ATLANTA — Newly elected Democratic national chairman Tom Perez pledged on Sunday to unite a fractured party, rebuild at all levels from “school board to the Senate” and reach out to chunks of rural America left feeling forgotten in the 2016 election.
Speaking in television interviews, Perez indicated that an important first step was joining with vanquished rival Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, who agreed at Perez’s invitation to serve as the Democratic National Committee’s deputy chairman. Perez said the two would work hard to put out an affirmative party message while opposing President Donald Trump’s policies, adding that he and Ellison were already getting a “good kick” that Trump was stirred to tweet that the DNC election was “rigged.”
“We lead with our values and we lead with our actions,” Perez said, describing a party focus that will emphasize protecting Social Security, Medicare and “growing good jobs in this economy.”
“You know, our unity as a party is our greatest strength. And it’s his worst nightmare,” he said. “And, frankly, what we need to be looking at is whether this election was rigged by Donald Trump and his buddy Vladimir Putin.”
The former labor secretary in the Obama administration acknowledged that swaths of the U.S. had felt neglected, saying he had heard from rural America that “Democrats haven’t been there for us recently.”
“That’s exactly what we’re going to do,” Perez said, stressing grass-roots efforts in all 50 states. He pointed to Democrats’ success Saturday in one of their strongholds, Delaware, where they found themselves in an unexpectedly competitive race. Stephanie Hansen won a special election for a state Senate seat after vigorous party campaigning that helped preserve Democrats’ control of the chamber.
As DNC chair, Perez must now rebuild a party that in the last decade has lost about 1,000 elected posts from the White House to Congress to the 50 statehouses, a power deficit Democrats have not seen nationally in 90 years.
“A lot of people feel forgotten, and we will not allow that to happen,” he said.
On Saturday, the DNC elected Perez as its chair in a competitive race that took two rounds of voting — unprecedented in recent memory for either major party. They picked Perez, who was backed by former President Barack Obama, over Ellison, backed by liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Sanders had pushed the party’s eventual nominee, Hillary Clinton, into a protracted 2016 Democratic primary fight, gaining strong support from young voters in particular as he described a primary process as “rigged” by party establishment.
Piercing cheers after Perez’s election were boos, yells and expletives from more than a few young Ellison supporters in the gallery, some of them in tears. Reaction wasn’t enthusiastic among the liberal groups that had embraced Sanders and have intensified their efforts since Trump’s stunning victory over Clinton in the November election.
“We don’t have the luxury of walking out of this room divided,” Ellison said Saturday over the jeers. Afterward, he told reporters he trusts Perez and that the burgeoning resistance movement aimed at Trump should do the same.
On Sunday, Sanders praised Ellison’s strong bid to be DNC chair, taking on “Democratic insiders.” Describing the party as broken and urging a “total transformation,” the Vermont senator said Perez now “has a real opportunity on his hands. And I hope he seizes it.”
Sanders said the party has to open up to working people and youth, and “make it crystal clear that the Democratic Party is going to take on Wall Street, it’s going to take on the greed of the pharmaceutical industry, it’s going to take on corporate America that is shutting down plants in this country and moving our jobs abroad.”
Perez, the first Latino to be DNC chair, indicated Sunday that Democrats would continue to speak out forcefully against Trump’s policies, even if it meant at times coming across as a “party of no.” He referred to what he described as harmful policies, such as a “racist” travel ban affecting seven predominantly Muslim countries and administration efforts that he said would restrict overtime pay and make it harder to save for retirement.
“We’ve seen no evidence of anything constructive from this president,” Perez said. “He’s governed from the far right in everything he’s done.”
Besides Trump in the Oval Office, Republicans now control Congress and about two-thirds of statehouses, and they’re one Senate confirmation vote away from a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.
After Perez’s victory, Trump took to his preferred medium to rub it in. “Congratulations to Thomas Perez, who has just been named chairman of the DNC. I could not be happier for him, or for the Republican Party!” the president wrote on Twitter. Early Sunday, the president asserted that the Democratic contest was “of course, totally ‘rigged.’ Bernie’s guy, like Bernie himself, never had a chance. Clinton demanded Perez!”
Progressive Democrats reacted to Perez’s election with dismay. Jim Dean, chair of Democracy for America, called Perez’s election “incredibly disappointing” and said the “resistance will persist … with or without the leadership of the Democratic National Committee.” Dan Kantor, leader of the Working Families Party, said Democrats “missed an opportunity.”
The son of Dominican immigrants, Perez actually comes to the job with a demonstrably liberal record as a civil rights attorney and backer of organized labor. In the chairman’s race he carried the establishment label as a Maryland resident who’s spent years in the Washington orbit, working in the Justice Department and ultimately as an Obama Cabinet secretary.
Perez and Sanders spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union;” Perez also appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and ABC’s “This Week.”
Yen reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Michele Salcedo contributed to this report.