Q&A: Tom Perez Makes His Case

Damon Dahlen/Huffington Post

Tom Perez speaks during a debate for Democratic National Committee chair hosted by the Huffington Post at George Washington University in Washington D.C. on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017.

As labor secretary, Tom Perez turned the Labor Department from a backwater federal agency into a powerhouse player in advancing President Obama’s second-term agenda. Before that, he took a demoralized Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and brought it back to life. Now he’s running to be the Democratic National Committee Chair as he tries to make the case that he can perform a similar turnaround on the party’s languishing machinery. Perez and Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison are considered the frontrunners amid a field of several other candidates.     

Usually a more under-the-radar position, the chair race has turned into a battle (albeit a mostly cordial one) over progressive bona fides, party vision, organizing chops, and political allegiances. On February 25, 447 members of the DNC will cast their vote.

The American Prospect talked with Perez about why he thinks he’s the one who should take the party forward.

What follows is an edited and condensed version of that interview.                                                                     

Justin Miller: How concerned are you that Trump will evaporate all the work that your DOL pushed through in recent years?

Tom Perez: Well they’re certainly going to try because they don’t believe in fair wages and retirement security. But we have the law on our side. We have, I believe, the American people on our side. And we’re gonna fight like hell in courts of law, in courts of public opinion, and every corner of this country to make the case that we’re standing up for your economic security, for your workplace safety, and they’re trying to bring you down.

Trump’s labor secretary nominee, Andrew Puzder, has his confirmation hearing on Thursday. Is there anything he could say in that hearing that would convince you he’s a worthy candidate to lead the Labor Department?

I have a one and a two-word answer to that question. My one word answer would be no. My two-word answer would be hell no.

You judge people by their words and their actions. And I think his actions have demonstrated that he’s unfit for the job. I must admit, he’s very familiar with the Department of Labor, but his familiarity is borne out of the fact that his company was a frequent flyer in wage and hour investigations. That’s not the type of experience you want for your nominee to head up the agency. We talk about lifting up wages—he helped to lead the effort to sue the Department of Labor when we tried to make sure that when people worked overtime, they got paid overtime. The mission of the department is to help workers. He referred to his own workers as the worst of the worst. You ought to be the moral authority when you’re the Labor Department head and he’s already demonstrated a fairly callous disregard for the law in his own practices. That used to be disqualifying, until the efforts of this administration to normalize ethical lapses, to normalize alternative facts, and we can’t allow that to happen.

NBC News ran a piece Wednesday that quoted you saying, We heard loudly and clearly yesterday from Bernie supporters that the process was rigged and it was. And you've got to be honest about it. That's why we need a chair who is transparent.” You walked that back on Twitter, saying you “misspoke” and that Hillary Clinton won the primary “fair and square.” I think a lot of people are scratching their heads about that 180. Can you elaborate about what you misspoke about? Do you think there was a thumb on the scale in favor of Clinton?

You’re looking at one piece. If you look at all the pieces where I’ve talked about this, you know, here’s the reality: Hillary Clinton won the Democratic primary. She won the popular vote in the election. At the same time, because the DNC lacked transparency in the primary and made mistakes that the effect of undermining confidence in the DNC, everybody suffered. That wasn’t good for the Democratic Party. What we need in the Democratic Party moving forward, and in a DNC leader moving forward, is a commitment to transparency and a commitment to a level playing field.

So for instance, if I were the chair moving forward, I would propose that we set forth a primary debate schedule long in advance of when we know who the candidates are so that there can be no doubt that anyone is putting a thumb on the scale of justice. Those sorts of preventable missteps and failures resulted in a lot of angst—understandable angst. It’s all fixable. Transparency is a critical component of the job.

Harold Meyerson, the Prospect’s executive editor, wrote a column in which he argued that Keith Ellison is the most qualified candidate for DNC Chair because, given his organizing successes in Minneapolis and beyond, he’s a man not only of the movement—but of this unique political moment. Therefore, Meyerson says, he’s the “most likely to transform the energy in the streets into real political power.” Make the case for why you are the best Democratic Party leader for this particular political moment.

Well I think the leader of the Democratic Party in this particular moment has to be able to do multiple things and do them well—and, frankly, do them all well—in order to succeed. You have to be able to organize and going back to my roots in Maryland, that’s exactly what I did. All you have to do is take a look at what we did transforming CASA Maryland from a grassroots organization out of the basement of a church into one of the powerhouse nonprofits in the Mid-Atlantic serving low-income immigrant communities. So you have to be able to organize. You have to be able to take the fight to Donald Trump, especially in uphill situations. The work I did at the Labor Department and the work I did at the Justice Department show not only an ability to fight fights, but you gotta be able to win those fights.

