ATLANTA – A deeply divided Democratic National Committee Saturday elected Snyder native Thomas E. Perez as its national chairman Saturday, capping an unusually intense fight in which party establishment forces narrowly defeated a candidate favored by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Perez got the required majority in the second round of voting, topping Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota by a vote of 235-200. Perez fell one vote short of winning in the first round of voting.
Taking to the podium shortly after outgoing DNC Chair Dona Brazile announced the election results, Perez vowed to unify the Democratic Party by reaching out to activists nationwide and to raise a strong voice against President Trump, a Republican, whom he called "the worst president in history."
The Perez victory ended with a group of Ellison supporters protesting, yelling: "Power to the people/Not big money."
Perez immediately moved to unify the party by appointing Ellison deputy chair of the party, and Ellison did his part by praising the man who just defeated him.
"It is my honor to serve under the chairmanship of Tom Perez," Ellison said.
Perez then added: "For the two of us, we were always united in our values. We were always united in our love for the party."
Former President Barack Obama and Sanders also worked to unify the party by congratulating Perez.
"I know that Tom Perez will unite us under the 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," Obama said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Sanders said he looks forward to working with Perez, but also suggested that Perez change the party's approach.
"It is imperative that Tom understands that the same-old, same-old is not working and that we must open the doors of the party to working people and young people in a way that has never been done before," Sanders said in a statement.
The vote culminated a race that in many ways seemed to echo the 2016 Democratic presidential primary battle between Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Ellison, a political organizer, entered the race immediately after the election and at first seemed to be a shoo-in. In addition to Sanders, two of the party's two other most prominent figures – new Senate Democratic Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts – quickly endorsed him.
But some establishment Democrats feared that Ellison, the first Muslim House member and a progressive firebrand with a long history of making controversial comments, might hurt party fundraising while providing Republicans with an easy target.
Amid that backlash, Perez – himself a progressive firebrand, but one allied with Clinton and former President Barack Obama – entered the race in mid-December.
A former Labor secretary with strong connections in the union movement, Perez joined the race after the AFL-CIO and many other Democratic power players had already sided with Ellison.
Nevertheless, he quickly picked up support from heartland Democrats and many establishment figures, including former Vice President Joe Biden.
Perez and Ellison offered nearly identical campaign platforms, with both men saying they planned to work to build local and state parties rather than focus on the presidency, as the party did during the Obama years.
And while the candidates remained cordial to each other throughout the race, Sanders supporters booed Perez on occasion during a party forum in Baltimore earlier this month, and they privately portrayed him as a status-quo leader who couldn't motivate grassroots progressives.
"Ellison will raise money -- millions of small donations -- which matters -- but when the DNC puts raising money OVER democratic values, it loses," progressive activist and Ellison supporter Zephyr Teachout said on Twitter.
Meantime, Perez supporters quietly warned wavering DNC members that Ellison could prove to be toxic to mainstream Democrats because of his past praise for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and his record, on occasion, of voting against Israel's interests.
In an op-ed in The Hill, a Capitol Hill publication, prominent Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz said he would quit the Democratic Party if Ellison won the chairmanship.
“Ellison has a long history of sordid association with anti-Semitism," Dershowitz wrote
Now it's up to Perez to unify a divided party – something he vowed to do in an op-ed on the NBC News website this week.
"Those living in the shadows want Democrats to stand up to the Republican agenda, not splinter off into competing silos," he wrote. "For these families, a united Democratic party isn't a luxury - it's a necessity."
Perez is the first Buffalo-area native to seriously contend for the DNC leadership Joseph F. Crangle fell one vote short for the job in 1968.
A Canisius High School graduate, Perez is the son of Dominican immigrants who often notes that he briefly worked on a Buffalo garbage truck during his college years. A graduate of Brown University and Harvard Law School, he still travels to Buffalo regularly to visit family and friends.
A civil rights lawyer by training, Perez served as a county councilman in Maryland, labor secretary in that state and assistant U.S. attorney general for civil rights before becoming U.S. labor secretary in 2013.