- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 25, 2017

ATLANTA — Tom Perez was elected Saturday as the first Latino chair of the Democratic National Committee, overcoming stiff opposition from the Bernie Sanders wing of the party and delivering a win for former President Barack Obama, who recruited him for the job.

Mr. Perez, though, in his first act as chair immediately moved to unify Democrats by tapping Rep. Keith Ellison, the preferred pick of progressives, as his deputy chair.

“We don’t have the luxury to walk out of this room divided,” Mr. Ellison said.

The kumbaya moment came after the race turned into a nail-biter.

In the first round of voting, Mr. Perez fell a single vote shy of winning on the first ballot — setting up a second ballot showdown with Mr. Ellison.

In the two-person race, Mr. Perez, who served as Secretary of Labor in the Obama administration, captured 235 of the 435 votes cast. He needed 218 votes to win.

Mr. Ellison received 200 votes, failing to build on his first round tally.

“I come to you my friends with an unrelenting optimism in our capacity to move forward,” Mr. Perez said after taking the gavel from interim chair Donna Brazille. “I know we will win the battles ahead when we put our values forward — when we lead together, when we mobilize this grassroots energy.”

“I recognize I have a lot of work to do,” he said. “I recognize I have a [lot of] learning to do, and I would simply ask everyone across America — whether you are a Democrat, a Republican, unaffiliated, another party — to simply listen to our message.”

Moments before the voting started, Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., shocked supporters by pulling the plug on his candidacy without endorsing a rival.

But he still received a vote in the initial round of voting.

Sally Boynton Brown, the executive director of Idaho Democrats, received a dozen votes in the first round, and pulled out of the race, but did not endorse.

Former Fox News commentator Jehmu Greene received 0.5 votes while Peter Peckarsky, a lawyer specializing in voter laws and Sam Ronan, an Air Force veteran, did not receive any votes and also ended their campaigns.

Mr. Ronan and Mr. Peckarsky endorsed Mr. Ellison, while Mrs. Greene backed Mr. Perez.

Mr. Perez takes over the reins of a party that is cash-strapped, rife with internal divisions and reeling from a slew of losses a the state and federal level, which were punctuated by President Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton.

The party, though, has been energized by the grassroots blowback against Mr. Trump and hopes to harness the enthusiasm of activist that have risen up.

Gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey this year will serve as an early test for the new chairman, and possible momentum builders heading into the 2018 mid-term elections, where they hope to eat into the GOP majorities in the House and the Senate.

Perhaps more importantly, they want to make up ground in state legislatures, where battles over redistricting are set to play out after the 2020 census.

For his part, Mr. Trump celebrated Mr. Perez’s win.

“Congratulations to Thomas Perez, who has just been named Chairman of the DNC. I could not be happier for him, or for the Republican Party!” the president said on Twitter.

The outcome of the hard fought competition Saturday underscored the political fissures in the party that have lingered from a primary race in which Sen. Bernie Sanders’ supporters say the DNC rigged the race in favor of Mrs. Clinton.

That became evident after the final results were announced, as activists wearing pro-Ellison shirts chanted “Not big money! Party for the people!”

But the mood turned positive after Mr. Perez named Mr. Ellison as deputy chair.

That was just what the doctor ordered for some DNC members, who have voiced concerns over how the next chair’s first job is to bridge that divide.

“The party needs it, we are fractured,” said John Graham, a DNC member from New Jersey. “We are really a broken party right now.”

Others said Democrats blew it.

“This incredibly disappointing result is another missed opportunity for a Democratic Party desperately trying to regain relevance and proves, once again, how out of touch party insiders are with the grassroots movement currently in the streets, on the phone, and at town halls nationwide,” said Jim Dean, chair of Democracy for America.

Progressive groups have been frustrated with the direction of the party and they suffered another setback Saturday after DNC members voted to table a resolution that would have revived a ban on corporate donations and on corporate lobbyists serving as at-large members.

That frustration has boiled over into calls for Mr. Sanders to follow the lead of millions of American by breaking away from the Democratic Party and to launch a new third-party.

Mr. Perez has vowed to cultivate a new bench of candidates, invest more in state parties and put more emphasis on small dollar donations. He has expressed support for the Unity Commission, which is comprised of Clinton and Sanders allies, and tasked with hammering out recommendations on the role of “superdelegates

Seeking to draw on his experience in the civil rights division of the Justice Department, the 55-year-old plans to set up a legal team tasked with combating voter ID laws that Democrats say disenfranchises voters.

The vote Saturday capped a contest that started to unfold days after the November election when Mr. Ellison announced his candidacy. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and major unions such as the AFL-CIO endorsed him.

A month later, Mr. Perez entered the race at the urging of Mr. Obama.

The race quickly evolved into a proxy war between the party establishment and progressives - with Mr. Perez representing the former and Mr. Ellison representing the latter.

It has been decades since there was a competitive race for party chair.

The contest received tons of attention thanks to the power vacuum left following the end of Obama administration and internal battle over the direction of the party now that Republicans control both chambers of Congress, most governorships and most legislatures.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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