New Democratic Party Chair Tom Perez Promises to Focus on Grassroots Organizing

Tom Perez addresses the audience after being elected Democratic National Chair during the Democratic National Committee winter meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. February 25, 2017. Chris Berry/REUTERS

The Democratic party took a major stride Saturday in its effort to reorient itself in the era of Donald Trump. In a hotly contested vote, party members tapped former Labor Secretary Tom Perez to be the next Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman, topping his closet rival, Congressman Keith Ellison, after winning a majority of the 442 votes on the second round of balloting. The party faithful, meeting in Atlanta, then promptly elected Ellison deputy chair.

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Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and his allies had vocally rallied behind Ellison, touting him as the heir apparent to the liberal movement that Sanders started in last year's Democratic presidential primary. They sought to portray Perez as part of the establishment, given his ties to the Obama administration and as one of the vice presidential candidates on presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's shortlist. While Sanders congratulated Perez in a statement shortly after the election, he also warned the new party chair that, "at a time when Republicans control the White House, the U.S. House, U.S. Senate and two-thirds of all statehouses, it is imperative that Tom understands that the same-old, same-old is not working and that we must open the doors of the party to working people and young people in a way that has never been done before."

The reality is, Perez is a pathbreaker in his own right, becoming the first Latino to lead the Democratic party. And his platform was nearly indistinguishable from Ellison's during the several-months-long campaign for chairman. Both men, like the other eight candidates running, emphasized organizing and reconnecting with the party's grassroots, a glaring weakness in their 2016 defeats. Thousands of those people, however, are now turning out to protest Trump and his policies, a sign of the energy on the left that Democrats hope to capitalize on in the years ahead.

His goal as party chair, Perez said in his opening remarks, is "organize, organize, organize." Like his fellow candidates, Perez emphasized the need for Democrats to contest races up and down the ballot and all around the country, from school board to Congress. "We must redefine the role of the DNC so that we're not simply electing the president," Perez said, an implicit rebuke of the party during its eight years under President Obama.

That was a recurring theme throughout the day and the whole campaign. While Democrats were careful to laud Obama's ability to bring together a national coalition of voters (one that did not show up with the same force for Clinton), the last president also sapped the party of much of its local organizing strength. Obama officials kept much of their national field work, data and organizing capacity separate from the DNC as part of Organizing for America, a campaign-like operation run by allies.

The result: The party is now staring at an electoral deficit not seen since the 1920s. Not only is Trump in the White House but Republicans control the House and Senate, as well. Since 2008, Democrats also have lost more than 1,000 state legislative seats and a dozen governors' mansions. At the most basic level, the next DNC chairman's task is to start to claw back some of those posts. They'll have some prime opportunities in the coming round of elections, particularly in state races. Thirty-six states are holding gubernatorial el`ections in November 2018. Along with state legislative races, those contests will determine who gets to draw district lines after the next Census, in 2020.

The challenge for Perez will be how to take a party seething under Trump's reign, but struggling to identify a clear, unifying message. He and Ellison—both civil rights attorneys by training—promised to reenergize the party and regain the trust of those alienated by a divisive 2016 primary, when hacked emails revealed DNC staff actively working to help the Clinton campaign and push Sanders out. But neither offered many specifics on what he would actually do in the post.

People cheer for Congressman Keith Ellison, who contended for the DNC chairmanship but ended up elected as deputy chair. Chris Berry/Reuters

The clearest agenda was actually laid out by a young red state politician, Pete Buttigieg, who's in his second term as mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Buttigieg was considered a dark horse candidate for the post, after impressing senior officials with his eloquence and campaign pitch. But he dropped out Saturday before the voting began, saying it was clear he did not have the votes. He did not endorse either Perez or Ellison.

In his remarks to the party faithful, Buttigieg urged Democrats to bring people together around their values, not their various identities. And he recommended the party "pay attention to communities like ours, in the middle of the country, not as an exotic species, but as your fellow Americans."