And equally importantly, the DNC needs culture change. The head of the DNC’s job is a turnaround job because the DNC is suffering right now from a crisis of confidence and we have to understand that. It’s important to have a leader who has a proven track record of turning around complex organizations at scale. That’s what I did at the Labor Department. That’s what I did at the Justice Department. And that’s what I’ll do if I have the privilege of leading the DNC.

Now the Labor Department has 16 or 17,000 employees, [and] a $45 billion budget. And when I got there we were second from the bottom on best places to work in government, and when I left we were in the top third, including two years in a row where we were the most improved. As you pointed out in the piece you just wrote, we tried to do the conflict-of-interest rule in the first term and we failed. And we succeeded because I was able to figure out a pathway forward on the same issue but we did it differently and better—in part because I understood how to execute culture change in an organization.

So we need to change the culture of the DNC. We’ve got to move from a focus on simply electing a president to a focus on helping state parties become strong so they can elect people from the school board to the senate. We’ve got to change the culture in terms of how we deal with DNC members—they are chronically underutilized. And we’ve got to change the culture of our interactions with our partners in the progressive movement. Those all the dimensions of culture change and turnaround that I’ve worked on in the past, and it’s really important.

If you brought in someone to run a business that was not firing on all cylinders and they’d never come into that business and never done anything of scale of that nature, you’d be a little reluctant to hire them.

I’ve taken and turned around agencies with a similarly critical mission and I think I can do it again.

Many people want the next DNC chair to be someone who can be a bridge for the divides between the Obama, Clinton, and Sanders supporters. Obama was your boss, and you were an early and vocal supporter of Clinton’s presidential campaign. Do you have, and can build, sufficient support among Sanders backers who want to see a dramatic shift of the party to the left? And if elected, do you think you would be able to work as effectively with that faction?

I already have been. If you look at my team, we have folks who supported Senator Sanders, we have folks on our team who supported Secretary Clinton, folks who worked for the president, and folks who worked for none of the above.

That’s been the story of my life. I got zero support from the Republicans when I got confirmed on final vote for my job at the Labor Department. Why? Because they thought I was too far to the left. When Elizabeth Warren was opining about what’s the profile of a good cabinet secretary if Hillary Clinton were elected, who was she using as an example? It was folks like me, because we had taken on fights and figured out how to win. That’s what it’s all about: fighting for those progressive values. That’s why we’ve been able to bring in supporters of Bernie Sanders and folks across the spectrum.

We’ve got to grow the party everywhere. We’ve got to talk to those union members from the building trades who abandoned the Democratic Party in significant numbers. Those are folks who I’ve spoken to and whose respect I have earned. We’ve got to expand the party at every corner. Whether it’s Latinos (and I have a little experience at that), whether it’s folks who used to be Democrats and are now Republicans or voted for Jill Stein and we’ve got to bring home. That’s been, frankly, the story of my career. And that’s why The Wall Street Journal had a field day writing their op-eds about why they hated Tom Perez. I’m the only guy who got cited by name in a Clarence Thomas dissenting opinion because we saved the Fair Housing Act and he wasn’t happy about it.

You’ve been pegged as the “Establishment” candidate who was prodded to jump in by Obama and Clinton. Do you think that’s a fair assessment of your campaign?

Well I have fought my entire life for inclusion and opportunity. I settled the biggest fair lending cases in the history of the Fair Housing Act, I have fought for marriage equality successfully in the Defense of Marriage Act, I worked on police reform issues and did more police misconduct settlements in the three and a half years I was in the Justice department than the previous 17 years combined. We ended up, at the DOL, lifting wages in ways that enraged Wall Street but helped Main Street.

In short, I have fought for those established values that are at the core of what it means to be a Democrat—the value of inclusion, the value of immigrants—which is why I took on Joe Arpaio, the value of a hard day’s work. So I think it’s really important as we move forward to be careful about labels and be careful about working backwards and focusing, in fact, on the core values of the Democratic Party.

I’m damn proud to have worked for Ted Kennedy and Barack Obama and to have fought those fights on their behalf for inclusion and opportunity and making sure that everyone has a fair shot. When people learn about what I have done, the most frequent comment I get is, “I didn’t realize that you had done that many things in that many contexts.” When people understand that, those are my values. They always have been and always will be. What I want to do is translate those values into votes as the head of the DNC.

How do you think the party needs to rethink its candidate recruitment and training strategy? Can you name a few local politicians or activists who you think fit the mold of candidates you think the party should be lifting up?

Well first of all, I think we need to have a candidate recruitment and training strategy. I mean the challenge with the DNC is that we have ignored the basics. When the chair of the Wyoming party calls the DNC and says “I’ve recruited 60 candidates to run for office, give me some help training them,” and the answer is, “You’re on your own”—that’s not an answer. We need to make sure that we are doing the basics so that we’re providing help in building the organizing infrastructure, we’re providing help in building the infrastructure to train and recruit candidates. We need to have a long-term millennial strategy because we’re not doing a good job now of making the case to millennials that they should become Democrats. We need to do that.

