Labor Secretary Tom Perez on Thursday joined the race to become the next Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman, shaking up a campaign that has so far been dominated by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.)
“I'm in this race because I really believe that this is one of those ‘Where were you?' moments,” Perez said on a conference call with state Democratic chairmen.
“It’s not just about the future of the Democratic Party, but the future of America, and given what happened last month, I believe that at no point in my life has the Democratic chair been this important. We need strong progressive leadership that can deliver results. I’m a proud progressive and have been getting stuff done my entire career.”
Perez touted his executive experience as the head of the Labor department, vowed not to leave the DNC to run for governor of Maryland in 2018, and beat back at criticism that he doesn’t have electoral experience by touting his time in local politics on Montgomery County Council.
Perez, a 55-year-old son of Dominican immigrants, was once on the shortlist to be Hillary Clinton’s running mate and had also been weighing a run for governor of Maryland in 2018.
As Labor secretary and a former civil rights lawyer, Perez has progressive bona fides but will be looking to draw support from mainstream liberals and his allies in the White House to defeat Ellison, who has him outflanked on the left.
Perez had a meeting scheduled with President Obama this week and has spoken privately with top White House officials ahead of his run.
But Ellison is the early leader for the job, racking up scores of endorsements from progressive groups, labor unions and top Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has endorsed Ellison and campaigned for him in front of a labor group in Washington on Wednesday night, where he swiped at Perez for supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
Ellison, who endorsed Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary, also has the support of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), another progressive favorite, as well as some mainstream Democrats, like retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and his successor, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Just hours before Perez announced his bid, Ellison’s team rolled out an expansive list of backers that includes nine U.S. senators and 25 members of the House.
Perez’s allies have dismissed those endorsements and cast Ellison as the favorite of the Washington insiders who aren’t among the 447 that will vote in the February election.
Ellison countered with endorsements from 15 state party chairs or vice chairs who will have a say in the contest.
That leaves Perez with some catching up to do, although his Thursday conference call was sponsored by a dozen state party chairs or vice chairs, two of whom have officially endorsed him.
Some DNC members are considering Perez because they’re worried about the prospect of the national party being led by a progressive. They’re fearful that someone from the Sanders wing of the party will chase away independent voters or centrists.
In that way, Perez’s entrance could turn the race to lead the national party into a proxy war between Democrats aligned with President Obama and Hillary Clinton and those in the progressive wing of the party, led by Sanders and Warren.
Jamie Harrison and Raymond Buckley, state chairmen in South Carolina and New Hampshire, respectively, are also in the running and hoping their proximity to the state party leaders that are the power center in the race will pay off.