USA Politics First Look

Tom Perez plans bid for DNC chair, as Dems debate a new face

Tom Perez, Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, and two others are vying to lead the Democratic Party as it plans a recovery from the 2016 election. 

Labor Secretary Tom Perez, left, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., listen as President Barack Obama speaks at AARP in Washington, D.C. on Monday, Feb. 23, 2015.
Jacquelyn Martin/ AP/ File
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Current Labor Secretary Tom Perez plans to announce a bid to chair the Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair, party sources told the Associated Press. Mr. Perez would be challenging Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, a front-runner for the position since shortly after the Nov. 8 election, as the Democrats try to recast their message for post-election politics.

As a Dominican-American raised in Rust Belt Buffalo, N.Y., Perez could be seen as representing diversity and working-class interests within the Democratic Party. But he may also be perceived as the party establishment, and many both within and outside the party have taken Hillary Clinton’s loss in the presidential election as a cue that its time to shake things up.

“The Democratic Party needs some stars,” John Weingart, the director of Rutgers University’s Center on the American Governor in New Jersey, told The Christian Science Monitor in early December, “some younger faces to advance their issues and to be potential national candidates in 2020 and beyond.”

For fans of Representative Ellison, Perez may lack what it takes to be that star. The Labor Secretary "is another suit," environmental activist and Ellison supporter Jane Fleming Kleeb told The Washington Post, "and we don't need another suit running the party. We need someone from middle America who knows how to organize and respects the grass roots." 

Ellison was an early favorite backed by newly elected Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D) of N.Y., as well as some progressives, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont. But Perez’s entrance into the race may intensify tensions between establishment and more liberal Democrats, which the presidential primaries put in the spotlight.

Former DNC chair candidate Howard Dean warned the party against focusing on those debates in a message withdrawing himself from the race earlier this month, after announcing his candidacy to regain the post in November.

“We cannot let this be a proxy fight” between Democrats who supported Bernie Sanders and those who who supported Hillary Clinton, Mr. Dean, himself a Clinton supporter, said in a video message announcing his withdrawal, according to the Wall Street Journal. “We have to get rid of this idea that there is a Bernie Democrat or a Hillary Democrat or an Obama Democrat.”

Some Democrats have questioned Ellison's ability to lead the party while also serving in Congress, following concerns that former DNC chair Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz struggled with her duties as party head for the same reason.

To quell those fears, Ellison has said he is considering leaving his position in the House of Representatives.

“I am in the process of deciding this issue of whether I can perform both roles,” Mr. Ellison said at a meeting between candidates for the DNC chair in Denver. “It has become very apparent that many of you feel very strongly about this. I’ve loved being in Congress….but I do think that it is more important to build and strengthen the DNC.”

Perez is also considering running for governor of Maryland – another strategy through which some Democrats hope to rebuild after the election.

The 450 voting members of the DNC are scheduled to vote for a new chair in late February. Current contenders also include Jaime Harrison, the party chair of South Carolina, and Ray Buckley, the chair in New Hampshire. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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