Still reeling from a disastrous election in which Republican Donald Trump captured the presidency after a divisive campaign that vilified many immigrants, Democrats will decide next month whether to rebuild behind a member of the Obama administration whose parents came from the Dominican Republic.
Outgoing Labor Secretary Tom Perez’s candidacy for chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee has generated some interest and enthusiasm among Latinos in Connecticut and elsewhere. “I am not sure where other Latinos are with the DNC race, but I know some have expressed that his entrance to the race is ‘exciting,'” said Joseph Rodriguez, the former chairman and active member of the Connecticut Hispanic Democratic Caucus.
“From his record at the Department of Labor to his former roles, he has always been a fighter and quite honestly very progressive too,” Rodriguez said. “Personally, I like Secretary Perez. I had the honor of meeting him several times and he always struck me as very knowledgeable, well spoken and more importantly straight-forward,” the New Haven political leader observed.
Perez was born in Buffalo, N.Y., the son of first-generation Dominican immigrants. His mother Gracia came to the U.S. when her father was appointed as the Dominican Republic’s ambassador and remained in this country after he was declared persona non grata by Dominican President Rafael Trujillo for speaking out against the dictator’s regime. His father Raphael was a doctor who died when Tom Perez was 12.
Currently, Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison from Minnesota is the front-runner to succeed Deborah Wasserman Schultz, who had held the post since 2011 until she was forced to resign and was replaced by an interim chairperson, Donna Brazile, after leaked emails indicated the Floridian had tainted the nomination process in favor of Hillary Clinton and against Senator Bernie Sanders.
Rodriguez views both Ellison and Perez as “great alternatives to the past chair, Ms. Wasserman-Schultz,” but added, “I would like to see Perez take the seat.”
Pablo Manriquez, a former DNC official (2015-16), said, “If he (Perez) wants the job, it’s his for the taking, but it will be a dogfight given the party’s state of post-election ruin.”
While Ellison has gathered nearly a quarter of the votes, he would need to become chairman, the situation remains fluid. Several other party figures have entered the competition and others may emerge before the the 447 member-committee meets Feb. 26.
State party chairmen and vice chairmen comprise a quarter of the DNC votes and a few have already endorsed candidates, but this is not the case in Connecticut. “We are still looking at all the candidates and have not made any decisions as of yet,” state Chairman Nick Balleto said recently.
In addition to Perez and Ellison, the announced candidates for DNC chairman include state party chairmen Raymond Buckley of New Hampshire and Jaime Harrison of South Carolina, as well as Sally Boynton Brown, executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party. Other possible candidates include Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona and former California Assembly Speaker John Pérez.
Perez supporters acknowledge that the former U.S. assistant attorney general for civil rights faces an tough battle since Ellison got an earlier start in the race and has racked up an array of endorsements from key Democrats, including progressive stalwarts Sanders and Mass. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Ellison has been notably successful in garnering support from his congressional colleagues. Perez has been building support among Democratic governors with that total reaching five Jan. 5 with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announcing his endorsement.
U.S. Senator Christopher Murphy of Connecticut has endorsed Ellington for DNC chairman. “I think he’s best for the job, I know that Tom would also be an excellent leader for Democrats as we fight tooth-and-nail against Trump’s harmful agenda.” He added, “Democrats must continue to fight against special interests and put American workers first.”
However, Murphy also offered praise for Perez who he described as “a longtime fighter for hard-working Americans just trying to get ahead.”
Perez’s campaign website, www.tomperez.org, says he put himself through college “on the back of a garbage truck.” He earned a bachelor’s degree from Brown University, a master’s of public policy from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and a law degree from Harvard Law School.
His only experience in running for office came in 2002 when he was the first Latino elected to the Montgomery County Council in Maryland, where he now lives in with his wife, Ann Marie Staudenmaier, who is an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, and their three children. Also in 2002, Perez became board president at CASA de Maryland, an organization that provides services to immigrants.
Perez has served as secretary of Maryland’s Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. He also served as deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights under Attorney General Janet Reno and led the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services at the end of the Clinton administration.
Perez was appointed U.S. assistant attorney general for civil rights when Obama took office and became secretary of labor in 2013.
The contest between Perez and Ellison is developing into what some political observers see as a surrogate fight between President Barack Obama and Sanders. Ellison backed Sanders for the party’s presidential nomination while Perez favored Clinton.
According to Washington Post political columnist David Weigel, the labor secretary may need to overcome the perception that he is the establishment candidate. However, Weigel also noted that Perez has distanced himself from the Obama administration by not defending the Trans-Pacific Partnership and that in a Jan. 2 tweet “already being mocked in pro-Ellison circles, Perez brands himself as a Mother Jones-approved “progressive who gets things done.”
A Hispanic media specialist, Manriquez, does not rule out that the party could choose someone other than the current candidates. “I’d like to see someone completely new, perhaps from Silicon Valley, who can not only fund-raise, but innovate,” Manriquez said.
Rodriguez also is not committed to any particular scenario. “Let’s see what happens,” he said.