Former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez was elected Saturday the new chair of the Democratic National Committee, grabbing the reins of the political wing of the party and emerging as a key figure in the party's opposition to President Donald Trump's agenda.
More than 400 party insiders gathered in Atlanta to cast their ballots after four months of debate. The former Obama appointee now faces many challenges moving forward to rally a party still reeling from defeat and crippled by down-ballot losses across the country over the last decade. Perez has promised to focus on rebuilding local party organizations that many in the party say have been deteriorating over the last eight years as resources and brain-power became concentrated in Washington.
Many in the party's progressive wing had thrown their support behind Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, expressing their frustration with the status quo of the party. They felt strongly that Ellison better identified with the grassroots movement growing across the country in opposition to Trump.
Perez, who fell one ballot short shy of victory in the first round of voting, immediately appointed Ellison deputy chair of the DNC after it was announced that he had clinched it on the second round of voting.
"I need to tell you folks at the outset: I know that I have more questions than answers," Perez told the crowd in a victory speech, reaching out to those who opposed his bid. "As a team, we will work together.
"We should all be able to say ... the united Democratic Party led the resistance and ensured that this president would be a one-term president," he continued.
Ellison spoke of the need for the party to unify, too.
"I just want to say to you that if you came here supporting me ... I'm asking you to give everything you got to support Chairman Perez," Ellison said. "We don't have the luxury to walk out of this room divided."
Sen. Bernie Sanders, the former presidential candidate who had backed Ellison's bid, said he looks forward to working with Perez but insisted the party must change its direction.
It's imperative Tom understands that the same-old, same-old isn't working and that we must bring in working and young people in a new way.— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) February 25, 2017
Hillary Clinton, Sanders' former rival during the Democratic presidential primaries, tweeted her support of Perez and Ellison, writing, "Congrats to @DNC chair @TomPerez & deputy @keithellison. Excited for strong, unified party standing for best of our country into the future."
And former President Barack Obama said in a statement, "Congratulations to my friend Tom Perez on his election to lead the Democratic Party, and on his choice of Keith Ellison to help him lead it ... I know that Tom Perez will unite us under that banner of opportunity, and lay the groundwork for a new generation of Democratic leadership for this big, bold, inclusive, dynamic America we love so much."
Many of the activists who propelled Sanders' campaign and have been key in organizing large scale protest since Trump's election said it was now up to Perez to bring more people into the fold.
"Ellison offered a chance to hit the ground running and immediately start building bridges between the DNC and the progressive activist base," said Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "The burden will be on [Perez] to build the bridge."
After emails leaked last summer revealed former chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz had purportedly influenced the presidential primary, many activists who supported Sanders were left feeling betrayed and disillusioned by the party establishment. Those leaks last summer forced Wasserman Schultz to step down.
Larry Cohen, a long-time union organizer who campaigned for Ellison promised, however, to stay actively involved in the formal party.
"We'll be here until we have a progressive populist party," he said.
Rep. Maxine Waters of California voted for Ellison, but said she was confident Perez would be able to bring people together.
Former DNC Chair Howard Dean had backed South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who bowed out of the race minutes before the vote. Dean told reporters on Friday that he did not think the party could "prosper" with a chair from inside the beltway and that if Perez or Ellison was elected they would "do the best we can."
Democrats also defeated a resolution that would have banned corporate donations to the party -- a chance to reinstate an Obama policy that was nixed under Wasserman Schultz.
Those in favor said the party needed to send a bold message to the grassroots and make a statement about "values." Those against said there was no point is proactively handicapping themselves when the "other side" had deep pockets.
Activists in the room booed and jeered when the resolution was defeated.