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Tom Perez generally speaks in paragraphs, but he keeps coming back to a two-word mantra: “Organize everywhere.”
After the election of a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in deep-red Alabama, that sounds like the kind of typically opportunistic thing any politician might say. But Perez, the head of the Democratic National Committee, sees it as central to rebuilding the party since he took the job a year ago.
“We were the party of organizers,” Perez said in a recent interview with Yahoo News. “We were the party that had a presence everywhere. And we stopped doing that. We became too transactional.”
Perez recounted a conversation with a voter who told him, “You can’t show up at my church every fourth October and tell me that you care.” He agreed with that voter’s critique. “That’s what we became,” he said.
Now, Perez feels a wind at his back following Doug Jones’s win in Alabama and the Democrats’ huge victories in Virginia, where they retained the governorship and either won or tied for control of the state’s House of Delegates. On a conference call with reporters the morning after Jones’s victory, Perez called it part of a “new blue wave” and predicted similar results for the party nationally in the fall of 2018.
“I think we will win the House of Representatives. I think we will win the U.S. Senate,” he said. He also predicted that Democrats will win gubernatorial races in the traditionally Republican strongholds of Georgia and Kansas.
It’s a far cry from the mood inside the party just a year ago. Perez took the helm of the DNC in February, when it was still reeling from Trump’s stunning presidential upset and a brutal campaign that featured Democratic infighting fueled by a Russian hack that saw these internal disputes leak into the public sphere.
“We’ve had success up and down the ticket, and in red and blue states, and purple states alike,” said Perez. “The challenge for us is scale. We now have to do this in many more places, because the 2018 cycle involves a lot more elections.”
The DNC can’t take too much credit for the results. President Trump’s record-low approval rating fueled the recent Democratic surge. And in Virginia, the DNC played a secondary role to the state Democratic Party. Democrats knocked on nearly 4 million doors in Virginia, but only about a quarter-million of those contacts were by DNC operatives. The national party contributed $1.5 million, but Democrat Gov.-elect Ralph Northam’s campaign raised $38 million overall.
But Perez can take credit for positioning the party to take advantage of anti-Trump fervor. He is leading the way toward recognizing “the basics,” that “Democrats can win everywhere if we are building relationships everywhere.”
“A lot of this job ain’t sexy, you know? It’s an infrastructure job and it’s a messaging job. I sometimes refer to myself as ‘Tom the Plumber,’” Perez said.
Perez, a mild-mannered former prosecutor who headed the Justice Department’s civil rights division and served as secretary of labor under President Barack Obama, took control of the DNC amid furious finger-pointing that followed the loss to Trump. The blame game included two high-profile campaign memoirs, Hillary Clinton’s “What Happened” and “Hacks” by Donna Brazile, Perez’s immediate predecessor who stepped in as interim DNC chair following the resignation of Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Both of these books painted an ugly picture of the DNC. Clinton has criticized the party as “bankrupt” with “mediocre to poor” data on potential voters. In “Hacks,” Brazile described the DNC as a “neglected child” that became overly reliant on funds from Clinton’s campaign.
Brazile told Yahoo News she has kept “an arm’s-length approach to the DNC” after being exhausted by last year’s campaign. Nevertheless, she offered praise for what she described as a change in the party under Perez, with increased investment in “non-battleground states” and down-ballot races.
“The DNC has been at rough seas for a while, and I think the ship is getting back on course,” Brazile said. For his part, Perez said he has not read Brazile’s book, which was released on Election Day. Perez’s voice was dripping with sarcasm as he discussed Brazile’s decision to air the party’s dirty laundry as voters went to the polls.
“Yeah, that was real helpful,” he said.
Perez acknowledged that Democrats allowed their organizing and data infrastructure to “atrophy” during the Obama years. He wants to return to the “50-state strategy” that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean implemented when he led the DNC from 2005 to 2009.
Perez’s message is a mirror image of what Republicans said about themselves after Obama’s 2012 reelection. It’s also a vindication of the critique the GOP made of Obama’s Democratic Party. Mike Shields, the RNC’s chief of staff from 2013 to 2014, talked incessantly in those days of how the Democrats had built a movement that was powerful but also temporary because it was oriented around one person — Obama — rather than a party.
