Updated at 3:20 p.m.: Democratic leaders picked a political veteran with ties to the party’s establishment as a new face of the resistance to Donald Trump at a party meeting Saturday in Atlanta, charging former U.S. labor secretary Tom Perez with turning the explosive protests against the president into election gains.
Perez becomes the first Latino chairman of the party, just as the new Trump administration begins to implement the Republican president’s promise to build a wall on the nation’s southern border with Mexico, and to step up the deportation the millions of illegal immigrants already here.
Perez won on a second ballot with 235 votes. The winning threshold was 218 votes out of 435 cast.
Supporters of U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, his closest rival and a favorite of the progresive wing, immediately erupted with chants of “Not big money, party for the people!” But they appeared to be mollified when Perez immediately championed his chief rival as deputy chairman.
Perez will lead a cash-strapped Democratic National Committee reeling from the 2016 vote that left the vanquished party firmly in the minority. But Democrats are buoyed by a wave of liberal outcry against the president, a rush of energy that leaders are grasping to harness as they try to unify a fractured base.
Arguing that Democrats are suffering from both a crisis of confidence and relevance after a string of electoral defeats, Perez said a united Democratic front is Trump’s “worst nightmare.”
“We need a chair who can not only take the fight to Donald Trump,” he said in making his case to more than 400 DNC members, “but make sure that we talk about our positive message of inclusion and opportunity and talk to that big tent of the Democratic Party.”
He faces an early test with the April 18 special election to replace Georgia Rep. Tom Price – the DNC has pledged to pour resources into electing a Democrat in the conservative district – and the looming 2018 elections that could give the party a chance to capitalize on Trump opposition.
The DNC chair not only raises cash but also serves as the top recruiter, organizer and spokesman for a party with no clear leader after Hillary Clinton’s defeat or distinct front-runner ahead of the 2020 race. He joins a phalanx of top Democratic elected officials, including Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, who will chart the party’s course.
Perez’s platform hinges on a familiar “50-state strategy” that would restock the party’s depleted ranks from the ground up. Democrats face a daunting power deficit in Washington and around the nation: Republicans control the White House, both chambers of Congress and a majority of governors’ mansions and state legislatures.
Perez had to convince a majority of the 447 DNC delegates in a battle with many undertones of the bitter 2016 primary fight between the party’s progressive wing and more mainstream factions.
His chief rival, Rep. Keith Ellison, was backed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and other leaders from the party’s left flank. Perez entered the race with a nudge from Barack Obama and support from Clinton’s camp, but he has tried to brush off the “establishment” label.
Green-clad Ellison supporters chanted and cheered throughout the three-day Atlanta conference, and a string of union leaders and progressive favorites cast him as a bare-knuckled brawler willing to take the fight against Trump to the White House’s doorstep.
Though it was never mentioned from the stage, ethnicity and religion may have played a quiet role in the decision of DNC members. Perez is Hispanic, a group that has become more and more important in Democratic calculations as Republicans double down on illegal immigration.
Ellison is African-American and Muslim. Republicans had already signaled their willingness to dwell on the Minnesota congressman’s religion. A number of Jewish Democrats had indicated they could not support him.
“We’re in this mess not because we lost this election, but because we lost 1,000 elections,” said Ellison. “Trump is right outside that door. And not just Trump – Trump-ism. It’s not just one fight we have to fight, we have to fight 1,000 fights.”
A dark-horse contender, Pete Buttigieg, tried to emerge as a consensus candidate for partisans who couldn’t agree on either Ellison or Perez. But the mayor of South Bend, Ind., pulled out of the race minutes before the vote, pleading the party’s leaders not to treat vast blocs of voters as “exotic species.”
“Pay attention to communities like ours, in the heart of the country,” said Buttigieg. “Friends, there’s nothing wrong with our bench. We just haven’t called enough people on the bench to get off of it and back on the field.”
Updated at 2:25 p.m.: Former secretary of labor Tom Perez came within a single vote in the first ballot for chairman of the Democratic National Convention. U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota came in at 200.
Ballots cast: 427.
Needed for victory: 214.5
Perez total: 213.5
Keith Ellison: 200
Sally Boynton Brown: 12 votes.
Updated at 1 p.m.: Two big developments. In a chairmanship vote that’s about to be taken, the Democratic National Committee will abandoned the electronic voting system it’s been trying out all day, and will switch to paper ballots.
Also, Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., has withdrawn from the contest. He did not make an endorsement.
Updated at 12:30 p.m.: Well behind schedule, candidates for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee have begun making their case to 418 members in downtown Atlanta.
Tom Perez, the former secretary of labor and the presumed favorite, spoke first.
Perez acknowledged a divide within the party that both the presidential primary and this chairmanship has underlined. “You’ll have input in everything we do,” he said. “You can’t go bowling alone and succeed.”
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison is the clear favorite of those in the audience. “We have 750,000 people signed up to support our candidacy right now,” Ellison said, rattling off support among union members and “the feet of the Democratic Party.”
Sally Boynton Brown of Idaho, executive director of the Idaho Democratic party, who emphasized the need to focus on millenial voters. “In the 21st century, the way we’ve been operating no longer works,” she said.
The Democratic National Committee is just now getting underway in downtown Atlanta. Some 400 delegates are here and ready to vote for a new party chairman.
The odds-on favorite is Tom Perez, former secretary of labor for the Obama administration.
As was true in last year’s presidential primary, we’ve got a division between grassroots activists and many established Democratic office-holders. Democrats are now attempting to slog through a package of resolutions.
The most divisive is a measure to continue Barrack Obama’s ban on corporate PAC donations to the DNC, but with an additional restriction that would ban: “registered federal corporate lobbyists serving as DNC chair-appointed, at-large members in favor of empowering the service of diverse grassroots Democrats so that more people’s voices can be heard.”
That provision failed. Which may amount to the first test vote of the morning.
The party also pledged to continue an investigation into internal emails that were leaked last year as a result of Russian hacking. Donna Brazile, tapped as the party’s interim chair after the hacking fallout, said several staffers faced death threats after the emails surfaced on WikiLeaks – and that she had to be escorted home to make sure she was safe.
“It doesn’t matter how they intimidate the press or those that disagree with them,” she told hundreds of delegates. “The Trump administration must be investigated – please continue this work.”
Here are the Democratic candidates for chairman:
— Sally Boynton Brown of Idaho, executive director of the Idaho Democratic party;
— Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind.;
— U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota;
— Jehmu Greene, a Democratic strategist from Texas;
— Peter Peckarsky, a Wisconsin attorney;
— Tom Perez, former secretary of labor in the Obama administration;
— Sam Ronan, an Ohio activist
Too soon? The Rev. Bernice King, delivering an invocation at the DNC meeting, compared Hillary Clinton’s defeat to the Atlanta Falcons collapse in this month’s Super Bowl. Except the Democratic Party, she said, had long been off its “A game.”
“This nation right now needs leaders who are willing to step into the mess and step into the divisiveness and the pain and the anguish, and be willing to find a way to get everything together,” said King, the daughter of the civil rights icon. “We came in here on different ships, but we’re all on the same boat now.”
Here’s a glimpse of the crowd of signs facing delegates as they walk to the AmericasMart convention hall where the vote is held: