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Perez often the target as DNC chair candidates discuss party's future

BALTIMORE – Ten candidates – including former U.S. Labor Secretary and Snyder native Thomas E. Perez – took to a convention center stage here Saturday to make their cases that they can fix a broken-down Democratic Party.

But the two-hour forum among candidates for Democratic National Committee chairman showed that Democrats are still fighting with each other while also fighting the new Republican president.

Months removed from a primary battle that pitted progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont against the establishment candidate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democrats at Saturday's forum seemed, at times, to be reliving that battle.

And at the center of it was Perez, a close ally of Clinton's. Asked if he favored ending the "superdelegate" system that padded Clinton's lead in the fight for the nomination, Perez offered a long, meandering answer before saying that he favored changing it. That drew boos from the Sanders supporters in the room.

Perez was the only one of the 10 candidates to offer a detailed description of what he would do as DNC chair. But once he spelled it out, Sam Ronan – a long-shot candidate who has been working to woo Sanders supporters – held up his notepad and said: "Tom, I think, has adopted my policies."

Perez found himself a target not just because of his closeness with Clinton, but also because Democratic activists say he's vaulted toward the front of the race for DNC chair. Former Vice President Joe Biden recently endorsed him, and Democratic insiders say Obama's allies are actively pushing Perez nationwide as an experienced hand and passionate speaker who could turn around the DNC.

In other words, Perez has upended a race that at first looked like it would probably be won by Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota. A longtime progressive activist as well as the first Muslim elected to Congress, Ellison entered the race soon after November's election and quickly won the support of not only Sanders, but also Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and even Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the new Senate Democratic leader.

Not surprisingly, Perez and Ellison both filled the room with large numbers of supporters, as did Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and a charismatic figure popular with younger Democrats.

The three main candidates offered very different sales pitches to DNC members who will gather in Atlanta to vote for a new chairman on Feb. 25.

Perez portrayed himself as a turnaround artist who had worked his magic on three government agencies: the U.S. and Maryland departments of labor, and the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. He said he could revive the DNC through a series of actions, including starting a voter-protection unit and a center for best practices where successful Democrats from around the country can learn from one another.

"Focus on the basics: Organizing, organizing, organizing," said Perez, who promised to work to revive Democratic organizations in all 50 states and seven territories.

Ellison, meantime, touted his electoral successes and his ability to raise more than $1 million for other Democrats while promising to sharpen the party's messaging.

Looking back at Clinton's loss, Ellison said: "I think we stopped telling the American people we are fighting for them every single day."

Buttigieg said the party should look beyond the candidates who were allied with either Clinton or Sanders.

"Why not go to somebody who's not part of one faction or another faction, but who's here for a fresh start?" he asked.

Several other candidates, though, couldn't help but play the recrimination game.

Ray Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, noted that Clinton – by focusing her campaign on attacking Republican Donald Trump, now the president – lost her way with the lower-income voters like those he grew up with.

"We were funneling hundreds of millions of dollars into commercials telling people Donald Trump was offensive" without saying a thing about what a Clinton presidency would mean for lower-income voters, Buckley said.

Another long-shot candidate, D.C. Democratic activist and strong Clinton backer Robert Vinson Brannum, took a shot at the Sanders voters in the room.

"We protested but we didn’t vote," he said. "Some of us walked away in November. And some of them are in this room. You want to talk truth? That's the truth."

Hearing such truths from the stage, Yvette Lewis, a DNC member from Maryland, offered some sharp advice to the deeply divided DNC candidates on the stage above her.

"We cannot move forward if we continue to sink in this quicksand of anger," she said.

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