U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez chats with trainees at the Siemens training facility on October 28, 2014, in Berlin.

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Perez is the first serious challenger to square off with Rep. Keith Ellison

People close to Perez say he wants to help rebuild the shell-shocked party

Washington CNN  — 

Labor Secretary Tom Perez, a Democrat with close ties to the Obama administration’s political infrastructure, announced a bid for chairman of the Democratic National Committee on Thursday, telling party leaders on a call that he was ready to reshape the “Washington-centric” organization.

Perez cast himself as someone ready and willing to listen to the concerns people have with the beleaguered DNC, an organization at a low point after Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump last month. Perez, a native of Buffalo, New York, acknowledged the loss to Trump had not been easy for Democrats but in a letter posted to his new website, he wrote, “now isn’t the time to despair – it’s time to organize and fight.”

“I am in this race because I really believe this is one of those ‘where were you’ moments in our nation’s journey to form a more perfect union,” Perez said. “I am running for chair because I think the Democratic Party is absolutely indispensable to making sure our nation’s promise of opportunity and inclusion for everyone is a reality for everyone.”

Perez said the DNC has failed to be a “year-round operation” and no longer listens to state-based organizers. He said his DNC would be “very much grassroots” and “bottom up,” labeling the recent DNC as too “Washington centric.”

“We got our ass kicked in a lot of these rural pockets because we weren’t there in sufficient force,” Perez said of the 2016 race. “We’ve got to make sure we don’t ignore rural America, because we do it at our peril.”

In addition to the call, Perez launched new Twitter and Facebook accounts and a website – TomPerez.org – where he posted an open letter about his candidacy.

The labor secretary enters the race after a number of top Democrats and Democratic organizations have backed Keith Ellison, the Minnesota congressman who has announced he would leave his seat if he wins the DNC chair race. Ellison has been endorsed by key labor organizations, including the AFL-CIO, and top Democrats such as incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, an icon of the left.

Ellison welcomed Perez to the race with a statement, but flexed his labor muscles in the same releases with a comment from Lee Saunders, president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

“We need a DNC chair who will not only unite the Democratic Party, but also energize the grassroots. Keith is that person,” Saunders said.

Perez, an outspoken surrogate for Clinton who has worked for the Obama administration for more than seven years and was on Clinton’s vice presidential short list, is the first serious challenger to square off with Ellison.

People close to Perez say he wants to help rebuild the shell-shocked party after last month’s surprise loss to Donald Trump and thinks the best way for him to be helpful is at the helm of the DNC.

One key reason Perez has decided to run: The labor secretary appears to have the backing of the Obama White House.

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have not endorsed anyone in the DNC race, and Josh Earnest said Wednesday that he does not expect them to do so.

“It’s certainly true that President Obama thinks very highly of the Secretary Perez,” Earnest said. “He is somebody who has served at the Department of Labor for three or four years now, and he has been instrumental in advancing some executive actions of President Obama has prioritized.”

He then added, “But as I’ve said before, I don’t anticipate a situation in which the President forcefully endorses a candidate in the DNC chair’s race.”

Perez has also been quietly pushed to run for the job for weeks by a number of Democrats, some of whom are concerned about Ellison’s criticism of Israel and more liberal leanings.

Bernie Sanders, a leader among liberals after his primary challenge to Clinton, has backed Ellison and the DNC race sets up another fight between the Sanders and Obama/Clinton wings of the party, with Ellison representing the former and Perez the latter.

Perez was one of the first Obama administration cabinet secretaries to back Clinton. He also supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, a stance many progressives hold against the labor leader.

Sanders and Ellison will host a live-streamed conversation Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET and the independent senator, who used the DNC as a foil throughout his 2016 campaign, views the congressman as an important way to assert his power within the Democratic Party and reshape the top Democratic organization.

Two state party chairs – Jamie Harrison of South Carolina and Ray Buckley of New Hampshire – are also both running for the chairmanship.

Perez said Thursday that he has “tremendous respect” for the other candidates, but argued that he is “someone who can speak to every stakeholder with credibility” and lead a complex organization.

“I think I can make a difference because I am a proud progressive and I have been getting stuff done throughout my career,” he said.

The more than 400 voting DNC members will select the new chair in February at the DNC’s winter meeting.