WASHINGTON — Former labor secretary Tom Perez was elected as the Democratic National Committee’s new chairman Saturday, narrowly defeating his chief rival, Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, after a contentious campaign. Perez immediately named Ellison his deputy.
The four-month race drew controversy over the Minnesota legislator’s past record of associations with known anti-Semitic figures and critical stances on Israel. His alliance with much of the progressive wing of the party threatened to divide the Democrats as they seek to revitalize themselves after tough losses in the 2016 election.
In his first act as DNC leader, Perez appointed Ellison his deputy chair, a move that sought to unify the party and prevent — or, at the least, alleviate — continued infighting. “I look forward to helping the Democratic Party in any way that I can,” Ellison said in a statement.
Perez, the first Latino to hold the post, edged Ellison on the second round of voting by Democratic National Committee members gathered in Atlanta.
His choice of Ellison as his deputy was a nod to his margin of just 35 votes out of 435 cast, to say nothing of the lingering friction between old-guard Democratic brokers and outspoken liberal upstarts.
“We are all in this together,” Perez said, calling on Democrats to fight “the worst president in the history of the United States.” He added, “I am confident when we lead with our values and we lead with our actions, we succeed.”
Perez had led on the first ballot among six candidates, but fell just short of the required majority.
Earlier Saturday, Perez told DNC members the party was facing a “crisis of confidence” and a “crisis of relevance.”
“We need a chair who cannot only take the fight to Donald Trump but make sure that we talk about our positive message of inclusion and opportunity and talk to that big tent of the Democratic Party,” Perez said.
Perez, who worked in the Obama administration, drew the support of many Jewish Democrats. Immediately after entering the race, he held a large conference call with over 50 American Jewish leaders.
While Ellison caused consternation in some corners of the Washington pro-Israel community, one long-time Jewish Democratic operative said it was reassuring that Israel did not wind up as a central part of the race’s outcome.
“So glad Tom Perez won and even happier Israel proved not to be an issue,” Steve Rabinowitz told The Times of Israel. “Keith Ellison’s record on Israel was an unfortunate distraction in a campaign about almost everything else. Tom has a lot of work to do but as Democrats and all Americans – Jews included – get to know him better, they’ll find a tough, smart, hardworking leader with extraordinary qualities and a lifelong record on all the issues we hold dear.”
The American Jewish Committee also congratulated Perez on his election victory.
“AJC, as a nonpartisan organization, believes that American democracy is strongest when both political parties stand for civil rights, human rights, and religious pluralism, and maintain the nation’s historic bonds with the democratic State of Israel,” the group’s CEO David Harris said in a statement. “The choice of Tom Perez to head the DNC is surely a gratifying step toward that goal.”
Harvard Law professor and pro-Israel advocate Alan Dershowitz had threatened to leave the Democratic Party if it elected Ellison as its chair.
“My loyalty to my country and my principles and my heritage exceeds any loyalty to my party,” Dershowitz, who supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, wrote in an op-ed for The Hill on Friday.
Dershowitz cited what he called Ellison’s “long history of sordid association with anti-Semitism” including his work with notorious anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan, of the Nation of Islam movement. Ellison has admitted working with the group while in law school but insists he was never a member and has since denounced it as “bigoted and anti-Semitic.”
But while Dershowitz noted that Ellison has claimed he was unaware of Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism, he said this was “not a credible statement” as Farrakhan “proclaimed it on every occasion.” Ellison, he said, “is either lying or he willfully blinded himself to what was obvious to everyone else. Neither of these qualities makes him suitable to be the next chairman of the DNC.”
Dershowitz also noted that Ellison has said Israel was founded under “dubious circumstances” and has been an outspoken critic of many Israeli governmental policies throughout his career in public life, most notably for its continued settlement enterprise and military response during periods of intensified conflict with the Palestinians.
“Ellison is now on an apology tour as he runs for DNC chairman, but his apologies and renunciations of his past association with anti-Semitism have been tactical and timed to his political aspirations,” Dershowitz added. “I do not trust him. I do not believe him.”
Ellison’s actions in Congress have troubled some in the pro-Israel community. Though Ellison has rejected the movement to boycott, sanction and divest from Israel and expressed support for the two-state-solution, he sought to accommodate a more sympathetic reading of the UN’s Goldstone Report on the 2009 Gaza war that Israel, Jewish groups and most of the Congress rejected as a one-sided attack on Israel. The congressman also voted against funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system in 2014.
In December Israeli-American businessman Haim Saban, a major Democratic Party funder, slammed the lawmaker as “an anti-Semite and anti-Israel individual” whose election as chairman of the Democratic National Committee would be a “disaster” for the party’s relationship with Jews. In January, however, Ellison said he had talked to Saban and that they were “on the road” to mending ties.
Ellison has also retained the support of the left-wing Middle East policy group J Street as well as some 300 Jewish leaders of liberal groups who signed a letter in support of him.
Both top candidates had promised aggressive rebuilding efforts for state and local Democratic parties.
The chair campaign was uncharted territory as Democrats face a power deficit not seen in nine decades. Republicans control the White House, Congress and about two-thirds of US statehouses. The GOP is one Senate confirmation fight away from a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.
With Democrats in agreement in their opposition to President Donald Trump, the race turned on who was able to convince enough DNC members to believe his promises of rebuilding party infrastructure that withered under president Barack Obama despite his personal electoral success.
Ellison told voting members he had signatures from 750,000 rank-and-file Democrats who supported his chairmanship bid. He promised to “convert them from demonstration energy to electoral energy.” He pledged to prioritize small donations to finance the party, while working to “organize this whole country.”
Perez said he would “rebuild strong parties” and “organize, organize, organize” so Democratic nominees could win “from the school to the Senate in all the states.”
Perez got into the race at Obama’s urging, but he pushed back on the notion that represented the same “establishment” label that dogged Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Ellison had endorsements from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who challenged Clinton for the Democratic nomination, and also from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
For their parts, Ellison and Perez had praised each other and promised unity regardless of the outcome.
The winner succeeds outgoing Chairwoman Donna Brazile, who led the party as interim chief in the fallout from disclosure that internal party communications were stolen by hackers and leaked during the 2016 presidential campaign.