Perez brings high-profile backing, slim electoral experience to DNC race

Perez brings high-profile backing, slim electoral experience to DNC race
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Labor Secretary Tom Perez has waded into the competition to chair the Democratic National Committee, a race that could see him continue his rise through Democratic politics.

The highest-ranking Hispanic in the executive branch, the Buffalo-born son of Dominican immigrants has become a leading figure within the party and made Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDems flip New York state seat that Republicans have held for nearly four decades Dems win majority in New York Senate, but won't control it Chelsea Clinton hits back at NYT reporter over details in new book MORE’s vice presidential shortlist this summer.  

Now he’s receiving encouragement from those in President Obama’s orbit to run to lead the party after November’s surprise loss to President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans hold on to Arizona House seat Dems win majority in New York Senate, but won't control it Mulvaney to bankers: Campaign donations will help limit consumer bureau's power MORE.

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Perez’s Thursday jump into the DNC race adds a big name to the field of candidates. He’s the only one with experience running an organization the size of the DNC, but Perez’s name is one without much experience in electoral politics. 

“He is a guy who comes across very well on TV, he has strong relationships with labor and other folks in the progressive community, and he’s someone who can reach out to all constituency groups in the Democratic Party,” one former DNC aide told The Hill. 

But the aide, who is staying neutral in the race, noted that few have seen the political side of Perez, which could lead to questions as to whether he can lead a party that’s on its back after losing the White House and failing to make significant gains in either chamber of Congress.
 
“This is a job for a political animal, someone who has no problem getting their hands dirty, getting in fights with the other party,” the aide said.

Perez’s only experience as an elected official was a four-year stint in Maryland’s Montgomery County Council, as well as a short-lived bid for Maryland attorney general in 2006. 

Nancy Floreen, an at-large member on the Montgomery County Council who served with Perez, pointed to his council work on community engagement and government accountability, arguing that Perez’s slim electoral experience shouldn’t be a strike against him. 

“He understands running campaigns, that’s for sure, but what’s more important is he has the skills to lead and that’s what we need,” Floreen said, going on to praise Perez’s warm personality. 

After the council, Perez served two years as Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s secretary of Labor, Licensing and Regulations, where he worked on raising the minimum wage and providing relief from the recession.

But then President Obama tapped Perez for a crucial role leading the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, before eventually elevating him into his Cabinet as secretary of Labor in 2013.  

At Justice, Perez was tasked with many of the administration’s largest domestic priorities from his high-profile post. 

He played a pivotal role in the Justice Department’s investigation into the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, as well as widespread allegations of police misconduct. 

Perez also played a key role in the administration’s push against state voter I.D. laws, as well as the administration’s lawsuit against Arizona County Sheriff Joe Arpaio on allegations of discrimination against Latinos. 

Perez’s footprint at Labor has been similarly pronounced. 

He was integral in establishing Obama’s signature overtime rule, which was halted by a Texas federal judge last month. He’s also been the public face of the administration’s push to raise the minimum wage. 

And he upped his national profile as one of Clinton’s campaign surrogates, particularly as his name emerged as a front-runner for vice president.  

Democrats say Perez’s labor experience could be an advantage for his candidacy as the party looks to find ways to better embrace working-class voters.  

The White House won’t endorse Perez — Obama is publicly taking a hands-off approach to the race. But press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Wednesday that “President Obama thinks very highly Perez,” adding that the potential DNC chair candidate has been “instrumental in advancing” the administration’s agenda.  

With 10 weeks until the vote, the race is still wide open. Three others have a head start — New Hampshire state Chairman Ray Buckley, South Carolina state Chairman Jaime Harrison and Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, with Ellison leading the field ahead of Perez’s announcement.

So far, Ellison has won the backing of a strong coalition of lawmakers from across the party’s spectrum including incoming Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerCan Mueller be more honest than his colleagues? Throwing some cold water on all of the Korean summit optimism House Republicans push Mulvaney, Trump to rescind Gateway funds MORE (N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersWebb: Bernie Sanders announces his ‘new’ communism jobs, health-care plan A new progressive standard on campaign cash: It can't come from corporations Senate Health panel approves opioid bill MORE (I-Vt.). He also has the endorsement of the powerful AFL-CIO and American Federation of Teachers, blows to Perez and his pro-labor chops. 

Perez’s lack of partisan experience could also be seen as a negative. And his ties to the Obama administration have opened him up to criticism from some progressive Democrats on issues like his support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and accusations that he represents the party's usual top-down, donor-focused approach to campaigns.

Arguing it “makes no sense” for Perez to challenge Ellison, Sanders ally Larry Cohen penned an op-ed on The Huffington Post Wednesday that frames Perez as the candidate of the big donors. 

“Tom is likely to talk about a broader message and unity, but we all know that the White House staff and others in the Party that are supporting him are doing so to keep control and oppose real change,” said Cohen, who leads Our Revolution, the group born out of Sanders’s presidential campaign.  

Progressive group Democracy for America backed Ellison this week after an overwhelming vote from its membership.  

“The people that have been pushing Sec. Perez into this race for DNC chair are the same people who have been the architects of many of the failures of the last six years,” DFA spokesman Neil Sroka said. 

“After that kind of string of electoral failures, it doesn’t make any sense that you’d go back to those same power brokers and say, 'Who do you want to be the next leader?'”

Criticism like that has many Democrats concerned that the race could turn into a proxy battle between the Sanders wing of the party, embodied by Ellison, who endorsed Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary, and the more establishment ilk who backed Clinton.

But Perez allies see him as a potential bridge over that divide. Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who had been seen as a potential chair candidate before bowing out, sung Perez’s praises on Twitter. 

“Perez embraces Sanders wing. It's a big tent. No need for either-or: it's both-and. We need ALL of our progressives now,” she tweeted Tuesday evening. 

Adam Green, the co-founder of the Ellison-backing Progressive Change Campaign Committee, praised Perez for his work in the administration, arguing "his mind is needed on important policy issues."
 
But Green notes that Perez "is not a political strategist or an organizer like Ellison—instead, he is a brilliant policy guy with a different set of superpowers than those needed to be the DNC Chair the party needs."