US Labor Secretary Tom Perez eyes Democratic leadership
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US Labor Secretary Tom Perez eyes Democratic leadership

Top Democrats, Jewish groups have questioned front-runner Keith Ellison’s comments on Israel and his defense of Nation of Islam

US Labor Secretary Tom Perez giving a speech in Washington. (Public domain/United States Department of Justice/Lonnie Tague)
US Labor Secretary Tom Perez giving a speech in Washington. (Public domain/United States Department of Justice/Lonnie Tague)

Labor Secretary Tom Perez has told senior Democratic officials that he plans to mount a bid for the head of the Democratic National Committee.

Perez, who was urged to run by White House officials, will challenge Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, the early front-runner for the post, according to a Democratic strategist familiar with the conversations who requested anonymity to discuss private plans.

Ellison has faced mounting opposition from top Democrats, labor leaders and some Jewish groups, who’ve raised questions about his comments about Israel, his defense of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and his commitment to his own party.

Perez, who was considering a run for Maryland governor, has been contacting top Democrats including governors up for reelection in 2018, according to the strategist, and plans to make his intentions public this week. Representatives of Perez did not respond to requests for comment.

Having spent most of his career in appointed government posts, Perez has little experience as a political candidate.

But supporters say his Dominican-American background and Rust Belt childhood in Buffalo, New York could help him attract support from Latino leaders and speak to white-working class voters.

“He is a leader whose character and visions are a strong addition to the conversation around where Democrats need to head,” said Henry Munoz, the DNC finance chairman, who’s stressed that Latinos must play a major role in discussions about the party’s future.

US Rep. Keith Ellison at a meeting of the Democratic National Committee on Friday, Dec. 2, 2016, in Denver, Colorado. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
US Rep. Keith Ellison at a meeting of the Democratic National Committee on Friday, Dec. 2, 2016, in Denver, Colorado. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Ellison, the first Muslim ever elected to Congress, has been an outspoken critic of many Israeli government policies throughout his career in public life, most notably for its continued settlement enterprise and its fierce military response during periods of intensified conflict with the Palestinians.

Since announcing his candidacy for the leadership post, he has also insisted his support for Israel and that any criticism comes from a place of friendship. He has emphasized his backing of a two-state solution, which he says is in the best interests of both sides of the conflict, and his having voted for more than $27 billion in foreign aid to Israel.

Jewish leaders and organizations have been notably divided on Ellison’s candidacy. Democratic megadonor Haim Saban stunned many at the annual Saban Forum earlier this month by calling the Minnesota Democrat “clearly an anti-Semite and anti-Israel individual,” who “would be a disaster for the relationship between the Jewish community and the Democratic Party.”

Hoping to assuage some concerns, Ellison said last week that he would resign his seat in Congress if he were picked as chairman by DNC members at the late February elections.

“Whoever wins the DNC chair race faces a lot of work, travel, planning and resource raising,” Ellison said in a statement. “I will be ‘all in’ to meet the challenge.”

Even before Perez jumped into the race, the contest has divided Democratic leaders, placing Obama’s team at odds with Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada and his replacement, New York’s Chuck Schumer, whose early support for Ellison was seen as an effort to shore up the liberal flank in Congress. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are also backing Ellison.

While White House aides say that Obama is unlikely to comment publicly on the race, behind the scenes his backers have been speaking with Democratic donors and potential candidates to see who else might be persuaded to run, according to several Democrats familiar with the discussions. These Democrats were not authorized to publicly discuss those private discussions and spoke on condition of anonymity.

They tried to draft Vice President Joe Biden and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, both of whom have ruled out a bid.

South Carolina’s party chairman, Jaime Harrison, and the party head in New Hampshire, Ray Buckley, have announced bids, though they haven’t gotten much traction.

Missouri’s secretary of state, Jason Kander, who attracted attention for running a surprisingly competitive Senate race this year, says he’s gotten calls exploring his interest in the post.

Ellison backers argue that the party must take a more populist approach after the 2016 losses, saying Democratic leaders did too little to address the economic pain of working-class voters.

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