Former Obama Labor Secretary Tom Perez became the new chair of the Democratic National Party after a vote in Atlanta on Saturday, beating chief rival Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN).
Perez won on the second round of voting after missing clinching it on the first round by one vote.
Before serving as Labor Secretary under President Obama, Perez was the Assistant Attorney General, and has served as Secretary of the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation, and as Director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services under Clinton.
“We are suffering from a crisis of confidence and relevance. We need a chair that can take the fight to Donald Trump,” Perez said in his speech before the vote. “A united Democratic party is our best hope, and Donald Trump’s worst nightmare. We will be there with hope, hard work, and a hell of a lot of organizing.”
The election of the new chair of the Democratic Party took on special urgency this year after an extremely humiliating election season for the Democrats. The job of the DNC chair, typically, is not to craft party ideology, but to help the party win elections through organizing strategy and fundraising.
Right now, the Democrats are looking ahead to the 2018 midterms — a difficult year in the cycle, in which Democrats have 23 Senate seats to defend (25 counting Independents that caucus with the Democrats). Republicans, by contrast, have only eight Senate seats up for grabs. It’s also a critical election: if Democrats hope to check President Donald Trump’s moves in the White House, retaking one or both Houses of Congress is essential.
But it’s not usually a position well known outside of politics, and in a normal year, is not particularly public. Even this year, just 17 percent of self-identified Democrats reported paying close attention to the race, according to a Morning Consult poll.
Still, for many, this election became a way to relitigate the choices made in the Democratic primary, and has been cast as a harbinger of the future of the Democratic Party.
While both frontrunners are progressive, Perez locked up the establishment support, earning the backing of Obama administration officials including former Vice President Joe Biden and former Attorney General Eric Holder. Perez announced his candidacy a month after Ellison after being recruited to run by Obama stalwarts. Ellison, by contrast, came out the gate immediately after the election and quickly became the favored candidate of the party’s younger populist wing.
Ellison is the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, backed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in the primary, and was the first Muslim elected to congress and the first black congressman from Minnesota. As such, he emerged as an early favorite of those who had supported Bernie Sanders in the primary — many of whom are now likely to view Perez’s win as another sign of entrenched establishment politics.
Many commentators, however, have argued that the establishment vs. grassroots narrative, while popular, is overblown, saying that the political differences between the two are minimal.
Both Ellison and Perez have praised each other, even in their speeches today, and both promised unity regardless of the outcome.