On February 25, the 447 members of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) will pick a new chairman to lead the party. Of the seven candidates battling it out for the job, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) and former Labor Secretary Tom Pérez have won over the most institutional and grassroots support, and are considered front-runners for the job.
Pérez’s resume includes running the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, leading the Labor Department, and serving on the board of the immigrant rights group CASA de Maryland. He has promised to bring to the DNC his experience fighting everything from housing discrimination to voter suppression to union busting at a time when the current GOP presidential administration may roll back its efforts on these fronts.
As Democrats struggle to understand their devastating loss in November at every level of government, the DNC election will telegraph where the party’s priorities lie in the years ahead.
Pérez spoke to ThinkProgress by phone about why Democrats lost rural American in 2016, his plans for creating a voter protection force at the DNC, and which Republican strategies Democrats should emulate going forward.
After throwing your hat into the ring for DNC chair, you set off on a listening tour aimed at understanding why Democrats lost the rural vote so badly in 2016. What are you asking people? What have you learned that you didn’t know before?
Pérez: I’ve spent the last few weeks in rural Wisconsin and Kansas. I think the DNC chairs needs to make house calls, and what we need to do as party is ask, “Why did we fare so poorly in big swaths of rural America? What is it about our message that’s not resonating?” What I learned in these trips is that rural Democrats are discouraged about the fact that the national party does not provide enough help. We’ve ignored them.
What’s unfortunate about that is that there is tremendous opportunity for Democrats in rural America. Look at Kansas. While Donald Trump won Kansas by 14 points, Democrats picked up 14 seats in state races. It’s amazing what they did with no help from the DNC. Imagine what could have happened with some meaningful assistance.
Look at what Republicans did in Florida in the aftermath of 2012. The [Republican National Committee] and the Koch Brothers went out and organized. It was a four year investment to identify 130,000 voters who were not on anyone’s radar. They had been outside the political process until then. That was the difference-maker in Florida [in 2016].
So, we need to change the culture of the Democratic Party. Our role can no longer be simply to elect the president. Our role has to be to build strong parties everywhere and enable Democrats from the school board to the Senate to prevail. We need to have a meaningful presence across America and help Democrats win, especially in places like New Jersey and Virginia where we have immediate opportunities.
Our message still resonates when we can communicate it effectively: Democrats are the party that brought you good jobs across America, that brought you Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security. The Republicans are the party that has tried to fray that safety net.
The party is now benefiting from a massive groundswell of grassroots energy. Women just led the largest demonstration in U.S. history. People are flooding the phone lines on Capitol Hill and showing up to town halls en mass. But despite all of the organizing in opposition to Trump’s cabinet nominees, every single one has been confirmed so far.
Pérez: When the Education Secretary was confirmed by the Senate last week, that was the first time in history the Vice President has had to break a tie. While we didn’t get what we wanted, we made a very clear statement with grassroots advocacy that Donald Trump doesn’t stand for us. So we need to harness that momentum going forward to make sure that in upcoming elections we hold Republicans accountable at every level of government for this hijacking of American values.
But folks are concerned that what is happening with cabinet nominees will continue to happen with legislation, that the Republican majority will continue to ram things through no matter how many people protest or make calls. What do you say to people discouraged by this?
Pérez: I grew up in the Civil Rights movement, which was about persistence. We’re not even a month into this administration, and we have to be persistent throughout. Even Dr. King fell down from time to time during his struggles, but he always got up. I am absolutely confident that if we continue to organize across America, we may not be able to hold back everything, but I think we can accomplish a lot.
Look at what is happening with the Affordable Care Act. They promised to repeal it, but for the first time I can remember, a majority of Americans support the Affordable Care Act. And we’re hearing Democrats and even Republicans say, “We can’t repeal this. It’s making a difference in peoples’ lives.”
I’m inspired by the fact that we have a lot of long-time activists on our side, but also a lot of others who have been casual observers of politics until now, and they’re just realizing that democracy can’t be a spectator sport.
When you ran the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department, you worked on a lot of voting rights cases. Voter suppression laws in several states played a major role in deciding the 2016 election, and Republican-controlled legislatures show no sign of slowing down. What can Democrats do in the voting rights space with less state-level power and a Justice Department led by Senator Jeff Sessions?
Pérez: Unfortunately, Jeff Sessions has been at the forefront of these voter suppression efforts. He supports voter ID laws that are designed simply to make it harder for African Americans and Latinos to exercise the franchise.
So, I have called for the creation at the DNC of a voter protection and empowerment unit, made up not only of DNC members but secretaries of state and state attorneys general, because we need to play both offense and defense. Right now we have just three or four people who are very competent and doing their best, but they’re up against ALEC and the Koch brothers and efforts in a host of states to disenfranchise people.
I want, as a party, to be far more aggressive. Access to the voting booth is the most fundamental of fundamental rights, and we have to dramatically ramp up our game.
We have to defend against these wrongful voter purges and these wrongful voter ID laws. But we also have to identify opportunities in various states where we can play offense. Oregon passed vote-by-mail, for instance. We have other opportunities to expand early voting, or to do what Arizona did, creating an independent commission to redraw the congressional lines. Let’s do that wherever we can.
The DNC has hired several staffers from Hillary Clinton’s campaign to staff the new “war room” to take on Donald Trump. I’ve been hearing a lot of concerns that this means the party will keep using the same messaging and strategies that failed in the 2016 race.
Pérez: After the election, between two-thirds and three-quarters of the DNC staff was laid off. So whoever wins the next election, and I hope it will be me, is going to have to ramp up hiring quickly. I plan to hire the best possible and most diverse talent.
I have people working for me now who worked for Secretary Clinton, others who worked for Bernie Sanders, others who worked for President Obama, and others who worked for none of the above. What they have in common is that they are all really talented. The North Star for all of my hiring, if I’m privileged to be elected, is who best positions us for the work that lies ahead.
Republicans in Congress have introduced a national “right-to-work” law, which would be devastating to organized labor, and in turn, the Democratic Party. What would you do as DNC chair on this front?
Pérez: We should oppose that with every ounce of energy we can muster. Donald Trump ran promising to raise wages and lift up the standard of living, but if he signs he’ll be supporting the right to work for less. What this is all about is giving more power to employers and taking it away from workers. It’s about lowering wages and creating a race to the bottom.
A majority of states have already passed right-to-work laws. Does that make it harder to oppose on the federal level?
Pérez: I don’t think this bill will see the light of day, especially in the Senate, where you need 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. You’re going to have Republicans as well as Democrats who understand this is the wrong thing to do. We will continue to fight these unconscionable assaults on working people and collective bargaining.
Income inequality is the defining issue of our time, so why would you pass a law that would exacerbate it? It’s not a coincidence that income inequality has risen as the number of “right-to-work” states has also risen.