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Labor Secretary Tom Perez Running For DNC Chair

U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez on a 2014 visit to the Siemens training facility in Berlin.
Sean Gallup
Getty Images
U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez on a 2014 visit to the Siemens training facility in Berlin.

The contest to see who will be the next leader of the Democratic National Committee has just gotten much more interesting — it's also looking a bit like a proxy battle between President Obama and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

The latest candidate to enter the race comes firmly from the Obama camp. He is current U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez — a champion of unions and a man considered the most liberal member of Obama's Cabinet. Perez would bring strong organizing chops to the job, and a Hispanic-American at the head of the DNC would send a signal to the fastest-growing demographic group in the party and in the nation as a whole.

Speaking on a conference call with state Democratic Party leaders, Perez said, "Many folks in the field feel ignored by the national party." He added that the DNC has become "way too Washington-centric."

Perez says the 50-state strategy implemented more than a decade ago hasn't been the party's approach in recent years. The party needs to build relationships on the ground in every state, he says, and not just come around every four years looking for votes. And he said that if Democrats ignore rural voters, it will be "at our own peril."

The other most prominent candidate for the post is Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, a combative progressive and a hero to the party's most liberal wing. Ellison is African-American and in 2006 made history as the first Muslim ever elected to Congress. Ellison got into the race a month ago and has promised to resign his seat in the U.S. House if he wins after a debate emerged over whether the job needed to be full time.

It was previously held by Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who split her time between running the DNC and serving in the House. Her tenure ended abruptly in the summer of 2016 after an email hack — which the U.S. intelligence community now believes was carried out by Russia — revealed emails showing that staffers inside the DNC favored Hillary Clinton over Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary race.

Since then the party has been led by Donna Brazile, the former manager of Al Gore's 2000 campaign and a former CNN commentator, who was shown in emails hacked from Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta to have sent questions to the Clinton campaign in advance of a town hall produced by CNN and TV One.

Democrats are looking to regroup after a major upset in the 2016 election, not just in the presidential race but farther down the ballot.

They failed to take back control of the Senate, which many saw within reach for Democrats, and they picked up a disappointing number of seats in the House. The party is also at its lowest level of power in state capitols across the country in about a century, with just four years to go until redistricting after the 2020 census.

Ellison's early entry into the race has given him a head start when it comes to building support and lining up big endorsements.

In addition to Sanders, whose unsuccessful presidential bid did succeed at energizing the Democratic Party's progressive wing, there are also Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Rep. John Lewis and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. The retiring Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, also supports Ellison. And Ellison has been endorsed by the AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization for most labor unions around the country.

Prior to leading the Labor Department, Perez was head of the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. He could pick up backing from some individual labor unions around the country, not to mention outgoing Obama administration officials, including the president. His sudden presence in the contest could also cause some Democratic activists to rethink their positions.

Unlike some past fights for the DNC leadership, the leading candidates are both from the progressive branch of the party. Both have said they will focus on organizing from the ground up if elected.

There are other candidates. South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison and New Hampshire Democratic Party leader Raymond Buckley are running. Others mulling over jumping into the race are South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego. Former DNC Chairman Howard Dean said he was interested last month but has since withdrawn.

All of this still has some 10 weeks to play out. The Democratic National Committee will vote on Feb. 24 in Atlanta to pick its next leader; that will be over a month after President Donald Trump moves into the Oval Office.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.