The Democratic Party has made its first high-profile leadership pick of the Trump era, by electing former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez as DNC chair — a candidate who, rightly or wrongly, was seen as the leading party establishment choice against the Bernie Sanders-supported Keith Ellison.
But just after he won, Perez quickly made a gesture of unity, asking DNC members to suspend the rules so that Ellison could be named deputy chair. Ellison then spoke to the Atlanta gathering and urged party unity. “We don’t have the luxury to walk out of this room divided,” he told his supporters.
Perez emerged triumphant during the second round of balloting with 235 votes — enough for a majority of votes cast and more than Ellison, who finished second with 200 votes.
The decisive second round came after a first round of balloting in which Perez fell just one vote short of a majority, with 213.5 votes to 200 for Ellison and 13.5 for other candidates.
Normally of interest only to die-hard party activists, the DNC chair election got more attention than usual this year for two key reasons. First, the Democratic Party has lost miserably in recent elections and, with Trump’s victory, has essentially been reduced to a smoking ruin.
Second, there have been lingering divisions from the bitter primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, splitting more mainstream members of the party versus further-left activists — divisions that could well be exacerbated by Perez’s victory, since Sanders had endorsed Ellison and some Obama aides had reportedly helped coax Perez into the race.
Who is Tom Perez?
Born to immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Perez became a lawyer and worked in the Justice Department, for then-Sen. Ted Kennedy, and for the Department of Health and Human Services. Then, after Perez spent a stint teaching at University of Maryland School of Law and working in Maryland politics, President Obama named him his assistant attorney general for civil rights in 2009. In Obama’s second term, he served as Secretary of Labor.
Perez’s experience in electoral politics is thin — he served on the Montgomery county council, and tried running for attorney general of Maryland but had his candidacy blocked due to residency issues. Still, he developed a reputation as a party rising star, with his work in the executive branch being widely praised by progressive activist groups. Meanwhile, he maintained close ties to the party mainstream by, for instance, supporting Hillary Clinton during the 2016 primaries (like the vast majority of Democratic politicians).
The way the DNC race shaped up, Perez ended up essentially the mainstream candidate, against the leading outside, Sanders-supported challenger: Keith Ellison. There are complications to this narrative — for instance, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer endorsed Ellison. But Ellison had supported Sanders during the primaries and was viewed as further outside the party mainstream than Perez. And depending on who you are, that could be either a good or bad thing.
This race wasn’t just about Bernie Sanders — but it was partly about him
It’s important to keep the race for DNC chair in perspective. The winner gets a prominent media megaphone, a role setting party organization and spending priorities, and the job of helping manage the next presidential primary. The winner does not really become the “leader” of the Democratic Party as a whole, or have much of a role determining party ideology.
Still, the race did serve as Democrats’ first referendum on their direction in the post-Obama/Clinton era. And importantly, the outcome was determined not by actual voters but by the 435 DNC members who voted. The bulk of them were state party chairs or officials from state parties, with some slots going to national Democratic groups and others being directly appointed by the previous chair. (A recent membership list is here.)
Looking merely at the candidates’ own statements, the DNC chair race was remarkably drama-free. Everyone’s rhetoric and arguments about what the party needs were remarkably similar — more organizing! a better message on economics! but don’t neglect identity groups! — and nobody got publicly nasty to each other.
Still, the way the race played out threatens to exacerbate tensions between the establishment wing of the party and the Sanders wing.
For instance, a narrative has been forming among Ellison’s supporters that their candidates was the overwhelming favorite until establishment figures coaxed Perez into the race in mid-December, in an effort to prevent a Sanders ally from gaining control of the party. “Keith Ellison had incredible support from the quote-unquote establishment side of the party, the progressive side of the party, the grassroots and the elected officials. Nobody was clamoring for another entrance, and yet we got one foisted upon us,” activist Alex Lawson complained to the Huffington Post recently.
From my reporting, that’s an oversimplification — before Perez entered, many state party officials I talked to professed to be genuinely undecided and eager to see more candidates join the race. And Perez supporters consider it rather rich that Sanders supporters now wanted to clear the field in favor of the candidate who locked up some big-name endorsements early.
Still, as Matt Yglesias wrote last month, the relative lack of differences between Ellison and Perez on substance combined with the limited powers of the DNC chair do invite the question of why establishment Democrats weren’t willing to simply back him for party unity, as a way to help keep Sanders supporters active and energized.
My colleague Jeff Stein provided one possible answer: that some in the party felt that, regardless of what Ellison was saying publicly, he had a reputation as being out of the mainstream. “Ellison is too liberal to run the DNC,” former DNC staffer Shauna Daly told Stein. But the worry for Democrats, then, is whether Sanders supporters will decide the party is not liberal enough for them to invest their time and activism.