WASHINGTON — In his quest to chair the Democratic National Committee, US Labor Secretary Tom Perez is trying to gain traction with a constituency deeply divided about his chief opponent, Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison.
Perez held a conference call with more than 50 prominent Jewish leaders and activists on Wednesday afternoon, including dozens of former and current members of Congress. The call was organized by Bluelight Strategies, a consulting firm that represents a number of Jewish organizations and Democratic interest groups.
While Perez did not mention Ellison by name, he took pains to distinguish himself from the man whose past remarks the Anti-Defamation League recently deemed “disqualifying” for the leadership post.
According to several Jewish Democrats who participated in the call, Perez has already made inroads with a community eager for an alternative to Ellison. And during the question-and-answer phase of the discussion, Florida Rep. Ted Deutch and leading Democratic strategist Ann Lewis and were effusive over Perez entering the race.
Deutch said: “As someone whose been involved in the Jewish community for a long time, the fact that someone named Tom Perez is able to sum up, in an emotional way, the connection of the Jewish community to the Democratic Party, and the reason that being involved in the Democratic Party is because of the values that the community holds dear, resonates and says a lot.” Meanwhile, Lewis proclaimed the DNC hopeful made her “proud to be a Democrat.”
In the call, Perez highlighted his long career in public service, which The Times of Israel learned from a number of sources who were on it, and who describe the progressive Democrat as the preferable candidate to lead the party.
“When talking to the Jewish community, Keith has to spend all his time apologizing or explaining his past positions,” a Jewish Democratic insider said. “Whereas Tom’s call with the Jewish community is about his actual record, Keith’s is about revisionist history.”
One former Jewish leader and Democratic official who was also on the call echoed the sentiment: “Every second Keith Ellison has to explain why he voted against Iron Dome funding is a second he is not spending getting out the message of rebuilding the party.”
“Most members of the DNC won’t vote against him because of his stance on Israel, maybe some, but not a lot,” that person added. “But the fact that it’s an issue with the Jewish community will matter to DNC members because it’s an issue. Tom is letting it be known that that is not a problem with him.”
The internal DNC election takes place on the weekend of February 23 to February 26. Out of the 447 party officials who cast a vote, fewer than 20 are Jewish, according to a source familiar with the matter.
Perez, who was urged to run by the White House, repeatedly referred to his past collaboration with ADL during the almost hour-long conversation. At one point, he said he had long ago “memorized” the Jewish rights group’s mission statement, which he called “timeless.”
Three weeks ago, ADL chief Jonathan Greenblatt rebuked Ellison for newly released audio in which he seemed to encourage Americans of Arab descent to become active in politics by suggesting that US foreign policy was dictated by Israeli interests.
Ellison insisted he was “taken out of context” and that the audio of his address, given at a private fundraiser, was “selectively edited.”
The Investigative Report on Terrorism, which first released the recording of the speech, responded by publishing a follow-up of the entire audio, which also divulged the Congressman saying the US “can’t allow another country to treat us like we’re their ATM,” referring to Israel, but that “it makes all the sense in the world when you see that that country has mobilized its Diaspora in America to do its bidding in America.”
Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, has garnered the support of some in the Jewish community, including the left-wing Mideast policy group J Street and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, one of the most prominent Jewish members of Congress and a famously staunch supporter of Israel.
But he has also elicited strong opposition from some in the party establishment.
Israeli-American media mogul Haim Saban, a major Democratic donor, lashed out at Ellison recently, calling him “clearly an anti-Semitic and anti-Israel individual” who “would be a disaster for the relationship between the Jewish community and the Democratic Party.”
Saban is one of the highest overall individual contributors to the Democratic Party who in 2002 wrote a $7 million check to underwrite the DNC’s headquarters building in Washington, DC.
But with Jewish Democrats desperate to rebuild their beleaguered party and challenge the incoming Trump administration, Perez appeared intent on striking a different chord.
“What I have learned in my work, and what I have learned throughout my life as a life-long Democrat, is that the Jewish community has always had an invaluable place in our party,” he said. “And that must never change.”
Before being appointed by President Barack Obama to lead the Department of Labor, Perez was the assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.
The Buffalo, New York native spoke at length Wednesday of his experience working with the ADL and its Washington counsel Michael Lieberman in that job and as a former staffer for the late Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy.
Referring to the ADL’s “powerful” mission statement, he said he “saw its power in action” when he worked with Kennedy in 1996 to introduce a hate crimes prevention act that took 14 years to pass.
“I would argue the ADL was the most important external stakeholder in the passage of this law,” he said of the measure that expanded federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by the victim’s gender identity, sexual orientation or disability.
Perez also mentioned his past visit to Israel and admiration for former president and prime minister Shimon Peres.
“One of the privileges of my life was getting to travel to Israel and meet someone who is one of my heroes, Shimon Peres,” he said. “Uncle Shimon, to me.”
“When he passed away, I remember going to my church to say a prayer for him and to light a candle for him, and to hope that the progressive values that he championed are progressive values that will endure,” he added.
Former US ambassador to the Czech Republic Norman Eisen, a prominent Democrat who is already backing Perez, was on the call. He called Perez an old friend, cited his “warm feelings for Israel” and said he had “deep experience in managing large, complex organizations, which is essential for the DNC in this challenging time.”
While Perez has only just entered the DNC race, he suggested he would be presenting an aggressive vision for Democrats to challenge the Trump agenda.
“It’s time to stop fretting and start fighting,” he said. “You never bring a spoon to a knife-fight.”