Dissecting the DNC: Can Chair Tom Perez mend a broken party?

DNC Chair Tom Perez attends a reception hosted by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. / Photo courtesy Maryland GovPics, Creative Commons
DNC Chair Tom Perez attends a reception hosted by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. / Photo courtesy Maryland GovPics, Creative Commons

By Zipporah Osei, political columnist

Thomas Perez won his bid for chairman of the Democratic National Committee against Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) on Feb. 25 after a second round of votes.

The win was not surprising—Perez became a favorite for the chair after entering the race in December—but did upset the increasingly leftist wing of the Democratic Party, which felt his win was another affront by the Democratic establishment. Perez, whose bid was backed by former president Barack Obama and vice president Joe Biden, was seen by Ellison’s supporters as a continuation of the leadership that lost the party the election. Ellison was backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who Independents and Democrats alike have come to see as a major progressive leader. The fight was between a centrist and a progressive future of the party.

With Sanders throwing his support behind Ellison, the Minnesota congressman was considered the more progressive option despite the fact that Ellison and Perez share many of the same politics. For many, he is a representation of the direction the Democratic Party has been heading over the past eight years and what it is hoping to become. Perez is the son of Dominican immigrants and a lifelong Democrat. The former Labor Secretary worked in the 1990s as a civil rights lawyer for the Department of Justice and served as special counsel to Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy. In more recent years, he served on the Montgomery County Council in Maryland, and he was appointed assistant attorney general for civil rights by President< Obama before becoming the 26th Labor Secretary.

Perez’s track record is very progressive. As the labor secretary, Perez focused on bettering labor standards through increased pay and health protections. His department raised the minimum wage for federal contractors and pushed for an increase for home health workers. In 2016, he helped resolve a dispute between Verizon and two unions that ended in an increase in the worker’s wages and a reduce in cuts to their pensions, a move which boosted his standing in Washington and among unions.

In his victory speech, Perez named opponent Keith Ellison as his deputy chair. It is still unclear what the title means or what responsibilities Ellison will have, but it was the right move to appease Ellison’s supporters and to begin to process of unifying the party.

For his part, Ellison used his response to speak directly to his supporters, saying, “We don’t have the luxury to walk out of this room divided.”

Ellison’s message and his acceptance of the position has, for some, instilled an apparent albeit shaky confidence in the party’s ability to reunite. Frustration with the DNC establishment continues to grow among progressive Democrats. For those in the party who are still disillusioned, it’s now Perez’s job to prove that he can lead a party that represents its supporters rather than the interests of wealthy backers. While the current long-term goal of the party is to make Trump a one-term president, Democrats must start with internal work to strengthen the party.

Progressives and centrists alike can take comfort in the fact that Perez is qualified for the position, but his victory is just the first step in mending the Democratic Party.

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