ATLANTA â Newly elected Democratic national chairman Tom Perez pledged on Sunday to unite a fractured party, rebuild at all levels from âschool board to the Senateâ 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 Perezâs invitation to serve as the Democratic National Committeeâs deputy chairman. Perez said the two would work hard to put out an affirmative party message while opposing President Donald Trumpâs policies, adding that he and Ellison were already getting a âgood kickâ that Trump was stirred to tweet that the DNC election was ârigged.â
âWe lead with our values and we lead with our actions,â Perez said, describing a party focus that will emphasize protecting Social Security, Medicare and âgrowing good jobs in this economy.â
âYou know, our unity as a party is our greatest strength. And itâs his worst nightmare,â he said. âAnd, frankly, what we need to be looking at is whether this election was rigged by Donald Trump and his buddy Vladimir Putin.â
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 âDemocrats havenât been there for us recently.â
âThatâs exactly what weâre going to do,â Perez said, stressing grass-roots efforts in all 50 states. He pointed to Democratsâ 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 Democratsâ 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.
âA lot of people feel forgotten, and we will not allow that to happen,â he said.
On Saturday, the DNC elected Perez as its chair in a competitive race that took two rounds of voting â 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 partyâs 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 âriggedâ by party establishment.
Piercing cheers after Perezâs election were boos, yells and expletives from more than a few young Ellison supporters in the gallery, some of them in tears. Reaction wasnât enthusiastic among the liberal groups that had embraced Sanders and have intensified their efforts since Trumpâs stunning victory over Clinton in the November election.
âWe donât have the luxury of walking out of this room divided,â 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 Ellisonâs strong bid to be DNC chair, taking on âDemocratic insiders.â Describing the party as broken and urging a âtotal transformation,â the Vermont senator said Perez now âhas a real opportunity on his hands. And I hope he seizes it.â
Sanders said the party has to open up to working people and youth, and âmake it crystal clear that the Democratic Party is going to take on Wall Street, itâs going to take on the greed of the pharmaceutical industry, itâs going to take on corporate America that is shutting down plants in this country and moving our jobs abroad.â
Perez, the first Latino to be DNC chair, indicated Sunday that Democrats would continue to speak out forcefully against Trumpâs policies, even if it meant at times coming across as a âparty of no.â He referred to what he described as harmful policies, such as a âracistâ 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.
âWeâve seen no evidence of anything constructive from this president,â Perez said. âHeâs governed from the far right in everything heâs done.â
Besides Trump in the Oval Office, Republicans now control Congress and about two-thirds of statehouses, and theyâre one Senate confirmation vote away from a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.
After Perezâs victory, Trump took to his preferred medium to rub it in. âCongratulations to Thomas Perez, who has just been named chairman of the DNC. I could not be happier for him, or for the Republican Party!â the president wrote on Twitter. Early Sunday, the president asserted that the Democratic contest was âof course, totally ârigged.â Bernieâs guy, like Bernie himself, never had a chance. Clinton demanded Perez!â
Progressive Democrats reacted to Perezâs election with dismay. Jim Dean, chair of Democracy for America, called Perezâs election âincredibly disappointingâ and said the âresistance will persist … with or without the leadership of the Democratic National Committee.â Dan Kantor, leader of the Working Families Party, said Democrats âmissed an opportunity.â
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 chairmanâs race he carried the establishment label as a Maryland resident whoâs spent years in the Washington orbit, working in the Justice Department and ultimately as an Obama Cabinet secretary.
Perez and Sanders spoke on CNNâs âState of the Union;â Perez also appeared on NBCâs âMeet the Pressâ and ABCâs âThis Week.â
Yen reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Michele Salcedo contributed to this report.
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