Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez was elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee on Saturday, as the party struggles to set a new direction after Hillary Clilnton’s November loss to Donald Trump.
While Perez, 55, is the first Latino to head the Democratic Party, he also represents continuity for the party establishment after serving as labor secretary and assistant attorney general for civil rights in President Barack Obama’s administration.
“A united Democratic Party is not only our best hope, it’s Donald Trump’s worst nightmare,” Perez said as he made his final pitch to voters. “I know we will leave here united today.”
He defeated Representative Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress and the first black representative from Minnesota. Ellison, who had backed Bernie Sanders for president over Clinton in the Democratic primaries, represented calls within the party for a turn toward the left and populism as a response to the rise of Trump.
Democrats have been struggling since Election Day to understand what happened in November’s election and to determine how to move forward. Outside groups are jockeying for influence and donors, while anti-Trump protesters are grappling with how to translate their anger into action and change.
The DNC has largely been in suspended animation, waiting for a new chairman to be elected before staffing up or launching the post-election work of its Unity Commission, which will consider possible reforms to the party’s primary process.
In addition to Perez and Ellison, Pete Buttigieg, the 35-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, cast himself as a third-way option who came without the baggage of the 2016 primaries. He used the race as a way to raise his national profile, drawing acclaim as a rising star of the party, but dropped out ahead of the first round of voting Saturday without endorsing another candidate. A handful of other candidates also ran.
While Obama and Clinton chose not to take sides in the race, former Vice President Joe Biden backed Perez, as did Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, a close Clinton ally.
Sanders’s campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, who backed Ellison, on Friday described Perez as the “candidate of the insider” and warned that his election would send a “horrible message” to those who feel excluded by the party.
The son of Dominican immigrants, Perez grew up in Buffalo, New York, and worked his way through Brown University as a garbage collector and dining hall worker. He earned a master’s degree in public policy and a law degree at Harvard University before going on to clerk in Colorado, joining the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, advising Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy and serving as Maryland’s labor secretary.
Obama nominated Perez in 2009 to serve as assistant attorney general for civil rights. There, he played a key role in the Obama administration’s efforts to aggressively enforce and expand civil rights law, including fighting voter identification laws, something Perez often discussed during his DNC campaign.
In Obama’s second term, Perez was nominated to serve as labor secretary and was confirmed along party lines. In the DNC race, he stressed that his experience leading the 17,000-employee agency made him well-suited to restructure a party in need of stronger organization.