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ATLANTA — Tom Perez was elected the next chair of the Democratic National Committee on Saturday afternoon, putting an end to a contentious four-month election that divided the battered party’s liberal and centrist wings along similar lines as last year’s presidential primary race. Perez, seen as the more establishment choice, immediately tapped his chief rival, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., as his deputy.
After Perez’s win was announced, a handful of hardcore Ellison supporters chanted “Party to the people” in protest, drowning out the party leaders. Perez’s first act as chair appeased them, as he motioned to make Ellison his deputy. Ellison then spoke, urging the party to stay unified.
“We don’t have the luxury, folks, to walk out of this room divided,” he said. “We don’t have that luxury.”
“We are united by our love for the Democratic Party,” Perez said after Ellison’s speech, saying that the party’s diversity was its strength.
The election took two rounds of voting after Perez missed the threshold by just one vote in the first round, with Ellison trailing him by more than 13 votes. Several candidates then dropped out, propelling Perez to victory. Perez is the first Latino DNC chair in the organization’s history.
At a press conference after the vote, Ellison wore a “Team Tom” button and Perez wore an Ellison button, to encourage their supporters to unify.
“From how the DNC treated Bernie, we were still healing. Keith was our hope, OK? And once again the DNC did not consider that,” said Wanda Cunningham, a volunteer for Ellison’s campaign from Atlanta. She said the good news was that Ellison would be able to keep his House seat and had a “seat at the table” at the DNC as deputy.
“It shows unity,” said Perez supporter Arthur Morrell, a Louisiana delegate, of making Ellison deputy. He said he was surprised but thought it was a “good move.”
Perez, the labor secretary under former President Barack Obama, ran on a platform of taking the Democratic Party back to its roots of organized labor and a primarily economic message of opportunity for all. Ellison had a similar message, but he was endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders and was seen as a more grassroots, outsider choice who would break from the DNC’s past.
As the DNC members cast their first votes, there was late-breaking drama as Ellison’s team texted delegates to say that he had earned South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s support. Buttigieg, who was believed to be running in third place, dropped out right before the first ballot but declined to endorse. The mayor tweeted that he had not endorsed anyone, and Ellison’s staff texted a correction.
Ellison was dogged by his past associations with the Nation of Islam and his past defense of its founder, Louis Farrakhan, who had made anti-Semitic comments. Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, disavowed his association with the group in 2006. His supporters pointed to his long history of winning elections in Minnesota and ability to bring together different coalitions of voters through grassroots organizing.
One of Perez’s campaign slogans was “a DNC for every Democrat,” and the former civil rights attorney aims to bring Sanders’ young supporters, many of whom were independents, into the fold, as well as establishment liberals. But Sanders’ former campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, told MSNBC this week that if Ellison were not elected, it would send a “horrible” message to millions of Democrats who wanted more direct control over their party. Sanders’ group, Our Revolution, sent a message to supporters after Ellison’s loss saying that the party needed to focus on electing progressives even if some were “locked in complacency.”
In his nominating speech, Perez said there was a “crisis of confidence, a crisis of relevance” facing the party that he would reverse through a leadership style that would focus on listening. “You will always have my ear and I always have your back. You will not be underutilized,” Perez said.
Ahead of the vote, Ellison’s supporters, wearing green shirts, chanted “Keith!” and were more vocal than Perez’s subtler “Team Tom” supporters.
The candidates pleaded with the DNC’s nearly 450 voting delegates to be a unified party no matter what the outcome of the election.
“We’ve got to come out of here hand in hand, brothers and sisters, because Trump is right outside that door,” Ellison said during his nominating speech.
Perez told Yahoo News earlier this month that Democrats had trouble distilling a message in a “bumper-sticker world.” But the DNC chair has not historically been the party’s chief messenger, instead focusing on fundraising and providing support and infrastructure to the local parties. This last point will be a formidable challenge, given the fact that Democrats have lost more than 1,000 state legislative seats to Republicans since 2008.
The DNC’s reputation also suffered during the presidential primary after its emails were hacked and published on WikiLeaks, showing some staffers appearing to push for Hillary Clinton’s victory over Sanders. The U.S. government later accused the Kremlin of spearheading the cyberattack against the DNC. Perez has said that he considers being chair “a turnaround job” and vowed to remain neutral in any Democratic primaries.
At a party for Perez on Friday night, South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison, who had dropped out of the chair race a few days earlier, warned delegates that the media would portray the party as in disarray after Saturday’s election. “We need to step out of tomorrow as a unified party,” Harrison said. “We know that some of the media is ready to write the article — they already have the headlines. ‘Democrats still divided.’ That is not going to be the case.”
It remains to be seen whether the party will come together as its leaders urge, though the appointment of Ellison as deputy may do much to quell the fight. Earlier Saturday, Ellison’s supporters had shouted “Shame!” after other DNC delegates voted down a resolution that would have reinstated an Obama-era ban on accepting donations from corporations and lobbyists that was quietly phased out a year ago. The resolution’s failure appears to be a direct rebuke of Democrats who want to get corporate money out of politics, and it will likely remain a flashpoint between the party’s liberal and centrist wings.