POLITICS

Tom Perez Wants To Rebuild His Party Without Abandoning Obama. It Could Be A Tough Sell.

The secretary of labor is gearing up for a fight for the Democrats' future.

12/22/2016 01:25 pm ET

The race to head the Democratic National Committee isn’t about popular support or charting a new direction for a party that, for all intents and purposes, is currently in ruins. It’s about winning a majority of the 447 Democratic Party officials around the country who get to vote for the DNC chair in late February.

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez made his case to be America’s Next Top Democrat in a recent interview with The Huffington Post, highlighting major structural shifts he wants to see the party make, along with smaller tactical changes he believes the committee must implement.

The big problem for Democrats, Perez says, isn’t their policy platform, but management and organization. Like everyone else running for the post, Perez wants to empower state and local parties in red and blue states alike. It’s a pitch tailored for the party insiders who will ultimately decide the contest in two months.

“Our universal message of access to economic opportunity resonates with the ironworker in northeastern Ohio and the immigrant in South Florida,” Perez said. “And we sometimes have a relationship deficit with our voters, because we’re not communicating that message.”

But a compelling message about economic opportunity only moves the needle so much if voters aren’t able to actually cast ballots. And in outlining how he wants to revamp the party, Perez spoke about making strategic expenditures to turn the tide on what he sees as a pernicious, Republican-led voter suppression campaign.

At the DNC, he explained, he would have a staffer solely dedicated to combating such efforts, which have included congressional redistricting plans, voter identification laws and the restriction of polling place resources in black, Democratic neighborhoods.

“We need to have a full-time director of voter protection and empowerment. I was surprised that there is not a person who is dedicated to that,” Perez said. “The Republican playbook is voter suppression.”

Watch HuffPost’s full interview with Perez in the video above.

Perez’s pitch to fellow party members is based around this approach to revitalizing the party ― an approach that might be summed up as “think big, act tactically.” Perez likes to describe himself as a progressive who “delivers results” ― a subtle but clear attempt to contrast himself with the other main candidate for the post, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), an unapologetic liberal stalwart.

Ellison, a labor Democrat who endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the 2016 primary, has secured a host of key endorsements, including Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), as well as Sanders himself. But Perez is assembling his own faction, which includes the International Association of Firefighters and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, the largest American private sector union. He also has the tacit if not explicit endorsement of President Barack Obama. Ellison, meanwhile, has been endorsed by the nation’s largest federation of unions, the AFL-CIO.

Though he hinted at the contrasts between himself and other DNC hopefuls, Perez pledged to eschew negative attacks on his rivals, and criticized billionaire donor Haim Saban’s recent smear campaign against Ellison, which has attempted to label the congressman as anti-Semitic.

“I consider Keith Ellison a friend,” Perez said. “I don’t think there’s any place in this debate for negative advertising. And I’m not going to be doing it. This is the Democratic Party family. And this is a conversation within the family.”

There isn’t much policy daylight between the two men, save for a handful of issues that mainly concern the Obama administration’s approach to free trade and its handling of the U.S. banking system in the wake of the financial crisis. What differentiates Ellison and Perez, mostly, is their respective associations to the current president. While largely supportive of the Obama administration, Ellison has also been more willing to speak critically of its policy decisions and missteps. Perez, as labor secretary, has been muted.

And to a certain extent, he still is. In our interview, Perez sidestepped a question about whether the president’s offshoot organization ― Organizing for America ― has been a detriment to the DNC. No less a figure than John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, has argued that OFA drew important resources away from the Democratic Party infrastructure, contributing to the massive loss of the House and Senate, along with a dozen governorships and hundreds of state legislature seats in the Obama era.

“We won two elections and we were able to win a historic election in 2008. So, I’ve been proud to work for this president,” Perez said. “At the same time, the president himself has said we need to do more to rebuild the Democratic Party infrastructure... I think the question isn’t what happened eight years ago. The question is, what do we do moving forward?”

Ultimately, much of the job for the next DNC chair will involve re-positioning the committee as the epicenter of the Democratic Party. Some of that may be about finding a better balance with OFA. But much of it will come down to a simple act: fundraising. In our interview, Perez did not rule out accepting contributions from lobbyists as DNC chair ― an Obama-mandated ban that was quietly overturned by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) during Clinton’s 2016 presidential run.  

“I think we have to have everything on the table,” Perez said, in regard to lobbyist donations. “We have to have a conversation where we bring in all the stakeholders and say, ‘What is the vision of the Democratic Party?’ If we’re gonna carry out this 50-state strategy, how do we move forward and how do we raise the money to get there?”

But Perez also expressed admiration for Sanders’ fundraising efforts during the presidential primary, which relied on small checks from millions of donors rather than million-dollar checks from a few elites.

“I want to learn from Senator Sanders about how he did it,” Perez said. “And figure out ― can you translate that small-dollar fundraising capacity from an individual to a party? And I think the best way we can do that is, we’ve got to reintroduce the Democratic Party to a lot of people.”

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