By Ron Kampeas/(JTA) – Tom Perez, the former Labor Department secretary, was elected Democratic National Committee chairman and immediately named his rival, Keith Ellison, as his deputy. Perez was elected Saturday on the second ballot, winning 235 votes out of 435 cast at a gathering in Atlanta of the electors. Perez had the backing of mainstream Jewish Democrats who had backed Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy, while Rep. Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim elected to Congress, drew support from progressive Jewish activists more identified with the insurgent primaries campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
The race was sucked into two controversies: One was Israel and Jewish-related, with Ellison still living down his association decades ago with the antisemitic Nation of Islam – for which he has apologized – and more recently, his tough criticism of some Israeli government policies. Perez spoke in December on a phone call organized by Jewish backers of Clinton, who feared Ellison’s baggage would erode Jewish support for the party that has traditionally drawn at least two-thirds of the Jewish vote. On the call, Perez noted his past work as a Justice Department official with the Anti-Defamation League combating hate crimes and spoke of a recent visit to Israel. Haim Saban, the Israeli-American entertainment mogul who is a mega-donor to the party, had called Ellison an antisemite, drawing outraged responses from Ellison’s Jewish backers. The other controversy was the identification of Perez with the party establishment, seen as having failed catastrophically in the elections, and of Ellison with Sanders and the more youthful insurgents who had backed him.
Jewish groups congratulated Perez on his win. “The son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, he embodies the diversity of America and strongly supports government action against hate crimes,” the American Jewish Committee said in a statement. “Mr. Perez is also a longtime friend of the State of Israel, has visited the country, and has spoken out forcefully against the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement that seeks to delegitimize the Jewish state.” Also praising Perez was Bend the Arc, a progressive group that had vigorously defended Ellison against charges he was antisemitic, and Jews for Progress, a political action committee. All of the candidates in forums repudiated claims that Ellison was an antisemite. Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic consultant in Washington, D.C. who helped Perez in his outreach to Jewish Democrats, said in an email that he was pleased Israel “was not an issue” in the campaign, and said that there’s an “important place for Keith Ellison in our party’s leadership.”