The former labor secretary Tom Perez was elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) on Saturday, after a fiercely fought campaign. He will now lead a party still divided after the surprising election of Donald Trump but energized by the liberal backlash to his presidency.
When the result of the second ballot was announced, chanting erupted from the back of the hotel ballroom where Ellison’s supporters sat, wearing green shirts and carrying signs that read “unite”. “Not big money, party for the people,” they chanted, drowning out the remarks of the interim chairwoman, Donna Brazile.
Perez’s supporters, wearing blue, celebrated with a heavy sign of relief after a dramatic round of balloting. Perez won in the second vote, after missing out by just one vote in the first round of voting.
The threshold for victory in the second round was 218 votes, out of 435 voters. Perez gained 235 to 200 for Ellison. After announcing the result, Brazile presented the gavel to Perez. He presented a motion to name Ellison as deputy chair, which passed unopposed.
Both men used their remarks after the vote to appeal for party unity, the race for DNC chair having become a symbol of divisions that opened during the 2016 presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
Perez, who served in the Obama administration and was considered as running mate for Clinton, was viewed with suspicion by progressives who believe he represents the so-called establishment. Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress, is a longtime activist for grassroots causes.
Ellison said: “If we waste even a moment going at it over who supported who”, Democrats would be letting down the American people in their need to “confront Trump and beyond that”.
“We’ve got earnest, sincere work to do under Chairman Perez,” he said, adding: “We don’t have the luxury of walking out of here divided.”
Perez made similar appeals. “I really want to apologise to the media because we did talk about issues,” he said, like Ellison heralding a campaign they said was free of partisan rancor. “We didn’t do any of the other stuff, and that’s what the Democratic party is about.”
In a joint press conference afterward, Perez and Ellison, wearing each other’s campaign buttons, again insisted that the party was not divided.
To his supporters, Ellison said: “If you care about people who have their loved ones’ cemeteries being desecrated like the Jewish community is facing right now, if you care about people who have walls being built against them, being banned for their religion, and having their healthcare taken away from them, if you care about those people, then you got to stay in here and back Tom Perez for chair.”
One progressive group called the result a “missed opportunity” to fuse opposition to Trump with the Democratic party.
“This incredibly disappointing result is another missed opportunity for a Democratic party desperately trying to regain relevance” said Jim Dean, chair of Democracy for America, which endorsed Ellison. “[It] proves, once again, how out of touch party insiders are with the grassroots movement currently in the streets, on the phone, and at town halls nationwide.
“The resistance will persist in showing progressive leaders how to unrelentingly take on Trump, with or without the leadership of the Democratic National Committee.”
Trump was among those who offered congratulatory messages to Perez, in his case with a barb:
After the vote, Perez said Democrats were “suffering from a crisis of confidence, a crisis of relevance”, but promised to take the fight to Trump and to support Democrats against Republicans in elections nationwide. On Twitter, he responded to Trump in kind:
When voting began, members voted by paper ballot and had two minutes to make their choice among the six candidates then still in the running. The first count was excruciatingly close. Perez finished with 213.5 votes, having needed 214.5 to win. Ellison won 200, taking the contest into a second round.
All of the candidates withdrew except for Ellison and Perez. Jehmu Greene, a former Fox News political consultant who earned half a vote, endorsed Perez. Peter Peckarsky, a Wisconsin attorney who earned no votes, endorsed Ellison.
In the frantic moments between the results and the distribution of the second ballots, the campaigns and their supporters spread across the convention center ballroom in a last-ditch attempt to sway members to their side. Perez waded into the crowd, smiling and shaking hands as he secured commitments.