Sun Feb 26, 2017 12:3AM
File photos of former US Labor Secretary Thomas Perez (L) and Minnesota Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison (Photo by AFP)
File photos of former US Labor Secretary Thomas Perez (L) and Minnesota Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison (Photo by AFP)

Former US Labor Secretary Tom Perez has narrowly defeated Democratic Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota to become the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee, delivering a blow to the progressive wing of the party led by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

Perez secured 235 votes on the second ballot on Saturday after failing to clear the 218-vote threshold to reach a majority in the first ballot, in which he only received 213 votes.

While Perez was backed by former Vice President Joseph Biden and other key figures of the Obama administration that backed Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential bid, Ellison – the first-ever Muslim elected to the US Congress – enjoyed the support of Sanders and many of his allies.

Perez was also supported by pro-Israel elements in the Democratic Party, led by Harvard University law professor and jurist Alan Morton Dershowitz, who published an article accusing Ellison of being “anti-Semite” and not loyal enough to the Israeli regime, threatening to leave the party if the African American Muslim legislator wins the chairmanship.

Dershowitz further slammed Ellison for being one of the few congress members who voted against US funding of Israel’s anti-air Iron Dome missile system.

The campaign for the next Democratic Party leader also reflected the split along establishment-grassroots lines and in many ways demonstrated the divisive 2016 presidential primary between Sanders and Clinton.

US Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) speaks during a news conference in front of the Capitol on February 1, 2017 in Washington, DC against President Donald Trump's executive order banning entry of citizens from seven Muslim nations. (Photo by AFP)

However, as Democrats tried to brush aside the intra-party divisions lingering since the contentious presidential primary, the race to win the next DNC chairmanship was described in local press reports as “a proxy battle between the [party’s] rival factions.”

Perez’s win, according to local observers, marks a victory for centrist Democrats, many of whom were wary of handing the party over to the Sanders's wing. His election, however, risks infuriating the party’s progressives, many of whom wanted to see Ellison -- an early supporter of Sanders -- rise to the top party post.

Meanwhile bitter feelings continue to persist among Sanders's supporters, who feel the DNC — then led by Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz — rigged the primary against Sanders and in favor of Clinton.

Wasserman Schultz resigned at the Democratic National Convention after hacked emails posted by WikiLeaks indicated that DNC staffers were working to undermine Sanders.

Prior to serving as President Obama's Labor secretary, 55-year-old Perez was a civil rights attorney in the Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder, who endorsed him in the chairmanship race.

The son of Dominican immigrants, Perez becomes the party’s public face and chief spokesperson in charge of staking out Democratic opposition to President Trump, despite his lack of electoral experience. In a symbolic move, Perez’s first act as chairman was to select Ellison as the deputy chairman of the party.

As chairman of the DNC, he inherits a massive rebuilding project across the US after years of Democratic losses at every level of government. Moreover, Perez takes control of a party out of power at the White House, in both chambers of Congress, and in a majority of state legislatures and governor’s mansions across the US.

According to local media reports, there are 33 Republican governors, compared to only 21 for Democrats. Since Obama was sworn into office in 2009, Republicans have gained more than 1,000 state legislative seats across the country.