WASHINGTON — Tom Perez is in the homestretch of a hotly contested race to lead a badly damaged Democratic Party. And winning the chairmanship is only half the battle. If Democratic delegates pick Perez at their winter meeting in Atlanta on Saturday, he’ll find himself leading a party that is fractured, beaten, and in his own estimation, has strayed from its roots.
Perez, President Barack Obama’s secretary of labor, has impeccable progressive credentials and a rock-solid résumé. And, if you believe his campaign, he has already locked down nearly enough votes to have a majority of the party’s 447 delegates. However, two of his opponents, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and one of the race’s dark horses, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigeig, dispute this figure.
The situation is clearly fluid. On Wednesday, The Hill published a survey that had Ellison ahead of Perez. Late that same night, the Associated Press released a survey of its own that had Perez in front of Ellison. And on Thursday morning, Politico put out an email survey of DNC delegates that found Ellison with a narrow lead over Perez. At this point, the only thing that seems certain is that the victor won’t be selected on the first ballot.
When asked about the state of the race, a representative for Buttigeig pointed Yahoo News to the mayor’s recent comment that the Perez campaign’s claims about its standing are “unlikely.” Spokespeople for Ellison did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.
Party chair is responsible for fundraising, serving as a figurehead on the talk show circuit, and providing infrastructure and support for local party activists. It’s a crucial job at a time when Democrats do not control the White House or either chamber of Congress. At the state level the party has been losing ground for several cycles. During Obama’s eight years in the White House, Republicans took control of almost 1,000 more state legislative seats than they had before he took office. This surge took Republicans from being a minority in the country’s statehouses to holding a 56 percent share of the nation’s legislatures.
Perez, like virtually everyone connected to the party, agrees that Democrats need more boots on the ground.
“The party has to get back to basics. We have to have an organizing presence across this country. We have to have that 57-state strategy [including the District of Columbia, U.S. territories and expat voters]. What that means is we’re in communities everywhere, engaged, listening, responding, leading with our values,” Perez said in a conversation with Yahoo News.
It’s hardly a new idea. Former DNC Chair Howard Dean, who has endorsed Buttigeig, famously became the party’s leader in 2005 after promising to enact a “50-state strategy” and focus on building up infrastructure. And all of the leading candidates in this year’s chairmanship election say the party needs to return to that model.
But Perez is making the case he’s best suited for the task of rebuilding the party’s local organizations. Perez said that while he and Ellison are friends, he’s better qualified to lead the party precisely because of his experience, and he subtly criticized Ellison’s track record in comparison to his own.
“We need both a fighter, not just a fighter but someone who knows how to win fights,” Perez said.
Translation: It’s easier to talk a big game than it is to get stuff done.
“This is a turn-around job. We need to change the culture of the DNC, and it’s a complex organization. I respectfully believe that I’m the only candidate who has a proven track record of taking complex organizations that have a critical mission but aren’t firing on all cylinders,” Perez said.
But Trump’s stunning upset victory showed the Democrats have deeper problems than disorganization. Trump won with the help of traditionally Democratic voters in the Rust Belt and rural America who switched sides and progressives who opted for third parties or skipped the race entirely. And while younger voters lean toward Democrats, just about half of millennials voted last year.
Perez thinks the party’s salvation lies in grassroots organizing and getting in front of more people, but what should Democrats say to voters when they get there? As he shared his plans, the party’s uncertainty about the message it hopes to communicate shined through.
“One of the challenges of the Democratic Party is that our message hasn’t been reduced to a bumper sticker. We live in a bumper-sticker world. Republicans? Lower taxes, less government. Easy bumper sticker. Democrats? We’re the party of the middle class, the party of opportunity, the party of inclusion. It’s often been difficult for people to distill it to a bumper sticker,” Perez explained.
Perez, lanky, bald and bespectacled, has an almost professorial manner. He speaks in a near-whisper that comes off as calm even as he describes the Trump White House as “total chaos” and “dangerous.” He spoke to Yahoo News in an ironworkers’ union hall, a few blocks from the White House, where his chairmanship campaign is headquartered. He and his team are occupying a space on the first floor that was once home to a SunTrust Bank. Staffers sit behind the bulletproof glass teller’s window, and an empty vault is located outside the small inner room where Perez has been working the phones to woo delegates.
A bank is an incongruous location for Perez, who while in Obama’s Cabinet, worked with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., on tightening financial regulations. Perez is clearly somewhat self-conscious about his surroundings and, at the suggestion he’s running his campaign from a bank, he immediately piped in with a correction.
“Well, don’t forget, we’re actually running the campaign from a union building, so the bank rented from the union building,” Perez said.
Perez was far more eager to talk about a recent trip he made to Wisconsin and Kansas.
