Perez emerges from internal divisions to lead Democratic Party

Marylander Tom Perez, elected to lead the DNC, must now find a way to rebuild a divided Democratic Party.

Former U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez emerged Saturday from a bruising internal fight to become the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a job that will put him at the forefront of rebuilding the party and confronting President Donald Trump.

Perez, a Takoma Park resident and former Maryland state official, won an election that some read as an extension of last year's messy Democratic presidential primary, in which left-leaning supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders sought to take the party in a different direction than centrist backers of Hillary Clinton.

Bridging that lingering divide, while also addressing last year's unexpected defeat, will be among Perez's top priorities, observers said. Many Sanders supporters are still angered over hacked emails released before the election that showed party officials — ostensibly neutral in a primary — pulling for Clinton.

Setting the agenda at the national level, meanwhile, will almost certainly keep Perez from running for governor in 2018, a prospect that had excited many state Democrats. The party is searching for a candidate to unseat Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who remains popular with voters in both parties.

"They're going to study this era in American history, and they're going to ask the question of all us: 'Where we you in 2017, when we had the worst president in the history of the United States?'" said Perez, 55, who is the first Latino to hold the job. "And we will all be able to say ... the united Democratic Party led the resistance."

He called for a "course correction" in a number of states, including Maryland — a reference to Hogan's win in 2014.

But Perez will have a number of tasks to complete first.

"The first goal will be to bring the party together," said Quincey Gamble, a strategist who has worked for both the national and state parties. "One thing about a race for chair is that folks choose sides, and even though there's very little that separates us ideologically, it's still going to be a task."

Both Perez and his leading opponent, Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, had rejected the left-versus-centrist narrative that developed around the race, and close observers agreed it was overblown. Both are progressive Democrats, but Perez was seen as more of an inside player because of his tenure in President Barack Obama's Labor and Justice departments.

Ellison, who was supported Sanders, was viewed as more of an outsider. Pete Buttigieg, the 35-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., tried to angle his campaign between those two positions, casting himself as a fresh voice unencumbered by the internal tensions of the past.

Buttigieg dropped out of the race Saturday before voting began.

Republicans said the Democratic Party would distance itself from independent voters who backed Trump in 2016 by choosing a chairman who was among the most liberal members of Obama's Cabinet and a "D.C. insider."

"Voters spoke loud and clear last November that they wanted a change in Washington and to reverse the failed policies of the last eight years," Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement. "The DNC would be well-served to learn from two straight election cycle losses."

Trump tweeted a sarcastic congratulations to Perez on Saturday.

"I could not be happier for him," the president wrote, "or for the Republican Party!"

Perez narrowly lost the first round of balloting at the party's meeting in Atlanta on Saturday, coming up one vote shy of the 214.5 votes needed to win. He won the second-round ballot with 235 votes, compared with 200 votes for Ellison.

Several Democratic analysts agreed on the importance of uniting the party's factions, but they said Perez must also figure out how Clinton lost working-class voters in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — which had backed Democrats for years — and how to get them back.

That involves crafting an economic message that Democratic strategist Justin Schall said Perez may be uniquely qualified to do, given his background.

"He needs to reach out to working-class middle-Americans," Schall said. "It's really easy after a race like this to cater to the extremes. ... He can be a force to unite if he chooses — and that's what we need."

Under Perez's guidance, the Labor Department approved several regulations that progressives cheered, such as extending overtime pay to millions of Americans and requiring financial advisers to operate in their clients' interests. Republicans said that those rules were burdensome on businesses. The overtime rule rule was blocked in court and the Trump administration has has put implementation of the financial adviser regulation on hold.

But a significant part of Perez's job will be building the organization of the party, analysts say, rather than dealing with policy. All of the candidates who ran for chair discussed growing local and state party operations to increase the number of Democrats running for local office and also to ensure that voters turn out to support the next presidential nominee.

"The key part of his job is building an infrastructure plan for the Democratic Party — and not a plan that just gets us to 2020 or 2018, but one that is sustainable for the next 10 to 15 years," said Lisa Bianco, a Democratic operative based in Maryland.

Leading up to the 2016 election, there was considerable discussion that Democrats could expand their support in traditionally Republican states like Georgia, Arizona and Texas — all of which ultimately went to Trump. Bianco said Democrats have an opportunity to continue to work toward that goal, even while they patch up the "blue wall" of Democratic states that ultimately crumbled last year.

"How do we expand our into those areas where we feel like we have an opportunity?" she asked. "His job is to figure out, over the next however many years, how we make those things a reality."

Perez has a powerful personal story that Obama once described as embodying the American dream. Perez's father died of a heart attack when he was 12 years old. The Buffalo, N.Y., native put himself through college with scholarships and worked as a trash collector and warehouseman.

He ran for Maryland attorney general in 2006 but was knocked off the ballot by the state's Court of Appeals, which held he lacked the 10 years of legal experience required by the Maryland Constitution. Douglas F. Gansler was elected to the post instead.

Obama predicted that Perez would unite the party "under that banner of opportunity, and lay the groundwork for a new generation of Democratic leadership."

Jason Rae of Wisconsin won election as the party's secretary, unseating former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who has held the job since 2013.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
48°