Labor Secretary Tom Perez’s entry Thursday into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair race throws a wrench into early front-runner Rep. Keith Ellison’s bid, as the race to helm the fractured party continues to take shape.
The Minnesota Democrat, a leading figure amongst progressives, had a head start and has already lined up support from a number of state party chairs, lawmakers and labor groups. Perez is thought to be the White House’s favorite, though President Obama won’t officially endorse in the race.
With most of the 447 voting members still undecided, the wide-open race is shaping up to be a two-month sprint to the finish line to win the mantle of rebuilding a party that suffered devastating losses in November.
“We’re talking about an election that takes place in 10 weeks,” said a former DNC aide who is remaining neutral.
“I know there’s a lot of anxiousness to get this thing done but it’s really important that Democrats understand why we lost. There probably aren’t just one or two answers.”
Perez announced his candidacy on an hour-long Thursday conference call where state party chairs asked questions and voiced concerns. He characterized himself as a “proud progressive” and vowed to revive the “50-State Strategy” championed by former DNC chairman Howard Dean.
Perez has privately met with Obama. For his part, the president heaped praise on Perez at a Friday press conference, calling him of the best secretaries of Labor in American history.
“He is tireless. He is wicked smart,” Obama said at his Friday press briefing, adding that the other candidates are also “my friends” and that in regards to the race, he’ll “let the process unfold.”
Since the call, Perez has slowly gaining steam. Along with two state party chairs—Gilberto Hinojosa in Texas and Bruce Poole in Maryland, where Perez once served in local and state government positions—Massachusetts Democratic Party chairman Gus Bickford told The Hill on Friday he’s planning to also support Perez.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) has also backed Perez, pointing to his vast work as Labor secretary. Perez’s bid has put labor groups in a tough spot, as top unions like the AFL-CIO and American Federation of Teachers rally behind Ellison.
Hinojosa, who attended a December meeting of the state Democratic chairs, said he’s heard a lot of positive feedback from voting DNC members about Perez’s bid in the weeks following the Denver meeting.
“They were waiting for the field to open up,” Hinojosa told The Hill. “They wanted to see whether or not we were going to get other choices, and lot of them talked about Tom Perez.”
Perez, a Buffalo, NY native who’s the son of Dominican immigrants, has a wealth of experience working in federal agencies with a background as a civil rights lawyer. But critics argue that he has little electoral politics experience needed for the job, after serving only four years on the Montgomery County Council and a short stint running for Maryland attorney general.
While the race is far from over, Ellison has an early advantage and more than a dozen endorsements from state party chairs and vice chairs. Other high-profile backers include Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE (Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Joint Chiefs chairman says he regrets participating in Trump photo-op | GOP senators back Joint Chiefs chairman who voiced regret over Trump photo-op | Senate panel approves 0B defense policy bill Trump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names MORE (Mass.) as well as incoming Senate Democratic Leader Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerOvernight Health Care: US showing signs of retreat in battle against COVID-19 | Regeneron begins clinical trials of potential coronavirus antibody treatment | CMS warns nursing homes against seizing residents’ stimulus checks Schumer requests briefing with White House coronavirus task force as cases rise Schumer on Trump’s tweet about 75-year-old protester: He ‘should go back to hiding in the bunker’ MORE (N.Y.).
ADVERTISEMENTTo build on the 50-State Strategy, Ellison called for a “bottom-up” approach and “3,007-county strategy.” He has also shored up endorsements from a handful of progressive groups.
Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, praised Perez for his work in the administration, but noted that Perez “is not a political strategist or an organizer like Ellison. Instead, he is a brilliant policy guy with a different set of super powers than those needed to be the DNC Chair the party needs.”
Ellison’s campaign quickly unveiled additional endorsements following Perez’s announcement, although Perez’s allies note that those Democratic lawmakers won’t be the ones casting a vote in the race.
David Pepper, the undecided chairman of Ohio’s Democratic Party, said many state party chairs wanted to slow the process down ahead of the Feb. 24 election to ensure that all voting members got to know the candidates and digest their platforms and goals to revitalize the party.
“From the moment all those endorsements started to come in, where it basically looked like we were going to have a coronations of people based upon what senators thought, we said, ‘Timeout,’” Pepper told The Hill, adding that the state party held a forum in Ohio last weekend to hear more from the three declared candidates at that time.
Republicans are moving swiftly to target Perez’s bid. The Republican National Committee (RNC) issued a blast to reporters framing him as a “radical on immigration … and race related issues.” Meanwhile, conservative opposition group America Rising addressed Perez’s use of a private email server while he worked at the Justice Department, comparing the situation to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE and her email issues.
Republicans have also laid into Ellison and criticized him over past comments that they characterize as anti-Semitic. Those remarks have also sparked the ire of the Anti-Defamation League.
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Perez and Ellison face two chairman of state Democratic parties: Raymond Buckley in New Hampshire and Jaime Harrison in South Carolina.
Sally Boynton Brown, the executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party, jumped into the race Friday. NARAL President Ilyse Hogue is also weighing a bid.
Perez, Ellison, Harrison and Buckley will make their case in front of the Texas Democratic Party executive committee in Austin on Saturday. Hinojosa said they will each have time to address the members, but there won’t be any questions.
Poole advised the candidates to avoid using messaging from Washington, looking instead beyond Capitol Hill as they seek to connect with the rest of the country and learn from the mistakes of a 2016 election that saw Midwest states and many white working-class Americans abandon the party.
“What I would tell [Perez] is what I would tell any candidate for DNC chair which is stop taking the message from DC to the rest of the country,” Poole said.
“The people in DC truly do live in a bubble…they largely do not know what is going on in this country across the land and what is being said in all the coffee shops, bars, factories and small towns.”
Ben Kamisar contributed.