ATLANTA—Democratic leaders picked a political veteran with ties to the party’s establishment as a new face of the resistance to Donald Trump at a party meeting Saturday in Atlanta.
Perez becomes the first Latino chairman of the party, just as the Trump administration begins to implement the Republican president’s promise to build a wall on the nation’s southern border with Mexico, and to step up the deportation the millions of illegal immigrants already here.
Perez won on a second ballot with 235 votes. The winning threshold was 218 votes out of 435 cast.
Supporters of U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Perez’s closest rival and a favorite of the party’s progressive wing, erupted with chants of “not big money, party for the people!” But they appeared to be mollified when Perez immediately emdorsed his chief rival as deputy chairman.
Perez will lead a cash-strapped Democratic National Committee trying to recover from the 2016 election that left the party firmly in the minority. But Democrats are buoyed by a wave of liberal outcry against the president, a rush of energy that leaders are trying to harness as they try to unify a fractured base.
Arguing that Democrats are suffering from both a crisis of confidence and relevance after a string of electoral defeats, Perez said a united Democratic front is President Donald Trump’s “worst nightmare.”
“We need a chair who can not only take the fight to Donald Trump,” he said in making his case to more than 400 DNC members, “but make sure that we talk about our positive message of inclusion and opportunity and talk to that big tent of the Democratic Party.”
He faces an early test with the April 18 special election to replace Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., — the DNC has pledged to pour resources into electing a Democrat in the new housing and urban development secretary’s conservative district — and the 2018 elections that could give the party a chance to capitalize on Trump opposition.
The DNC chairman not only raises cash but also serves as the top recruiter, organizer and spokesman for a party with no clear leader after Hillary Clinton’s defeat or distinct front-runner ahead of the 2020 race.
Perez’s platform hinges on a familiar “50-state strategy” that would restock the party’s depleted ranks from the ground up. Democrats face a daunting power deficit in Washington and around the nation: Republicans control the White House, both chambers of Congress and a majority of governorships and state legislatures.
Perez had to convince a majority of the 447 DNC delegates in a battle with many undertones of the bitter 2016 primary fight between the party’s progressive wing and more mainstream factions.
His chief rival, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., was backed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and other leaders from the party’s left flank. Perez entered the race with a nudge from former President Barack Obama and support from Clinton’s supporters, but he has tried to brush off the “establishment” label.
Though it was never mentioned from the stage, ethnicity and religion may have played a quiet role in the decision of DNC members. Perez is Hispanic, a group that has become more and more important in Democratic calculations as Republicans double down on illegal immigration.
Ellison is African-American and a Muslim. Republicans had already signaled their willingness to dwell on the Minnesota congressman’s religion. A number of Jewish Democrats had indicated they could not support him.