Calls are growing for Labor Secretary Tom Perez to enter the race for chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Perez has several close allies among the state Democratic chairmen who are privately urging him to run for party leader, along with support from parts of the labor movement.
Some leaders in the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, are furious about the group’s early endorsement of Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) for DNC chairman and are looking to Perez for an alternative.
Perez is believed to be weighing other career options, including a run for governor in his home state of Maryland in 2018. His decision on the DNC race is expected soon.
Two sources close to Perez told The Hill that President Obama and Vice President Biden have privately encouraged Perez to seek the position. Obama and Perez are expected to meet in person next week, the sources said.
"As the President has said, Democrats have many important decisions to make and some soul searching to do — and that includes selecting the next leader of the Democratic Party," a White House official told The Hill.
"It is important that that the next chair of the party takes office not just with the president's support, but with the support of Democrats across the country."
A spokesperson for Perez declined to comment.
State chairmen and DNC officials interviewed by The Hill believe Perez’s entrance would drastically alter the dynamics of a race that has so far been dominated by Ellison.
Some Democrats say that Perez would instantly become the favorite to win. Others say he would at the very least mount a stiff challenge to Ellison.
“If Perez got in he’d be a very strong candidate,” said one state chairman who is unaligned. “He might be the reason why so many DNC members are holding off on endorsing. A lot of people have enormous respect for and have gotten to know him as he’s travelled around as Labor secretary. He would bring clout and a positive notoriety, maybe more so than anyone else, even Ellison.”
Like Ellison, many Democrats hail Perez as a smart and engaging leader who is effective at communicating liberal priorities.
As Labor secretary, the 55-year-old son of Dominican immigrants has run a massive government agency, an experience that some Democrats say makes him uniquely equipped to take the reins of the DNC.
If he were to get into the race, he’d have some catching up to do.
A small contingent of DNC members have already committed to supporting Ellison. Many of them supported Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight Energy: Trump set to sign offshore drilling order Meghan McCain: Obama 'a dirty capitalist like the rest of us' Dems might begin again with Kamala Harris and California MORE (I-Vt.) for president in the Democratic primary. Unlike most Democrats, Ellison endorsed Sanders over Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump’s foreign policy of more is about money Meghan McCain: Obama 'a dirty capitalist like the rest of us' Democrats must have a better response on net neutrality than simply 'no' MORE.
Ellison has racked up scores of endorsements from lawmakers on Capitol Hill and from national labor groups. The AFL-CIO announced its support for Ellison on Thursday — a significant development, even if it isn’t sitting well with some members of the federation.
One Perez ally described the AFL-CIO endorsement of Ellison as a “setback” for the Labor secretary.
“It makes it harder for some of these people who were already getting a lot of pressure to go ahead and back Ellison,” the DNC member said.
And Ellison this week said that if elected chairman, he would resign his seat in Congress, removing a major barrier to his candidacy.
Yet, there is unease in some quarters with making Ellison, a progressive saddled with the baggage of past controversial statements about race, the head of the national party.
“Saying that he’ll resign his seat in Congress to be a full-time DNC chairman may win him some converts, but more than anything the chairs and party leadership don’t want to see someone that far to the left with the history he has be the face of the party in 2017,” said one state chairman who is urging Perez to run.
“We just lost an election because we did not pay attention to white working-class folks and union members from the Midwest, and now we’re going to elect someone to be the chair that comes from the furthest left of the party? That’s not something the leadership I’ve talked to wants out of the next chair.”
A strong majority of the 447 DNC members spread across the country that have a vote in DNC race — including most state chairs and vice chairs — haven’t backed a candidate yet.
They’re waiting to see how the candidates perform at regional forums planned across the country between now and the Feb. 24 election.
“It’s still wide open,” said Maryland Chairman Bruce Poole.
Many are eager to hear from more candidates than are presently in the race, whether it’s Perez or someone else. In addition to Ellison, only South Carolina Chairman Jaime Harrison and New Hampshire Chairman Ray Buckley are currently running.
There is speculation that former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter may join the race. NARAL president Ilyse Hogue is considering running, although buzz around her candidacy has diminished in recent weeks.
DNC national finance chairman Henry Munoz III is keeping his options open, as is Phil Angelides, the former state treasurer for California.
“There are phone calls going on, and we’ll see at least one more very serious candidate join the race,” said Bob Mulholland, a DNC member from California who hasn’t endorsed anyone but is opposed to Ellison.
In the meantime, Ellison is running a campaign to win.
He and his aides have been relentless in seeking bold name national endorsements, as well as support among the rank-and-file Democrats that will vote.
Many DNC members reached by The Hill say they’ve been contacted several times by Ellison and his staff to set up meetings or directly asking for their vote.
Still, the cascade of Washington endorsements is rubbing some the wrong way. In addition to Sanders, Ellison has also been backed by Sens. Harry ReidHarry ReidDraft House bill ignites new Yucca Mountain fight Week ahead: House to revive Yucca Mountain fight Warren builds her brand with 2020 down the road MORE (D-Nev.), Charles SchumerCharles SchumerCruz: 'Schumer and the Democrats want a shutdown' GOP fundraiser enters crowded primary for Pa. Senate seat Dems: Trump risks government shutdown over border wall MORE (D-N.Y.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenMeghan McCain: Obama 'a dirty capitalist like the rest of us' Warren 'troubled' by Obama's speaking fee Obama's speech proves hypocrisy of Democrat's anti-Wall Street rhetoric MORE (D-Mass.).
“Folks in D.C. can make their statements and endorsements and do what they want but I’m waiting to know what the field looks like and to hear from these candidates at the forums,” said Indiana state director John Zody.
And Ellison’s AFL-CIO endorsement was not without controversy.
Some labor leaders are furious with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, accusing him of seeking to arrange a coronation for Ellison to the detriment of Perez, who as Labor secretary is viewed by many as one of their own.
Perez approached Trumka to express interest in running for DNC chairman and to let him know he'd want the AFL-CIO’s support if he did.
But Trumka only put Ellison’s name on the ballot for consideration, leaving it up to members to either endorse him or nobody.
That has angered some, like International Association of Firefighters President Harold Schaitberger, who have privately urged Perez to join the race.
“Rushing the Federations vote for a DNC Chair endorsement was a major political miscalculation for the AFL-CIO," he said in a statement to The Hill.
"There is a faction at the Federation that seems to want to push our movement further and further to the left. That is a recipe for disaster as the most recent election results just showed and as we try to get things done in the next Congress and with the next President.”