“What I heard was, ‘We feel forgotten. We feel ignored. We’re good Democrats, but when you invest nothing in our community and you have no organizing presence there, it should not come as a surprise to you that Republicans win,’” Perez said.
And these aren’t the only places where Perez thinks the Democrats “ignored” people during last year’s election.
“We weren’t talking to people in all too many communities, and I’m not just talking about rural America. … We weren’t talking to enough people in Milwaukee, and so we underperformed in Milwaukee, and then we got our butt kicked in rural America because we simply weren’t even present in rural America,” Perez explained.
Perez talked of bringing a message of “economic opportunity” to these “forgotten” voters. He said the Democratic Party can show there was greater job growth under its presidents than during Republican administrations.
But a core problem for many blue-collar workers is that they’ve seen job growth skip their regions, as manufacturing jobs have been replaced by robotics, or have been sent to other states in the U.S., or overseas.
Perez said the Democrats’ challenge is to “equip people to be able to embrace change and to respond to change.”
“What I did as labor secretary is I went to those communities and said, ‘I’m not going to make promises that I can’t keep, but what I can promise you is we’re going to fight to make sure that you will stay in the middle class,’” he said. “That steelworker who lost his job, we retooled them so that now they’re working in advanced manufacturing. The woman in Connecticut who lost her job in health care, we helped retrain her and then placed her in an even better job.”
That may be a more realistic message than Trump’s promises to bring jobs back that are almost certainly gone forever, but it’s not as politically potent.
But as he argued that Trump exaggerated the problems facing the country, Perez seemed disconnected from the concerns of some of those Rust Belt voters who still don’t feel like they’ve experienced a real recovery from last decade’s financial crisis.
“Donald Trump was masterful at putting the fear of God into everybody. Barack Obama inherited carnage from George W. Bush, but it was Donald Trump talking about carnage and a 4.7 percent unemployment rate. He’s creating this parallel universe of alternative facts that is part of his effort to divide and conquer,” Perez said.
Other Democrats who are seeking to understand how to better reach voters in states like Wisconsin and Michigan that made the difference in this past presidential election candidly admit they don’t yet quite know how to win them back. Yet Perez seems certain the party will be able to craft a message after spending more time engaging with voters. In general, he wants some leadership to come from the bottom up.
“I think the grassroots of America are the head of the party. I’m a big believer in the inverted pyramid theory,” Perez said.
But it’s also an open question how much the Democratic Party is even going to try to win back white working-class voters, if it ends up nominating a candidate from the Bernie Sanders and Warren wing of the party. That would signal a clear effort in 2020 to win simply by turning out young voters, highly educated liberals, minorities and progressives. However, Democrats also have work to do to excite millennials and shore up their left flank, a situation Perez readily acknowledges.
“I think our actions are how we will turn this around, and having that organizing presence everywhere, and having a capacity to train new candidates, and having an actual millennial strategy. We don’t have a long-term millennial strategy,” said Perez.
Perez also described the number of battleground-state voters who spurned Democrats in favor of third-party candidates as a major overlooked story of the election.
While Perez might not have his pitch distilled into bumper-sticker form yet, he does seem to have a definite idea of the case he hopes to make for wary progressives and young voters.
“The challenge as it relates to folks who either didn’t vote or folks who voted for Jill Stein or [Gary] Johnson, is if you care about climate, so do we. If you care about immigration, so do we. Our values are in lockstep. If you care about the Fight for 15, so do we,” Perez said.
Trump’s victory spawned a surge in progressive activism, including widespread protests and a surge in support for third-party groups like the Democratic Socialists of America. Still, when asked whether liberal third parties could be a threat to the Democrats, Perez emphasizes his optimism that the party will be able to shore up its left flank if it establishes an on-the-ground presence. And Perez sees the anti-Trump demonstrations as “tremendous opportunities” for the Democratic Party to emerge as a player in the progressive world.
And in an era when the Republican and Democratic party mechanisms have less control over money and must contend with a universe of outside organizations often directed by small groups of high-dollar donors, Perez said he wants to make the DNC a convener, facilitator and partner that’s at the center of all the action as much as possible.
“The challenge moving forward is to be a conspicuous presence and a value added in all of these movements that we see, many of which are sprouting up organically,” he said. “We don’t need to lead those movements.”
Along with activism, the 2018 midterms await, and even before that there’s a special election in Georgia to replace recently confirmed Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price in the House. Perez said the DNC will be active in that race, as well as in the gubernatorial elections this fall in Virginia and New Jersey.
“What we have to do is make organizing a 12-month-a-year ethic. We haven’t done that as a party. We’ve gotten lazy. We’ve done it around cycles and we’ve only done it in a few battleground states. We’ve got to make it a reality 12 months a year,” he said.
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