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Snyder native Perez takes helm of a divided Democratic Party

ATLANTA – Former Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez, a Snyder native who often notes that he worked on a Buffalo garbage truck during college, won election as chairman of a divided Democratic Party Saturday.

And it took him only seconds to see the depths of the party's division, and seconds more to act to try to bring the party's progressives and centrists back together.

Soon after outgoing Democratic National Committee Chair Donna Brazile announced that Perez had defeated Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, dozens of Ellison backers in the back of the convention hall here started chanting.

"Power to the people! Not big money!" the mostly young Ellison supporters – including many who supported Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont during last year's Democratic presidential nomination battle – chanted.

And then many of the Ellison supporters, clad in green T-shirts, walked out.

To heal the divisions, Perez immediately announced that he wanted Ellison to serve in a new position: deputy national chairman.

"When I was looking in the audience here, there was someone holding up a sign that says: 'Unite'," Perez told the crowd. "And I cannot agree more. And for the two of us, that is easy, because we were always united in our values. …We are united in our love of the Democratic Party."

Ellison agreed, telling the crowd: "We don’t have the luxury to walk out of this room divided."

Perez's victory in the second round of voting capped the most dramatic race for Democratic chairman in decades.

Ellison, a political organizer who bragged of raising millions for his state party and increasing Democratic turnout in his district, entered the race immediately after Democrats suffered devastating losses in the November election – which put Republican Donald Trump in the White House.

At first Ellison seemed to be a shoo-in for the chairmanship. 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 former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama – entered the race in mid-December. Perez 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 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.

But among their supporters, the race seemed to be an echo of the 2016 primary battle between Sanders and Clinton. Sanders supporters portrayed Perez as a status-quo leader who would turn off grassroots activists. Longtime Clinton backers quietly argued that Ellison - who had once praised Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan - stood way too far to the left.

As Democrats gathered in Atlanta this week to vote on the new party chair, it quickly became clear that Perez and Ellison were in an exceptionally close race.

They proved so much in the first round of balloting Saturday, as Perez fell short of election by just one vote. That tally showed Perez only 13½ votes ahead of Ellison (DNC delegates based overseas get only half a vote).

Ellison would have been able to nearly close that margin if he could win the 13 first-round votes that went to long-shot candidates. Knowing that, Perez returned to the floor of the convention hall, where he relentlessly jawboned DNC members to ask for their votes in the second round.

Apparently he changed some minds, because when Brazile announced the vote total for the second round, it was 235 to 200 – meaning that Perez had won, and that Ellison hadn't managed to garner one additional vote.

The vote prompted elation among Perez's supporters, which included Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, and angst among supporters of Ellison and Sanders.

Those feelings carried all the way back to Buffalo. There, Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner – a Perez supporter – praised the new DNC chair, saying his tenure as assistant attorney general for civil rights and labor secretary proved him to be a champion of the people.

"He understands the importance of hard work and that if a community is going to succeed, we must all rise together," Zellner said.

Meantime, though, Brian Nowak – who led the Sanders grassroots effort in Buffalo – took to Facebook to share a picture of a man shooting himself in the foot. Nowak described the picture as showing the DNC on the second ballot.

"The Democratic party has GOT to show the anti-establishment wing that they will be allowed in before the old guard literally dies on the job," Nowak commented later.

None of those tensions arose, though, when Perez and Ellison together met the press late Saturday afternoon.

"We've got a lot of work to do, and we're going to do it together," Perez said.

Ellison agreed, saying he planned to stay in the House and serve as a liaison between the DNC and other Democratic institutions.

"For everyone who supported me in this race, I want to say thank you – but I want you to support Tom Perez," Ellison said. "I want you to put your energy and time and resources behind making this the best DNC it can possibly be."

Calling Perez "my friend," former President Barack Obama tried to heal the party's divisions, too, saying in a statement: "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."

Sanders also congratulated Perez, but also offered him some stern advice.

"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.

Speaking with reporters, Perez vowed to do just that. While past party chairs have largely served as fundraisers, Perez outlined a much broader vision of his new role.

"Fundraising is one component, but we've got to lead the fight not only against Donald Trump, but also the fight to make sure that people understand our affirmative vision of inclusion and opportunity," he said.

Vowing to work to elect Democrats up and down the ballot and all across the country and to reach out to the grassroots, Perez made clear that Trump would be enemy No. 1.

The first Latino elected as Democratic Party chairman, Perez spoke to the press in both Spanish and English. And speaking to the full DNC, Perez called Trump – who has criticized the "bad hombres" among undocumented immigrants and started deporting more of them – "the worst president in the history of the United States."

Saying that history will judge how Americans respond to Trump, Perez added: "Whether you're sitting here, sitting outside, or looking on across America, we will all be able to say the united Democratic Party led the resistance."

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