Perez said that a major factor in Hillary Clinton’s loss to Trump was that the Republican National Committee beefed up its organizing and tech infrastructure in the years leading up to the 2016 election, even as the organization that Obama created to enable his rise to power, Organizing for America, drew attention and resources away from the Democratic National Committee.
“People would much rather contribute to that next Barack Obama, because that’s way cool,” Perez said. “But what I think people are appreciating is that, as [former RNC Chairman] Reince Priebus said, a key to their success was persuading their investors that the infrastructure of elections was every bit as important as the candidate themselves. They figured that out, they invested big-time, and they kicked our butt.”
“We’ve kind of experimented over the last eight years with the hypothesis that we can win elections by working around a weak party infrastructure. And I think we have overwhelming evidence that that doesn’t work,” said Perez.
After Trump’s shocking win, pundits focused extensively on the fact that support for Democrats had declined among working-class white voters in key states. Turnout was also down among key portions of the Democratic base like young voters and minorities. But Perez said the party has taken steps to improve this and cited Jones’s victory in Alabama, which was heavily aided by an even larger turnout among African-Americans in the state than Obama drew in 2012.
According to Perez, this was no fluke. After Jones’s win, he said the DNC had increased its investment in state parties by a third in order to develop “organizations on the ground in critical communities.” Perez also noted that the DNC established an innovation fund to increase its investment in African-American, Latino and millennial voters. If the party gets in front of these voters, Perez believes it has a stronger message for them than Trump and the GOP.
“They want someone who’s fighting for the things they care about — jobs, and health care and quality education — instead of fighting the culture wars,” Perez said.
In the Alabama race, Perez said that all of the nearly $1 million the party spent was geared toward “African-American and millennial turnout.” Jones ended up with even higher black turnout than Obama, the first African-American president. For Perez, this is proof of the party’s improved approach.
For Perez, bolstering the party’s infrastructure also involves regaining the DNC’s lead in the technological arms race. Obama’s victories were widely credited to a superior data operation and innovative use of digital tools, but Perez believes the Democrats have been “leapfrogged” by the RNC since 2012. To remedy this, Perez has sought to beef up the party’s tech team. To head the operation, he hired Raffi Krikorian, who had been a top engineer on Uber’s self-driving car project, to be the party’s chief technology officer.
“Literally the first question he asked me was … ‘What are we gonna do about my cyberproblem?’ And I politely asked him to never call it ‘the cyberproblem’ ever again,” Krikorian said in a conversation with Yahoo News.
In addition to strengthening the party for its combat with Republicans, a major goal of the DNC’s tech team is protecting the party from external threats. Emails hacked from the DNC were released ahead of the party’s 2016 convention and exacerbated a contentious primary fight between Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. The messages, which U.S. intelligence agencies said were released by hackers linked to Russia, fed the impression that the party favored Clinton and led to Wasserman Schultz’s departure.
Brazile, who took over as interim chair, wrote that the party was woefully behind on cybersecurity. She described facing daily digital attacks in the home stretch of the campaign from hackers that her team believed came from Russia. Brazile also suggested that the party faced physical threats. She said her 13-year-old Pomeranian, Chip, died in April of this year, shortly after she relinquished control of the DNC. She said her veterinarian believed the dog ate poison. Yahoo News asked Brazile, who said she consulted with seasoned national security experts during the campaign, if she believed the Russians played a role in her pet’s death. Opponents of the Russian government and American officials have said the Kremlin employs a wide variety of harassment and intimidation techniques, including allegedly killing a U.S. diplomat’s dog. Brazile noted that her advisers had told her to leave the dog with friends during the race.
“I was also told that this was a campaign unlike any others, and I was given the playbooks of what happened in Europe. And so I didn’t bring my dog home until after it was really over with. … And then the first week I bring him home … a week later he’s dead and the vet thinks he had gotten rat poison,” Brazile said.
Perez and his team believe the party remains under threat. Krikorian, the DNC’s new technology chief, said the party faces “interesting attacks every single day.”
“Whether they’re from the Russians or not, like I don’t really care,” Krikorian said.
While he is confident in the steps it’s taken to beef up security, Krikorian thinks the DNC will “never be safe” from hackers.
