WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama weighed in on the race to head the Democratic National Committee on Friday, praising Labor Secretary Tom Perez as "tireless, wicked smart" and "extraordinary."
Though he withheld a formal endorsement, Obama made his views fairly clear on which candidate he prefers to take over the helm of the Democratic Party's last bastion of power in Washington. Perez jumped into the contest this week, after weeks of urging by White House aides, who wanted a challenger to early front-runner Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison.
"Tom Perez has been, I believe, one of the best secretaries of labor in our history," Obama said, lavishing praise on his Cabinet official at his annual year-end news conference. Obama added, "Others who declared are also my friends and are fine people as well."
The race to run the DNC has become a battle for the future of the party, as Democrats agonize over a devastating electoral failure that few strategists and elected officials saw coming.
Though Perez has never served in elected office beyond a Maryland county council, the Dominican-American lawyer was a strong backer of Hillary Clinton and has worked closely with Obama. Ellison has attracted support from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whom he backed in the Democratic primary contest, as well as incoming Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York and a list of labor unions.
But he's also attracted controversy. Past remarks about Israel and his defense of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan have drawn rebukes from some Jewish groups and donors.
So far, the contest has remained relatively polite.
"Keith agrees that Tom Perez is a great public servant and that the next DNC chair must be able to organize through the grassroots," Ellison spokesman Brent Morrow said in response to the president's remarks.
South Carolina's party chairman, Jaime Harrison, and the party head in New Hampshire, Ray Buckley, have announced bids, though they haven't gotten much traction.
All the candidates are expected to formally woo nearly 450 voting Democratic National Committee members at four regional forums before the official election at the end of February.