Labor Secretary Tom Perez joined the race to lead the Democratic National Committee today, joining voting members of the DNC on a conference call to argue that his executive experience and organizing background made him uniquely qualified.
"The Democratic Party is a complex organization," Perez said. "We had a lot of experience in building one Department of Labor, with all of our oars in the water in synchronicity. We need to build one Democratic Party, too."
Perez, whose electoral history is limited to county office in Maryland, spent much of the call talking up his experience as a community activist and progressive Cabinet member who has "walked the walk" despite being ensconced in Washington.
"There's a tendency to get a little too reliant on data," said Perez, admitting that he spent some time after the election in shock that Hillary Clinton did not win. "We need to do a better job of working in a synergistic fashion, working with our partners out there. I've observed, from my own experience, that we are too frequently silo'd."
Perez's entry into the race was previewed in back-channel conversations and newspaper speculation — much of it about whether Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first candidate for the job, was the right fit. Perez did not mention Ellison, or the issue — his job as a congressman — that opponents have most successfully used to slow him down. (Ellison has said he may resign his safe seat to lead the party.) Instead, after one DNC member asked whether he would use the job to launch another bid for office, Perez ruled out a run for governor of Maryland in 2018.
"In order to accomplish what I've set forth and what our current circumstances demand, you've got to have someone committed to the long haul," he said.
Among the people praising Perez on the call, though, was Maryland Democratic Chairman Bruce Poole. Vouching for Perez, Poole said Marylanders had seen him in action and knew he could "fire up" the party's base, the labor movement and voters who'd tuned out.
"There isn't anybody in the race that I don't like, but the reality is that I feel overwhelmingly Tom is the guy who's going to get us winning," Poole said. "He's got an uncanny ability to figure out what the other side doesn't want to talk about, then stick a bone in their throat."
David Pepper, chairman of Ohio's battered Democrats, thanked Perez for his campaign stops in the state, then asked Perez how he'd help the party win back the rural areas where it had lost miles of ground during the Obama years.
"The key to success there was organize, organize, organize," said Perez, citing Alaska's State House — captured by Democrats — as a bright spot from election night. "You run up the score in places where you know the votes are there through persuasion, through hand-to-hand combat. And then control the bleed through rural organizing. You look at Ohio, and we got our ass kicked in a lot of these rural pockets because we weren't there in sufficient force. We've got to have a 12-month strategy of organizing, and it has to be everywhere."
None of the questions in the brief virtual meet-and-greet concerned the party's fundraising, or the sort of reforms that supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont have called for since the end of the Democratic primaries. Instead, Perez positioned himself as a defender of the Obama legacy, frustrated that the work the president had done had been obscured or forgotten in the 2016 election.
"It's been one of the ultimate privileges of my life to work for President Obama," he said. "But Democrats have had what I'd call a relationship deficit in too many communities, urban and rural alike."
That was a contrast with how Sanders, at a Wednesday night rally for Ellison, had described the recent work of the party. In a webcast organized by Sanders's group Our Revolution, the Vermont senator and Minnesota congressman described a Democratic Party that had lost ground as it lost meaning, and committed to progressive policies such as expanding Social Security and embracing police reform.
On Thursday, Perez focused more on immediate strategy, promising a "bottom-up" party that funded state activists a year in advance of every election. "You can't sustain organizing 12 months a year if the spigot gets turned on and off," he said. "We've got to get back to the basics: reviving grass-roots organizing, empowering state leadership. You can't show up in churches in October of an election year and ask people to vote. That's not organizing."
There was little discussion of how quickly Democrats could win power back, though Perez talked up opportunities to build and hold in 2017 in 2018. "We're not going to get the House of Representatives back in 2020 or 2022 until we've gotten statehouses back," he said, seemingly leaving aside the possibility of winning the House in the new president's first midterm election, as Republicans did in 2010.
Still, Perez's status as the favored DNC candidate of the outgoing administration has drawn both interest from DNC members and fire from critics. As he spoke on the call, the conservative Cause of Action Institute announced a Freedom of Information request for "all records, including emails, text messages, voice mails, calendars, and schedules reflecting meetings or communications among and between Secretary Perez, governors, and voting members of the DNC," looking for evidence that he'd campaigned for the job while on the Department of Labor's clock.