Along with facing these external threats and battling his Republican rivals, Perez also has a big job in uniting the Democrats. After rebuilding the party infrastructure, his other main goal as party chair, he said, is to put in place a presidential nominating process that is “fair in fact, and fair in perception,” after the hacked emails left many voters feeling the scales were tipped in Clinton’s favor in her primary against Sanders. Sanders, although he ran for president as a Democrat, is actually an independent.
Perez’s race for DNC chair was widely viewed as an extension of that race between Sanders and Clinton. Perez, who was on Clinton’s short list of potential running mates, was cast as the establishment candidate, while Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison had Sanders’s backing. But Perez believes that view doesn’t reflect “the reality on the ground.” He hopes to convince the various wings of the party that “what we have in common far exceeds what our differences are.”
“We have to have situational awareness about what the greatest existential threats are,” Perez said. “I think people understand that, while we have to look at what happened in 2016, we also have to understand that Donald Trump is an existential threat to democracy.”
Immediately after defeating Ellison, Perez invited his former rival to the newly created position of deputy chair. Following the Democratic convention and the hacking drama that preceded it, the party agreed to create a Unity Reform Commission that would make recommendations for a fairer primary process.
The commission, which included members appointed by Sanders, Clinton and Perez, was meeting as the DNC chairman sat down with Yahoo. Among other things, the commission took steps to make primaries and caucuses more inclusive while dramatically reducing the number of unelected superdelegates, who have chosen the party’s presidential nominee in the past. Following the vote, Sanders expressed the hope that the party would adopt the commission’s recommendations.
“The Democratic Party will not become a vibrant and successful 50-state party until it opens its doors widely to the working people and young people of our country,” Sanders said in a statement. “I am extremely pleased that the Unity Reform Commission has begun that process, voting nearly unanimously to limit the role of superdelegates, along with making our caucuses and primaries more democratic.”
In his comments to Yahoo, Perez expressed excitement about the commission and indicated he would follow its recommendation to reduce the number of superdelegates.
“Our unity commission’s going to finalize their report today, and there’s a lot of really edgy stuff in there. We’re dramatically reducing the number of superdelegates, probably by something like 60 percent,” said Perez. “The only superdelegates left, basically, are going to be elected officials, members of Congress, governors, folks like that. Everybody else is going to change.”
Many Sanders supporters view Perez’s response to the unity commission’s recommendations as a major test of his leadership and willingness to embrace the progressives and independents brought into the fold by Sanders. Jeff Weaver, a close Sanders adviser who managed his presidential campaign and was active in the unity commission process, told Yahoo News that the party’s response to the commission will be a “critical moment.” Weaver credited the DNC with providing staff to help run the commission meetings and suggested he was heartened by Perez’s remarks following the vote.
“Nobody wants Tom Perez to fail the test or expects that he will,” Weaver said.
For Weaver, the real question is whether Perez will push the commission’s recommendations with Democratic leaders who are wary of the changes.
“There are going to be elements within the party establishment who are going to be hesitant to embrace any kind of change,” explained Weaver. “The chairman is going to have to use not only the bully pulpit but also the telephone to get on and explain to people who are reluctant to embrace change that this is what is needed at this moment in history to revitalize the party.”
Nevertheless, Weaver said it’s not right to view the party as torn between Clinton and Sanders supporters. He dismissed this as “an easy media narrative” and said the real divide among Democrats is between those who want the party to return to its “working-class roots” and “a sort of like neoliberal aberration that happened in the ’90s where the party became more corporate.” And Weaver suggested the “schism” between different wings of the party will persist even if the DNC heads on a path to reform.
Still, Weaver has no doubt Perez is an improvement over his predecessor.
“Over Debbie Wasserman Schultz? Is that your question? Is that a question that requires an answer?” Weaver asked incredulously. “I assume it was rhetorical. It had to have been a rhetorical question.”
Perez’s ambition is to do more than just win the 2018 and 2020 elections. He noted that the last 20 years have seen the Democrats and Republicans constantly trade supremacy in voter targeting and turnout capabilities, from Karl Rove’s operation for George Bush to the Obama campaigns to the present.
“We got leapfrogged” in 2016, Perez said. “If you look at the last 20 years, it’s kind of been a game of leapfrog.”
Now, Perez said, “I’m confident that we’re going to leapfrog them, but what I want to do differently is leapfrog and sustain over a period of time.”
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