Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez has said repeatedly that the national party shouldn’t, and won’t, endorse in primaries. But on Thursday, he stood on a Long Island stage and endorsed Andrew Cuomo, the New York governor who is facing a challenge from actress Cynthia Nixon.

The decision to pick favorites in a primary pits the DNC chair against the DNC deputy chair, Keith Ellison. And it has re-opened an ongoing internal fight within the party, while giving critics ammunition to question Perez’s leadership.

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The New York race isn’t just any two Democrats fighting for the nomination: Nixon is making her race explicitly about a challenge from the left and the new progressive energy of the party that she says Cuomo is out of sync with. And she’s doing it with the support of many progressives in the state who identified with Bernie Sanders’ campaign.

It also comes as the DNC is trying to put the 2016 battles in the past, despite lingering suspicions among many Sanders supporters about Perez. He was elected chair last year over Ellison, who was backed by Sanders.

“I’ve not only admired Andrew Cuomo, I have admired the Cuomo family since my youth. I’ve admired what they stood for and what they fought for since I was a kid,” Perez said, in an appearance onstage at the New York state Democratic Convention Thursday morning at Hofstra University. “We often have debates about what wing of the Democratic Party we belong to.”

Perez rattled off Cuomo’s record of progressive accomplishments, from passing a $15 minimum wage to legalizing gay marriage and paid family leave.

Perez called Cuomo and his lieutenant governor running mate Kathy Hochul “charter members of the accomplishment wing of the Democratic Party” — seeming to echo a knock that Cuomo himself has made against Nixon and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio — and “that’s why I’m proud to endorse them.”

Ellison was not on board with the decision. He was not told in advance about Perez’s decision to endorse Cuomo, a person familiar with the matter said.

Asked about Perez backing Cuomo, Ellison said in a statement, “The Democratic Party should not intervene in the primary process. It is our role to be fair to all contestants and let the voters decide.”

In March, when asked on C-SPAN about backing candidates in House primaries, Perez said the DNC should not endorse, as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had started doing.

“One thing we’ve learned at the DNC is that when you, in fact or in perception, are trying to put the thumb on the scale in a spirited primary, that can undermine public confidence in us,” Perez said.

Perez was answering a question about why the DNC did not take a position in the Democratic primary challenge from the left to another incumbent, Illinois Rep. Dan Lipinski.

On Wednesday night, in an interview with the show “Democracy Now,“ Ellison made a sharp distinction about how the DNC and DCCC approach primaries.

Perez isn’t the only DNC officer to endorse Cuomo. Rep. Grace Meng and Assemblyman Mike Blake, both DNC vice chairs and New York elected officials, have endorsed him as well.

“It’s understandable that you have some that will feel this will make it harder for unity. However, unity and uniformity are not the same. We assess things on a case by case basis,” Blake said, pointing out that Cuomo received 95 percent of the support of the Democrats at the state convention, is a sitting incumbent and has known Perez for years.

Blake said the combination of those factors means “there’s a dramatic difference” between the New York race and the Georgia governor’s primary this past Tuesday, in which Perez argued that the DNC had to remain neutral and not back Stacey Abrams, who received support from across the country on her way to winning the nomination and potentially becoming the first black female governor in American history.

“We have to treat things relatively, not an exact science all the time,” Blake said.

Meng said that she was following what she saw as an exception for endorsing home state candidates.

L. Joy Williams, a Nixon senior adviser, tweeted her frustrations about the different approach in New York and Georgia.

“This is particularly interesting considering when we asked for help for #StaceyAbrams we were given the ‘we can’t get involved in primaries’ line. I wonder what the bar is and who decides who meets it?” she wrote.

Last year, shortly after they were elected as officers, DNC officials signed an agreement to “not attend events or contribute to non-incumbent candidates that have primary challengers (presence could potentially be interpreted as support). However, all officers should feel free to publicly endorse and support incumbent Democratic elected officials.”

A DNC official cited Perez’s history with Cuomo and Hochul.

“Tom has a decades-long relationship with both Gov. Cuomo and Lt. Gov. Hochul. From knocking on doors for the governor’s dad in Buffalo to their work together on fair housing in the Clinton administration to their collaborative work during Tom’s tenure as labor secretary, the two have many shared accomplishments and developed a strong personal bond,” said the DNC official.

The DNC official added that the endorsement wouldn’t come with any spending for Cuomo. “We won’t be using DNC resources to support his bid over anyone else. And we certainly won’t be attacking any fellow Democrats running.”

Liberal activists did not appreciate the move.

“The entire reason we hold primaries is because voters should decide who’s on the ballot, and not party bosses,” said Karthik Ganapathy, a spokesman for MoveOn — a progressive group that has not endorsed in the race. “It’s wrong for those in charge of official party infrastructure to put their thumb on the scales and try to influence the outcome of elections before the primary voters who form the party’s grass-roots base have had a chance to cast their ballots.”

As some Nixon supporters called the endorsement evidence of a rigged process — there were also complaints about Hillary Clinton, who was twice elected senator from the state before running for president, coming to speak on Cuomo’s behalf Wednesday — the challenger’s campaign didn’t comment on Perez. Instead, it directed fire at the governor.

“Cuomo can cloak himself in all the endorsements he wants,” said Nixon spokeswoman Lauren Hitt, “but it won’t hide the fact that he’s effectively governed as a Republican for eight years.”

Jimmy Vielkind contributed to this report.



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