Tom Perez Elected As New DNC Chair

Feb 25, 2017
Originally published on February 25, 2017 6:43 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to start today's program hearing about a change in leadership for the Democratic Party. After a contentious race, the Democratic National Committee chose their new leader today in Atlanta. Here's interim chair Donna Brazile.

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DONNA BRAZILE: The results are 235 for Mr. Perez and 200 for Mr. Ellison.

MARTIN: Mr. Perez is Tom Perez. He's the former secretary of labor under President Obama. And he surprised many in the crowd with his first move as chair. He named his top challenger, Congressman Keith Ellison, to be his deputy. NPR's Scott Detrow was there, and he's with us now by phone to tell us more. Scott, hi. Thanks so much for joining us.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey, Michel.

MARTIN: So this was a close vote. You could hear from the vote tally there. Tell us, why did Perez win?

DETROW: Well, he has a pretty good reputation within national Democratic leaders. I mean, he was in President Obama's Cabinet. He wasn't a high-profile member of the Cabinet, but he did a lot of work. He was the labor secretary in the second term, and in the first term he worked in the attorney general's office running the Civil Rights Division. He's by and large somebody who spent most of his career on the governing side. And he worked for the federal government, for Maryland state government for a while before that.

So it's not like he's been this big political operative. But he did get a lot of endorsements from people like former Vice President Joe Biden, former Attorney General Eric Holder. And he got some key endorsements from members who had dropped out of the race in the days leading up to this vote.

MARTIN: Now, I don't know that Tom Perez would agree with this analogy, but some see echoes of the 2016 presidential primary, when Senator Bernie Sanders gave Hillary Clinton a tough fight by attacking her from the left. Now, Sanders endorsed Congressman Ellison. So what does it mean for the Democrats that they've once again not backed the person most identified with the progressive wing?

DETROW: Yeah, that was the big-picture dynamic even though both Ellison and Perez pushed back about that, saying, no, that's not really the way to view this. But I think the view that Perez was too mainstream was something that puzzled a lot of his backers because, you know, he's a pretty progressive person. He lives in Takoma Park, Md., which, if you live in D.C., you know that's one of the most liberal pockets of the area. And beyond that, he did push for a lot of progressive things in the Obama administration. He was behind rules broadening overtime pay, among other things.

But yeah, there was some frustration from the Ellison backers in the room. A pocket of them were booing and yelling about trying to get corporate money out of politics after the vote was announced despite the fact that Perez and Keith Ellison were immediately appearing together and one of the first things Perez did was nominate Ellison to be kind of his deputy chair. I talked to Bernie Sanders' campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, right afterwards, and he had a pretty lukewarm view, saying that he's open to working with Perez but he needs to see how he does his chair.

MARTIN: So finally here, what do you think are the biggest challenges that Tom Perez now faces? And what do we know about how he'll approach them?

DETROW: Well, there's a lot of work to do. The DNC has basically been in a holding pattern since this summer, when Debbie Wasserman Schultz had to resign as chair because of emails released by WikiLeaks showing that a lot of people within the DNC did clearly favor Hillary Clinton in the primary with Bernie Sanders. So he has to rebuild the committee itself. He has to raise a lot of money. And he has to get to work organizing.

A lot of the common themes from Perez and other people in Atlanta today was saying all of this marching is great, all of this organizing is great, but it doesn't matter if we don't win elections. And, you know, it's exciting to get hundreds of thousands of people marching on the Mall. It's less exciting to say, hey, show up for this, you know, local special election or hey, pay some money as we try to raise funds for these down-ballot candidates.

So a lot of nuts-and-bolts work. And on top of that, he's going to be a high-profile Democrat appearing in the news a lot, responding for the party because they just don't have that many national leaders right now.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Scott Detrow in Atlanta. Scott, thank you.

DETROW: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.