When Rep. Joe McNamara, chairman of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, was on his way to vote for the next chair of the Democratic National Committee in Atlanta on Saturday morning, he didn’t know who would emerge victorious – Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, his preferred candidate, or former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, the eventual winner.
“I knew it was going to be close,” McNamara said. He was right.
Perez won of the first ballot by a razor thin margin, winning 213.5 votes to Ellison’s 200. But with 427 voters, Perez had not met the threshold of securing more than 50 percent of the vote. Indeed, he had exactly 50 percent. Sally Boynton Brown, of Idaho, had won 12 votes, Pete Buttigieg won one, two people didn’t vote and one voter abstained.
“The place was buzzing,” McNamara said, describing the auditorium across the street from the hotel where the actual voting took place. “There were large groups of Keith and Tom supporters behind us.”
By way of describing the lobbying on the floor, McNamara said people would say things to such as, “‘Joe, we see you have a Keith Ellison sticker on. If it doesn’t go for Ellison on the first ballot, would you consider supporting Tom Perez on the second ballot?'” Everyone was polite, he noted, when he informed them that he and the other Rhode Island delegates had pledged themselves to Ellison through thick and thin.
“We’re friends,” McNamara said of Ellison. “We met two years ago in Minnesota. He’s a great guy. He’s got a background in organizing and, in particular, increasing the vote.”
After a delay, the delegates were then given two minutes to fill out a second ballot – a short time frame those like McNamara and Rep. Grace Diaz, the vice chair of the state party, who were there representing Rhode Island’s four delegates. Initially, the DNC had planned to use electronic devices for each delegate to vote with but after testing the system that morning, Donna Brazile made the decision to use paper ballots instead.
This time, Perez had enough votes to claim victory. With 435 voters this time, either candidate needed 218 to win. Ellison held at 200 and Perez won 235 votes – he had picked up the 16 votes who didn’t vote for either he or Ellison last time, as well as six other new voters.
“I don’t know where they came from,” McNamara said of the additional voters. “Unless they just didn’t vote the first time, or they were late.”
While he preferred Ellison, he said a Perez victory is a win for Rhode Island.
“They are both very positive for Rhode Island,” he said. “That’s the way I look at it.”
In a prepared statement, he said, “Today’s historic election of former U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez as the new DNC Chair and his naming- and the vote by acclamation – of Congressman Keith Ellison as Deputy Chair bode extremely well for the future of the Democratic Party and the American people. Both leaders recognize the profound issues facing Americans today – the urgency of creating jobs, protecting health care and education and maintaining our nation’s democracy. Chair Perez is committed to unifying our party, with a deep commitment to a 50-state strategy for party building efforts. With Congressman Ellison, they will bring the best of their talent, passion and experience to victories up-and-down the ballot in the months and years ahead.”
While Ellison was seen as the more progressive choice – because of his history of grassroots activism and strong support for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton – Perez, Obama’s Secretary of Labor, also has a history of progressive activism, including organizing around civil rights issues. Both have solid progressive resumes but Ellison was seen as a clearer break from the status quo.
Locally, the Young Democrats of Rhode Island organized a campaign to get the Rhode Island delegation to support Ellison, which they did on both ballots, McNamara said.
He also said Ellison himself assured him months ago that Perez would be a fine choice to lead the party. “He said, ‘Tom and I are friends. If Tom wins, I am 100 percent for building this party,'” McNamara recalled.
The important thing for Rhode Island is that the DNC has a 50 state strategy and supports the state parties, he said. Perez happens to be a Brown alum who graduated with Congressman David Cicilline, and his daughter attends Brown now.
“He’ll be good for the Rhode Island Democratic Party,” McNamara said. “In my conversations with both Tom and Keith I said we need increased funding so we can mobilize. Rhode Island is a blue state but if you look at how the last presidential election played out, we have our work cut out.”