As predicted by earlier reports, Labor Secretary Tom Perez officially launched a campaign to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee on Thursday.
Perez becomes the most high-profile challenger to Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison’s candidacy, and reportedly entered the race at the encouragement of White House officials who believe Ellison would be too controversial a choice. Ellison is Muslim, has been attacked by the Anti-Defamation League for criticizing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and worked early in his career with Louis Farrakhan. But he disavowed Farrakhan a decade ago, and Slate’s Michelle Goldberg argues that the notion that Ellison is anti-Semitic is a hyperbolic smear campaign against someone whose concerns about Israeli government policies are shared by many American Jews.
Elevating Perez would avoid putting these concerns squarely in the national spotlight during upcoming election cycles. (The DNC recruits, funds, and organizes on behalf of candidates across the country at both the state and congressional levels.) But, for an establishment candidate, Perez would still be a pretty bold choice for a party that just selected the cautious, centrist Clinton/Kaine ticket: As his DNC campaign website highlights, he’s a former Department of Justice civil rights lawyer whose work as Labor Secretary has impressed progressive Democratic activists. His platform and website—much like Ellison’s—is one that’s aimed squarely at the grass roots and working class, highlighting issues like voting rights and small-donor fundraising while emphasizing his history of work on issues like collective bargaining rights and police accountability. Both Ellison and Perez seem to be aiming to win over lefty Bernie Sanders voters while at the same time drawing in the nonwhite members of the Democratic coalition that Sanders has sometimes been tone-deaf in discussing.
The knocks against Perez, the son of Dominican immigrants who was raised in Buffalo and lives in Maryland, are that he’s never himself run for an office higher than Maryland county council and that, for all the good his civil rights and labor work has done, it’s kept him in Washington, D.C. rather than out in the field. Meanwhile, Ellison has already locked in endorsements from high-profile labor leaders, outgoing Senate majority leader Harry Reid, and centrist New Yorker senator Chuck Schumer; he’s not exactly a long-shot insurgent at this point.
If the Perez-Ellison battle stays clean, Democrats could end up with a DNC race that energizes its voters and raises the profile of two well-liked candidates, giving the winner an instant national platform and propelling the second-place finisher to a potential run for office elsewhere. Of course, one could also easily see it descending into a spiteful mess that sabotages both Ellison and Perez’s reputations. Should be fun! The 400-plus members of the DNC will meet on the weekend of Feb. 24 to make their decision.