be determined by the 447 voting members of the DNC. (State Democratic parties get to pick 70 percent of voting members.)
Who is Tom Perez?
Perez, 51, was born in Buffalo, New York. His father, an immigrant exiled from the Dominican Republic in the 1930s after speaking out against the country’s dictator, died in the United States when Perez was 12.
Perez grew up as one of the only Dominicans in Buffalo before getting into Brown and later Harvard. He paid his way through school by working as a garbage collector, according to the Brown Alumni Magazine.
“His story reminds us of this country’s promise, that if you’re willing to work hard it doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, what your last name is, you can make it if you try,” President Obama said in announcing Perez’s as labor secretary appointment in 2013. “And Tom’s made protecting that promise for everybody the cause of his life.”
Perez’s post-college story follows a fairly conventional path for an aspiring politician, with a particularly heavy focus on civil rights: He was law clerk for the US District Court for the district of Colorado, an official in the Department of Justice, and the deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights. Perez was then appointed by Gov. Martin O’Malley to be secretary of the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation before becoming assistant attorney general — and then labor secretary.
Before jumping in the DNC race, he was rumored to be considering a run for governor in Maryland.
What Perez has done as labor secretary
While at the labor department, two of Perez’s biggest changes have been pushing through an increase in the minimum wage for federal contractors and a new overtime rule raising the threshold for payment — two regulations that look to be first on the chopping block under a Republican administration.
These were also changes long called for by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which is co-chaired by Ellison, Perez’s DNC chair opponent. Ellison and the CPC had been calling for the new OT rule in April 2014 — a change Perez then announced in October of the same year.
In an interview on The Ezra Klein Show, recorded when Perez was once discussed as a possible VP candidate for Hillary Clinton, Perez also touted a new Labor Department rule forcing employers to disclose the consultants they've hired for help fighting unions:
If you can put sunshine out there, it can be a disinfectant. So the purpose of the LMRDA is to level the playing field. Under the status quo, ironically, unions' organizing campaigns have significantly greater reporting requirements than the company. The purpose of this is to help people make informed judgments; people are scared to death, oftentimes, because they'll get this parade of horribles about, "If they join this union you'll lose your job, you'll lose their benefits." And little do they know the company just spent $2 million on the consultant to tell them all these horrific things.