Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez was elected as the first Latino chair of the Democratic National Committee on Saturday, defeating Rep. Keith Ellison at a contentious party meeting in Atlanta.
"With hard work and a hell of a lot of organizing, we will turn this party around," said Perez, his voice hoarse after a week that took him to 10 states, locking up the final votes he needed from the 447-member DNC.
"We've got to come out of here hand in hand, brothers and sisters, because Trump is right outside of that door," said Ellison before the final vote, which came on a second ballot.
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Ellison's defeat was a blow to the party's liberal wing, personified by activists, labor leaders, and organizers who had come to Atlanta to cheer him on. Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who had lobbied hard for Ellison, worried that the party was alienating the growing "resistance" that has organized against President Donald Trump.
"If you polled Democrats outside of this room, Keith would win," said Jeff Weaver, "Keith's support is from the people on the street."
The vote itself was tense. On Friday night, Democrats gathered at a downtown Westin to meet, drink, and lobby for votes, and the Ellison campaign — along with allies of South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a third candidate — battled rumors that Perez might have locked up the needed votes.
But by Saturday morning, it was clear that the race was up for grabs. Buttigieg used his nomination speech to quit the race, endorsing no candidate. As the 439 present DNC members cast their votes — eight eligible members did not attend — several DNC members got a text from the Ellison camp, saying the congressman was "grateful to have the support of Mayor Buttigieg."
After the mayor denied the text, Perez won 213.5 votes to 200 for Ellison, 12 for Idaho Democratic Party Executive Director Sally Boynton Brown, 0.5 for Democratic strategist Jehmu Greene and 1 for Buttigieg. Greene endorsed Perez, while two fringe candidates who had won no votes backed Ellison.
Boynton Brown, 40, executive director of Idaho Democrats since 2012, became the fifth candidate for DNC chair when she announced in mid-December. She was the first woman in the race and the only candidate from a western state, and sought to promote her red-state, outside-the Beltway background as strengths that could reshape and unite the party and broaden its appeal in swing states.
But her role as an outsider from a small state also played against her, and her candidacy never caught fire. Right-wing media also seized on out-of-context comments she made about how the Democratic party should talk about the Black Lives Matter movement at a candidates’ forum in late January.
She withdrew from the race after the first round of voting, offering no endorsement for either Ellison or Perez.
Perez's victory did not represent a Democratic shift to right. On key issues, Perez's platform mostly resembled Ellison's. Perez promised to refocus on small donors and online fundraising; Ellison set a goal for "low-dollar contributions from everyday Americans (to) account for 33 percent of revenue." Ellison called for an "Innovation Hub" in Silicon Valley; Perez promoted DNC fellowships to "encourage developers, programmers, data scientists, (and) engineers."
While Perez and Ellison praised each other personally, the race was defined for outsiders by Ellison's backing by Sanders. Ellison, who was one of very few members of Congress who had backed Sanders for president. He billed himself as the "unity candidate" who would keep Sanders's restive supporters in the party while embracing supporters of Hillary Clinton.
In the first weeks after Ellison declared his candidacy, the strategy seemed to be working, despite hiccups. Labor unions that had endorsed Clinton, like the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, got behind Ellison.
Howard Dean, the most successful chair in modern party history, dropped his plans to run again when Ellison said he'd resign from Congress if elected to the full-time job. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who had frequently clashed with Dean over strategy and investments, endorsed Ellison and defended the first Muslim member of Congress against charges of anti-Semitism.
But veterans of the Obama administration, where Perez had been a popular, progressive force, encouraged him to run - and starting on December 15, he did. In progressive media, the race was frequently covered as a clash between "the establishment" and the "revolution" that had been proven right by the 2016 election.
That wasn't how most DNC members chose to see it. Over a series of public forums, the final one broadcast on CNN this week, Ellison and Perez declined to criticize each other. While progressive media accused Perez of protecting the party's consultant class,
DNC members who broke for Perez said that he'd convinced them that he knew what state parties needed.
"Tom seemed to have a better handle on the job," said Kathy Sullivan, the former chair of New Hampshire's Democratic Party, who endorsed Perez after current state chair Ray Buckley quit the race.
Perez was also helped by a string of endorsements from Obama administration veterans - though, as Ellison backers noticed, he did not win any high-profile supporters of Sanders to compete with Ellison's endorsements from Clintonites. The Feb. 1 endorsement of Perez by former Vice President Joe Biden, one of the party's most beloved figures, prompted Sanders to criticize Perez for the first time.
"Do we stay with a failed status-quo approach or do we go forward with a fundamental restructuring of the Democratic Party?" Sanders said in a statement after Biden's endorsement. "I say we go forward and create a grassroots party which speaks for working people and is prepared to stand up to the top one percent."
Most of the DNC's membership - just 39 of whom had backed Sanders for president in 2016 - disagreed that the choice was that stark. Sanders supporters, including Ellison, had largely succeeded in moving the party's platform left. In interviews, some acknowledged that there would be walk-outs by Sanders diehards in their states, but that the daily outrages around Trump might bring them back into the process.
That confidence was displayed before the vote on the chair, as DNC members debated whether to strike language from California's Christine Pelosi that would have restored a ban on corporate donations to the DNC that was quietly rolled back under the controversial tenure of former DNC chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla.
"This resolution has nothing to do with non-profit organizations," said Larry Cohen, the former president of the Communication Workers of America who had backed Sanders in 2016. "This is to send a message, loud and clear, that the DNC itself - not candidates, not state parties - will restore the ban that President Obama put into effect."
When the language was struck, a few of the activists who had come to cheer Ellison - from members of National Nursed United, to the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, to Democratic Socialists of America - started a brief chant.
"Money out of politics! Money out of politics!"
The Idaho Statesman contributed to this report.