ATLANTA — Tom Perez, the former Labor secretary for President Barack Obama, was elected as the Democratic National Committee’s new chairman on Saturday, replacing interim chair Donna Brazile after a rollicking four-month race and a chaotic final day of voting.
Party members landed on a decision on who should be in charge of Democrats’ official party apparatus after two rounds of balloting. With 218 votes necessary to win, the final tally was 235 votes for Perez and 200 votes for Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison.
Immediately after taking over, Perez moved to name Ellison his deputy chairman, aiming to unify a divided party.
“When we have these conversations, sometimes spirited, sometimes difficult, that’s not a sign of weakness, that’s a sign of strength as a party and that’s what were going to keep doing,” Perez said.
“If you came here supporting me, wearing a Keith t-shirt, or any t-shirt, I’m asking you to give everything you’ve got to support Chairman Perez,” said Ellison, accepting the role. “You love this country, you love all the people in it, you care about each and every one of them, urban, rural, suburban, all cultures, all faiths, everybody, and they are in need of your help. And if we waste even a moment going at it over who supported who, we are not going to be standing up for those people. We don’t have the luxury, folks, to walk out of this room divided.”
The result came after Perez came within one vote of winning in the first round, garnering 213.5 votes of the needed 214.5, while Ellison won 200. Idaho Democratic Party Executive Director Sally Boynton Brown received 12 votes, then dropped out before the second round.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg dropped out of the race — in which members of the Democrats Abroad group get half a vote each — just minutes before voting began. Three other candidates captured no support.
The paper-ballot vote at a conference center here comes after months of tense campaigning that has convulsed a party desperate to avoid a redux of 2016’s Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders primary fight.
But that hope was dashed as nerves rose ahead of the election — the party’s first contested chairmanship fight in at least three decades, which saw many prominent Democrats picking sides. While Perez touted endorsements from former Obama administration officials like Vice President Joe Biden, former Attorney General Eric Holder, and former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Ellison had the backing of prominent senators including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Chuck Schumer.
Tensions exploded on the floor Saturday as members of Ellison’s team sent voting members text messages during the first round voting process claiming an endorsement from Buttigieg — which Buttigieg then rebutted on Twitter. Only after voting closed did Ellison forces text out a correction. As the second round of voting finished, Ellison’s team circulated a last-second endorsement from former chair Howard Dean, feeling the need to clarify “This is real.”
When Perez won, Ellison backers erupted in anger, chanting “Party of the people, not big money!” But that fury turned to relief and big smiles as Ellison took the deputy chair title.
Buttigieg, seen as a rising voice in the party, had the backing of five former chairs, including Dean. But he used his nominating speech to leave the race, having raised his profile but also having determined the votes simply weren’t there for him to win.
The election closes a tumultuous chapter for the party committee, which was rocked last summer by a Russian hack and publication of internal emails. The exposed emails were widely viewed as evidence that some DNC staffers favored Clinton over Sanders in the presidential primary, inflaming that race. The resulting controversy saw the ouster of the longtime chair, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, at the party convention in July.
Both Perez and Ellison sought to present themselves as unity candidates, but Perez was widely seen as the candidate representing the Obama-Clinton wing of the party, and Ellison as the candidate of the Bernie Sanders wing. Buttigieg and others sought to present themselves as an alternative path forward, but the party’s deep divisions nonetheless defined much of the race.
“We are one family, and I know we will leave here united today, no doubt about that,” said Perez shortly before the vote. “I’ve learned that great leaders are good listeners. You will always have my ear, and I will always have your back.”
“Unity is essential, we’ve got to walk out of here with unity. Not just between the candidates, but between the groups that support all the candidates,” added Ellison just minutes later, speaking to a room that was included scores of members of the public wearing his campaign’s green t-shirts. “We’ve got to walk out of here hand in hand, brother and sister, because Trump is right outside the door. Not just Trump, but Trumpism.”
Saturday’s vote came after days of high-wire politicking in Atlanta, as both of the major campaigns had surrogates campaigning and whipping votes for them — from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s work for Ellison to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s work for Perez.
Both of the major campaigns also consolidated support from other candidates in the closing days, with New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley dropping out to endorse Ellison and South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison exiting the race to throw his support behind Perez.
While Perez and Ellison both worked voting members at the bar and hotel meeting rooms in the closing days, however, fears rose of a continued rift within the party — particularly from Sanders and Ellison backers nervous about the prospect of a Perez victory.
Ellison’s team sought to calm such fears in public, selecting American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten — a onetime Clinton surrogate — to help nominate him.
But the concerns ratcheted up on Saturday morning as the committee fought over whether to reinstate Obama’s ban on corporate and lobbyist donations, with many of the ban’s proponents wearing Ellison shirts and buttons. The reinstatement of the ban was tabled for later discussion, yet the tone was set.
Seeking to move the party ahead, Sanders issued a statement congratulating Perez shortly after the results were announced.
“I congratulate Tom Perez on his election as chairman of the Democratic National Committee and look forward to working with him,” he said, a break from his earlier warnings that a vote for Perez would be a vote for the party’s status quo. “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. Now, more than ever, the Democratic Party must make it clear that it is prepared to stand up to the 1 percent and lead this country forward in the fight for social, racial, economic and environmental justice.”
Former President Barack Obama also released a statement on the results.
“What unites our party is a belief in opportunity – the idea that however you started out, whatever you look like, or whomever you love, America is the place where you can make it if you try,” he said. “I know that Tom Perez will unite us under that banner of opportunity, and lay the groundwork for a new generation of Democratic leadership for this big, bold, inclusive, dynamic America we love so much.”