Perez beats Ellison in race to run Democratic Party

Thomas Perez and Keith Ellison
These two file photos show then Labor Secretary Thomas Perez (L) and Minnesota Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison (R).
Mandel Ngan | Getty Images

Updated 3:15 p.m. | Published 2:25 p.m.

Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison fell short Saturday in his campaign to run the Democratic National Committee, losing to former Labor Secretary Tom Perez.

Following the vote, Ellison called on his supporters to unite behind their new leader.

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"We don't have the luxury folks to walk out of this room divided. We don't have that luxury," said Ellison. "And I just want to say to you, that it is my honor to serve this party under the chairmanship of Tom Perez."

Perez made a conciliatory move by appointing Ellison the party's deputy chairman.

Ellison had offered to leave Congress if he won the top post, but said he won't give up his Minneapolis-area seat to be second-in-command.

Perez crossed the 50 percent barrier to reach 235 votes in the second round of voting. Ellison finished with 200 votes.

The race was almost over after the first ballot, when Perez came within one vote of a win. Lesser-known candidates dropped, which put just more than dozen votes back in play - about the margin between the top two candidates.

The voting pool in the race was small, with fewer than 450 state party officials and representative of allied organizations. That didn't prevent the candidates from blitzing the country, plastering the convention hall in signs, holding open-bar receptions and passing out plenty of free gear with their names in big letters.

It was seen as the most contested election for party leader in a quarter century. The election comes months after Democrats experienced big setbacks -- losing the White House race to Republican Donald Trump and failing to pierce the Republican dominance in Congress.

For months, the race had been regarded as a rerun of the rocky Democratic primary for president in 2016 - with Ellison locking down much of the Bernie Sanders wing of the party and Perez spurred on by loyalists to Hillary Clinton. There wasn't exact overlap, however.

Still, the next chairman is sure to have a pivotal role in remaking the party ahead of the 2018 midterm elections and a 2020 presidential contest. Democrats hope to feed off large protests and displays of resistance in the opening month of the Trump presidency.

"Right now we have to face the facts that we are suffering from a crisis of confidence, a crisis of relevance," Perez said to DNC members as he asked for their support.

In his time at the microphone, Ellison said the party needs a major shift after a decade of largely losing ground in Washington and the states.

"We've got to win elections," Ellison said. "We're in this mess not because we lost one election but a thousand elections." He said that means ramping up neighborhood organizing, which his supporters had argued is his strong suit.

Ellison had pledged to put his congressional seat on the line, saying he would resign from the U.S. House if elected as chairman. Several DFLers in the Minnesota Legislature were eyeing up a run in the event of a vacancy.

In an interview with MPR News on Friday, Ellison said he would return to Congress with "renewed vigor" if denied the chance to lead his national party.

"I will intensify our door-knocking and our engagement. I'll try to help people all over this country get elected even from my seat in Congress," he said.