Growing up in the rural working class community of Lancaster, South Carolina, most people worked at Springs textile mill, the anchor of the local economy. My father, who never completed high school, worked at the mill as a forklift operator. My mom worked for years at the Springs hospital as a nurse assistant. When the textile mill closed, the community was left reeling, without good-paying jobs, with a dismantled social structure and an inability to pivot to more modern, technology-based industries. This same story played out in cities and towns across the country, including Detroit, Michigan when the auto factories shut down and Gary, Indiana, where steel plants disappeared. For years, it felt as if nobody in Washington and no one at the top of the Democratic Party really cared.
Now, what the Democratic Party needs is a leader like Tom Perez who truly understands the needs of working Americans. Tom paid his way through Brown University, earning tuition money from his work on the back of a garbage truck. He will work to improve the economic condition of all people, regardless of their zip codes. He’s done it before and he’ll do it again.
Tom is a non-conventional, purpose driven, progressive leader. While he has impressive academic and professional credentials, it’s his longstanding fight for society’s disenfranchised and marginalized that impresses me the most. The son of first-generation immigrants from the Dominican Republic, he grew up in blue-collar Buffalo, New York. His father earned U.S. citizenship after enlisting in the U.S. Army after WWII. It was his father’s death that drew him to his life’s purpose of public service. After graduating from Harvard Law School, he could have joined a big white collar law firm and made millions of dollars, but instead chose to become a civil rights attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, prosecuting racially motivated hate crimes.
Tom gets in the trenches and fights for those left behind. Whether in his role as Maryland Secretary of Labor, Special Counsel to Senator Ted Kennedy, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights or U.S. Secretary of Labor, Tom’s entire career has been about taking on tough fights for those who can’t fight for themselves. He worked to pass the Church Arson Prevention Act and implemented the Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act; stood alongside Americans with disabilities; fought for cheaper prescription drugs; combatted predatory lending and housing discrimination; prosecuted a gang of white supremacists trying to start a race war; worked to end racial and ethnic disparities in health care; set a record for opening investigations into sheriff and police department conduct; fought against religious discrimination; protected students from bullying and harassment; challenged discriminatory voter ID laws; went after big banks for foreclosing on active-duty service members; shielded workers from exposure to dangerous silica dust known to cause cancer; built bridges between business and workers; expanded paid sick leave; and raised the minimum wage.
Tom is a real community organizer, not a career politician or party leader. He grew CASA de Maryland from a small service provider in a church basement to one of the largest immigrant advocacy organizations in the mid-Atlantic. He has won elected office only once — in 2002, when he took a seat on the Montgomery County Council in Maryland. In that role, he worked to protect vulnerable employees, opposed mergers that would have resulted in job cuts and fought for better benefits for county workers. He took on discrimination by police, discrimination in schools and onerous voter ID laws.
Tom is the leader the Democratic Party needs for such a time as this. He will turn around and change the culture of the DNC, improve collaboration with state parties, and ensure that all voices are not only heard, but respected. He understands that data analytics alone is insufficient to win elections, but will return to nuts-and-bolts organizing, meeting people where they are. Tom will protect voters’ rights and work to ensure cyber-attacks won’t happen again. He’ll build a strong Democratic bench and the inclusive coalitions needed for Democrats to win at every level ― from school boards, county councils, and state legislatures to Congress and the White House.
Not too long ago, I ran into Tom at an event in Washington D.C. and after introducing myself, he jokingly responded “you’re the barbershop man”, acknowledging my strategy to take presidential candidate Barack Obama into barbershops across South Carolina in 2008. I was actually flattered that he remembered me as such. I’ve gotten to know Tom and I’m confident that he won’t forget the ordinary people ― like the forklift operator, nurse assistant, barber, construction worker and plumber ― who work hard each day to simply provide for themselves and their families. He will make sure that everyone has a seat at America’s economic table. That’s why I’m supporting the garbage man for DNC Chair!
Rick C. Wade is a member of the DNC and president of a global business development firm. He is a former Senior Adviser to Obama for America and Deputy Chief of Staff at the U.S. Department of Commerce.