When you see candidates out there like Jason Kander in Missouri—Jason lost by a couple points in a cycle in which I believe Hillary lost by close to 20 points. And he was able to do so well because he was able to, I believe, communicate the values of the Democratic Party and he could [do that] in Ferguson, Missouri and he could [do that] in rural Missouri. And those values were the values of opportunity. When you lift people up instead of dragging them down, that’s what the Democratic Party is about. You lift people up in Ferguson by ensuring accountable policing. You lift people up all across Missouri by making sure you give them those ladders of opportunity to get in and stay in the middle class.

Any other politicians or activists on your radar who come to mind?

I’ve seen a number of candidates who have impressed me. Some have already won and are serving, like Ruben Gallego out Arizona, who served this nation with distinction and is now serving as a member of Congress with great distinction. We saw a remarkable candidate get elected in Las Vegas, Ruben Kiheun, in the most recent cycle there. Kamala Harris is now a United States senator and she started out in local government and she did remarkable work.

I do a lot of work in local government, and I’m seeing the next generation of talent come up into local governments, from local governments. People like [Los Angeles Mayor] Eric Garcetti out in California, Setti Warren in Newton, Massachusetts [the state’s first popularly elected black mayor], there’s just remarkable talent that is moving forward. I’m chronically optimistic about the future of the Democratic Party. I see people in city councils, like Ayanna Pressley on the Boston City Council. I met a woman in Columbus recently, an African American who is on the Columbus city council now. She came through the Main Street Alliance. That was a program of the Democratic Party. This program was recruiting and training candidates and it provided them all the help that they needed in sending mail, raising money, and in governance. And they were able to enable her to win. When I was in Texas recently, I was with Gina Hinojosa, who is a pretty remarkable person in her own right—I think there were six people in her race [for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives], so they assumed she was gonna have a runoff. But she got about 50 percent at the first blush and they didn’t need a runoff.

I’m inspired by the remarkable people I meet across this country, and one advantage of this race is that I’ve met a lot more. And I want to make sure as a party we’re supporting them because the Democratic Party has not traditionally defined its role as helping to build that pipeline. I think that’s wrong and I think that’s part of the culture change I was referring to.

What’s your plan to bring in low-dollar donations to the DNC—apart from resistance to Trump, what do you think are three things that will be key to mobilizing rank-and-file members and convincing low-dollar donors that it’s worthwhile to give to the DNC?

At the outset, I would consult with two people who had tremendous success at attracting low-dollar donors—and that’s President Obama and Senator Sanders. The challenge is to figure out whether you can translate the attraction and affection for a candidate into attraction and affection to the party. I think what has to be the bridge that enables you to do that is the Democratic Party has to be a conspicuous presence in the movements around various issues that are keeping people up at night.

When people see that the Democratic Party is there fighting side by side with me, when people see that the Democratic Party is there with Planned Parenthood as Congress seeks to cut its funding, when people see that the Democratic Party is with the labor movement in the face of these wide-ranging assaults from courts, state legislatures, governors—then they say, “oh yeah, those values of the Democratic Party are in fact my values and I want to make sure I support the party.” Until and unless we are conspicuously present and adding value in those movements, it’s going to be more of a challenge. But that’s why I get back to organizing. When we’re out there locking arms with our partners across America, bringing people in, I think that’s how we can make real progress on low-dollar, and by the way, wealthier donors as well.

What are the politics Democrats need to embrace in order to not only win back former industrial union strongholds like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, but also to start winning in Sunbelt states with changing demographics—like Florida, Texas, and Arizona?

I actually think the formula is the same in all of those places. And the formula is 12-month a year organizing. The Republicans were able to take back Florida this year even though they lost the previously bellwether Hillsborough County [which includes Tampa and St. Petersburg] because after 2012 they engaged in a four year, 12-month a year investment into grassroots organizing and they identified 135,000 voters from that effort. We have to do the same thing. In Arizona, Georgia, and Texas, in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. I spoke with an elected official in Pennsylvania today who is supporting my candidacy and he told me very clearly, “We lost Pennsylvania because we didn’t organize in the rural parts of the state, and we got our butts kicked.”

The formula is not rocket science. But we have to think long term. We have to continue and redouble our efforts and these investments, and we have to have a long-term strategy of millennial engagement that is far more multifaceted and resource-supported than what we have now. When we do these things, I think we can turn this around. It’s not rocket science, but it takes persistence. It takes partnership. And it takes a leader who understands the many dimensions of turning around a complex organization. That’s what I’ve brought to the table in my last three jobs and that’s what I hope to bring to the table in this job. 

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