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Echoes of Clinton vs. Sanders, as local Perez vies for DNC chair

WASHINGTON – Hillary Clinton goes for walks in the woods near her Westchester County home now, and Sen. Bernie Sanders is back to doing what he's been doing for 10 years: giving Senate floor speeches on behalf of the little guy.

But the battle between the two for the 2016 Democratic nomination lives on, strangely, in the fight for the future of the Democratic Party.

That future will be decided, in part, in Atlanta on Saturday, when the 447 members of the Democratic National Committee gather to elect a new party chairman.

Thomas Perez, U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Obama, is in the running to be National Democratic chairman. (Bloomberg News)

One of the two front-running candidates – Thomas E. Perez, the former Labor Secretary and a native of Snyder – has solidified the support of the Obama/Clinton wing of the party and won the endorsement of former Vice President Joe Biden.

And the other – Keith Ellison, a congressman from Minnesota – won Sanders' endorsement and thus the backing of the progressive activists who flocked to the Vermont senator during last year's primary campaign.

In other words, "I think there's sort of a proxy fight still going on in the Democratic Party," said Brian Nowak, who led Sanders' grassroots effort in Buffalo and who backs Ellison.

No matter who wins, the next Democratic chairman will face a daunting task, said Buffalo Mayor and New York State Democratic Chairman Byron W. Brown, who is leaning toward backing Perez.

"They're very both strong candidates," Brown said. "The difficult choice is: will they really work to build the Democratic Party all over the country, and will they demonstrate more focus at the local and state level?"

Those are among the party's key questions as it struggles for a path forward following Clinton's upset loss to Republican Donald Trump.

Both Ellison and Perez, along with the six other contenders in the race for DNC chair, vow to do just that – to rebuild the party in the Rust Belt states and to build it back from the ground up in deep-red states where the party atrophied during the presidency of Barack Obama.

"We need a 12-month organizing strategy, not just showing up at a church every fourth October," Perez said in a recent interview. "We have to hold our own in many of these (rural) communities. We've got to communicate with people there, and we weren't doing that."

Ellison agreed.

"The fact is that state parties have been ignored for far too long, that they haven't received the resources they've needed," Ellison told CNN earlier this week. "As a result, since 2008, Democrats have lost 1,000 elections across the country. That shouldn't have happened, and I'll work tirelessly to change that."

Given that Perez, Ellison and the other candidates largely agree on how to rebuild the DNC, the real debate – and the real choice DNC members face – is about who will be the best public face of the party during the next four years.

At first, it seemed inevitable that Ellison would be that face.

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Ellison

A political dynamo who brags of raising millions of dollars for his state party and traveling to 30 states to campaign for Democrats over the last two years, Ellison announced his candidacy shortly after November's election. And almost immediately, he won the endorsement not only of Sanders, but also of Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the new Democratic leader in the Senate.

Congressman Keith Ellison. (Getty Images)

"We need a Democratic National Committee led by a progressive who understands the dire need to listen to working families, not the political establishment or the billionaire class," Sanders said in backing Ellison – who backed Sanders for president last year.

Quickly, though, establishment Democrats began quietly complaining that Ellison might be too progressive – and that his past could make him a fundraising poster child for the Republican Party.

For one thing, there is Ellison's 2014 television appearance with comedian Bill Maher.

"Why doesn't your party come out against the Second Amendment? It's the problem," Maher asked.

"I sure wish they would," Ellison replied. "I sure wish they would."

At a CNN debate Wednesday, Ellison denied that exchange took place. But it's on videotape and it's just one piece of ammunition Republicans could use against him.

The first Muslim elected to Congress, Ellison praised Nation of Islam founder Louis Farrakhan back in the 1990s, calling him "a role model for black youth" in an op-ed.

In addition, Ellison once wrote: "Zionism, the ideological undergirding of Israel, is a debatable political philosophy."

Ellison has since renounced Farrakhan and said during a debate on CNN Wednesday that 300 rabbis have endorsed him, knowing that he's not anti-Israel.

Still, some party insiders clamored for a strong alternative for DNC chair. Coincidentally or not, Perez then entered the race in mid-December bearing a strong resume.

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Perez

As assistant attorney general for civil rights, Perez fought police brutality and voter I.D. laws. As labor secretary, he pushed through new rules allowing more workers to get overtime pay and protecting retiree investments.

And along the way, he won admirers such as Biden.

"I’ve known Tom Perez for a long time. He’s a man of integrity and vision," Biden said in a statement. "And he knows what it means to be a Democrat  – that we are a party that fights for economic fairness for working families and believes that everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity, regardless of who they are, where they come from, or who they love."

Perez entered the race with some handicaps.

He was late to the game, entering the race after some natural allies – such as the AFL-CIO – already endorsed Ellison.

A loyal member of the Obama administration, he supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a now-defunct trade deal that is anathema to progressives.

And most importantly, he stood by Clinton's side time and again during her failed campaign, and was even on her short list of potential running mates.

Those ties to Clinton led to the most awkward moment in the Perez campaign. Campaigning in Kansas early this month, he agreed with Sanders supporters who argue the DNC acted to help Clinton during the primary process.

"We heard loudly and clearly yesterday from Bernie supporters that the process was rigged, and it was," he said.

Then Perez immediately backtracked.

"I have been asked by friends about a quote and want to be clear about what I said and that I misspoke," he tweeted. "As I've said repeatedly, we can't have a primary process where it is even perceived that a thumb was on the scale."

That explanation didn't go very far with Sanders backers such as Nowak, who argue that Perez's election would dampen the enthusiasm of the young activists who Sanders brought into the party.

"We need someone who's not going to be a black eye to the progressive wing of the party," Nowak said.

Still, many establishment figures lean toward Perez, a fiery speaker whom some say would be a much more effective communicator on behalf of the party than would Ellison.

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Tight race

But by no means is the race over.

“Tom Perez is obviously a Buffalo guy, and I am leaning toward him, but I am getting calls for both from all over the country," said Brown, the Buffalo mayor.

Six other candidates are running for the chairmanship, but several Democratic insiders said early this week that only two stood an outside shot at winning the race: Pete Buttigieg, the young, gay and hyper-articulate mayor of South Bend, Ind., and Jaime Harrison, a commanding presence who has been rebuilding the Democratic party in deep-red South Carolina.

Perez appears closer to sealing the deal than Ellison is. The Associated Press reported Thursday that independent Democratic strategists say Perez has about 205 votes lined up, while Ellison has about 153.

Perez got a big boost Thursday when Harrison – who had 27 supporters according to the AP tally – endorsed him.

There is no way to know how solid AP's vote tally is, and DNC members still could change their minds.

So the voting could go multiple ballots, leaving the DNC members looking for a compromise candidate who bridges the Clinton/Sanders, establishment/outsider divide.

That is just what Buttigieg aims to be.

"We can't allow this to devolve into factional struggle," he said at the CNN debate on Wednesday.

For their part, Perez and Ellison agreed that they don't want that to happen.

And as if to prove it, the two front-runners embraced during Wednesday's debate after discussing the dinner the two of them shared recently to discuss the party's future.

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