“The Energy is Palpable”: DNC Chair Candidate Tom Perez

Tom Perez served as the US secretary of labor from 2013-2017. Previously, he served as Maryland’s secretary of labor, as the board president of Casa de Maryland, and as the assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice’s Division of Civil Rights. The Gate interviewed Perez at the third DNC Future Forum in Detroit, Michigan.

The Gate: What sets you apart from the other candidates for chair?

Tom Perez: Well I think everybody who’s running for this is a remarkably good person. It disappoints many in the media when they see no chair-throwing and no name-calling. This is a race among the Democratic family to see which sibling should be the chair of the party. I think there’s a remarkable number of folks who are really qualified.

I think what I would argue sets me apart is that we need not only someone who can take the fight to Donald Trump and take it to him aggressively, someone who has a proven record of winning fights and someone who can bring together that remarkably big tent that is the Democratic Party. And then last but certainly not least, someone who can has a proven track record as a turnaround specialist because we have to change the culture of the DNC. It’s a complex organization.

We have to move away from the orientation that we’re just electing a president, to someone who’s empowering the parties in the fifty-seven states—the fifty states and the territories. We need to move away from the command and control structure that currently exists. “Don’t speak unless spoken to. Millennials, satisfy yourself that you have a seat at the table, that doesn’t mean you should be talking.” Those sorts of culture changes need to occur to ensure that millennials are meaningfully engaged and part of our leadership, part of the public face.           

That’s a really important part of this job and I’ve been really proud of the work that I was able to do with the Labor Department and before that in the Civil Rights Division. To take organizations that have critical missions but weren’t firing on all cylinders and to change the cultures so that we could help people.

Gate: If you’re chosen, what is the first thing you plan on doing when you sit down at the DNC chair’s desk on day one?

Perez: Well I might not be at my desk day one because I may be out in the field protesting somewhere. I think we need to galvanize this grassroots advocacy that’s out there. Turn that moment into a movement. There’s tremendous opportunity out there across America. I’ve been to a couple of airports in the last week, Houston and San Francisco, and the energy is palpable. And we need to channel that energy because right now there are some existential threats to our democracy and we need to make sure that as people engage in this they understand that the Democratic Party is not just a conspicuous presence but a conspicuous and positive force for change.

That’s what we have to do and we got to do that by organizing, organizing, organizing. The process of culture change needs to begin immediately, day one. By sending a very clear signal to our state parties that you have a seat at the table. By sending a very clear signal to folks who share our values but don’t share our party affiliation that we want to engage and listen and learn. By sending a very clear signal to folks in rural America that we share your values and give us another chance because we’re going to come make house calls.

There are a lot of different things that have to be done simultaneously. We need to work on rebuilding the organization—75 percent of the place was laid off after the election so we have to rebuild that structure. The good news, though, is that there’s just tremendous enthusiasm to move forward and I’m very proud of all the folks, regardless of their party affiliation, who have been out there standing up for our values. And I want to make sure they know that we’re there with them.

Gate: Given your past experience in the DOJ, in the office of Civil Rights, what are your biggest concerns for the Trump administration’s effect on civil rights? And how do you think that the Dems should respond to that?

Perez: How much time do you have? Where do I start? We have an attorney general who, you know, has not been a friend of the Civil Rights movement. Three hours into this administration, the Justice Department filed to postpone a hearing in the Texas voter ID case. I was involved in that case. We sued, we won. And we won because their law was designed to make it next to impossible for African Americans and Latinos to vote. It was a clear case. The reason they postponed it was because, I predict, they will change their position. So voting rights are on the chopping block. And voting rights are the essence of democracy.

Their approach to police reform is also concerning. Donald Trump’s role model during the campaign for police reform was Joe Arpaio. Joe Arpaio was his “law and order police” officer. And you know what, Joe Arpaio was all about lawlessness and disorder: that’s why he was held in contempt by a judge appointed by George W. Bush. That’s why he’s the former sheriff. The Civil Rights Division is the crown jewel of the Department of Justice, and those crown jewels are in danger of falling into very nefarious hands. We’ve got to be out there organizing and mobilizing and filing lawsuits to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Gate: On that note, do you think the Democrats, at least in Congress, should take inspiration from the Republicans of the previous administration and take a similar position against Donald Trump and against his cabinet members as they did Obama’s, or do you think there should be some kind of different method?

Perez: I think we should accord Donald Trump the same courtesy that Mitch McConnell accorded Barack Obama. Which wasn’t a lick of courtesy. On November 8 and beyond, Donald Trump was a sore winner. “No, I won the popular vote, there was all this massive voter fraud.” That’s BS. We see from day one governance that he’s taken a sledgehammer to the constitution, Lady Liberty. And we don’t need to wait any longer to understand that he’s going to govern from the far right. And so the Democratic party needs to mobilize and be the face of the opposition.

Now if he wants to say, “Yes, I support the fifteen-dollar minimum wage,” or, “I support the bipartisan bill on immigration that was passed in the Senate in 2014,” by all means, we will be there. But all he’s talking about right now is building walls instead of breaking down barriers. We have to take the fight to him right now.

Gate: Finally, what do you see as being the most important role for the DNC chair?

Perez: Well, I’m not saying that there is one role that is paramount above everything. We need someone who can take the fight to Donald Trump and can be that public face. Who can inspire people about the message and the opportunity of being a Democrat. Who can expand the party. Who can work with all the stakeholders in our Democratic Party. I think our big tent is our strongest asset. And then someone who can, again, be that change agent. Who can be that turnaround specialist and transform the Democratic Party into a party that is thriving in all the states and territories. And as a result we’re able to elect people from the school board to the Senate. And we’re able to help turnaround not only the House of Representatives, but state legislatures so that our values and priorities are reflected in the actions of those bodies.