Former U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez is the new Democratic National Committee chairman. Hyosub Shin/AJC.

Democrats pick former labor secretary to rebuild national party

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 meeting Saturday in Atlanta, charging former U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez with the task of trying to turn fervid protests against the president into election gains.

Perez will lead a Democratic National Committee reeling from the 2016 vote that left the vanquished 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 grasping to harness as they try to unify a fractured base.

He won in the second round of balloting over his chief rival, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who was backed by Vermont U.S. 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 Hillary Clinton’s camp, but he has tried to brush off the “establishment” label.

Perez becomes the first Latino chairman of the party, just as the new Trump administration begins to implement the Republican president’s promise to build a wall on the nation’s southern border with Mexico and step up the deportation of millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally.

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 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 in an AmericasMart convention hall, “but make sure that we talk about our positive message of inclusion and opportunity and talk to that big tent of the Democratic Party.”

Channel 2's Justin Wilfon reports.

He faces an early test with the April 18 special election to replace Georgia U.S. Rep. Tom Price — the DNC has pledged to pour resources into electing a Democrat in what has been a reliably conservative district — and the looming 2018 congressional 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 Clinton’s defeat or distinct front-runner in the 2020 presidential race. He joins a phalanx of top Democratic elected officials, including U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who will chart the party’s course.

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 across the nation: Republicans control the White House, both chambers of Congress and a majority of governor’s mansions and state legislatures.

Perez had to convince a majority of the 447 DNC delegates in a battle that featured many undertones of the bitter 2016 primary fight between the party’s progressive wing and more mainstream factions.

Green-clad Ellison supporters chanted and cheered throughout the three-day Atlanta conference, and a string of union leaders and progressive favorites cast him as a bare-knuckled brawler willing to take the fight against Trump to the White House’s doorstep.

“We’re in this mess not because we lost this election, but because we lost 1,000 elections,” Ellison said. “Trump is right outside that door. And not just Trump — Trumpism. It’s not just one fight we have to fight; we have to fight 1,000 fights.”

Some Ellison backers broke out in chants of “not big money, party for the people” after his defeat. But many were quieted when Perez immediately announced he would appoint Ellison the deputy chairman of the DNC, a symbolic move aimed at presenting a united front.

A dark-horse contender, Pete Buttigieg, tried to emerge as a consensus candidate for partisans who couldn’t agree on either Ellison or Perez. But the mayor of South Bend, Ind., pulled out of the race minutes before the vote, pleading with the party’s leaders not to treat vast blocs of voters as “exotic species.”

“Pay attention to communities like ours, in the heart of the country,” Buttigieg said. “Friends, there’s nothing wrong with our bench. We just haven’t called enough people on the bench to get off of it and back on the field.”

The nomination fight brought to life the uneasy clash between grass-roots activists and establishment figures struggling over how to corral the fury of the protests against Trump and translate it into concrete action.

Democratic leaders have united in a Trump “resistance” movement, pledging nothing short of total war against the Republican’s administration. But many elected officials struggle to match the ferocity of the Trump opposition that’s filled the streets with protesters and town hall meetings with newly energized activists.

Their biggest challenge may be forging a truce between veterans accustomed to the halting progress of politics and impatient activists who demand immediate action. Already, some newcomers are threatening primary challenges against longtime officeholders, much like the tea party movement that swept conservative districts after Obama’s victory.

Perez said he aims to rebuild the party by sticking to a simple principle: “organize, organize, organize.”

“This is a ‘Where were ya?’ moment,” Perez said. “Years from now our children and grandchildren will ask us, ‘Where were you when Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans attacked our values as a party and a country?’ I want to be able to say I did everything in my power to fight back.”

The party also pledged to continue an investigation into internal emails that were leaked last year as a result of Russian hacking. Donna Brazile, tapped as the party’s interim chairwoman after the hacking fallout, said several staffers faced death threats after the emails surfaced on WikiLeaks — and that she had to be escorted home some nights to ensure her safety.

“It doesn’t matter how they intimidate the press or those that disagree with them,” she told hundreds of delegates. “The Trump administration must be investigated — please continue this work.”

The DNC event gave top state Democrats a platform to address a wider audience of party power brokers and donors. House Minority Leader Stacey Abramsstate Rep. Stacey Evans and state Rep. Scott Holcomb were among the Democrats who spoke to large crowds.

Mayor Kasim Reed drew a line between the city’s symbol, a phoenix rising from the ashes, and the Democratic Party’s goal to rebuild after Trump’s victory.

“There is that part of the story that talks about getting up after a crisis, recognizing your strength will come from one another,” Reed said. “And that’s how Democrats will respond.”

The Rev. Bernice King, a daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., compared Clinton’s defeat to the collapse of the Atlanta Falcons in the Super Bowl. But the party, she said, needs much more retooling than Arthur Blank’s squad.

“This nation right now needs leaders who are willing to step into the mess and step into the divisiveness and the pain and the anguish, and be willing to find a way to get everything together,” King said. “We came in here on different ships, but we’re all on the same boat now.”

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Staff writer Jim Galloway contributed to this article.