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Tom Perez: 'We've Gotten Away From The Basics As A Party'

President Obama applauds Tom Perez in 2013, whom he nominated as labor secretary. Now, as the Obama presidency winds down, Perez is running for head of the Democratic National Committee.
Jacquelyn Martin

After big losses in state Houses, Congress, and the White House, the Democratic Party is looking for a new leader.

NPR has been talking to several candidates for chair of the Democratic National Committee. On Friday, All Things Considered host Audie Cornish chatted with one who is closely tied to the Obama administration, Tom Perez.

The Maryland resident is the president's labor secretary but spoke in his personal capacity. He vowed to fight Donald Trump's agenda when it goes against Democratic principles, said he wants to lead the DNC by focusing on party infrastructure and grass-roots organizing, and argued that Democrats have "gotten away from the basics as a party," but he sidestepped when asked if he thought the DNC put a finger on the scale for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary.

Interview Highlights

On the DNC's failures in organizing

Organizing has to be a 12-month endeavor. You can't show up at a church every fourth October and say, "Vote for me," and call that persuasion. And that's what we've done. We've gotten away from the basics as a party.

And what I want to do, if I have the good fortune of being elected chair, is do exactly that. Build a party infrastructure in partnership with our state partners so that we have organizers in place in urban, suburban and rural communities across America, so that we are a force on important issues — whether it's voting rights, as I've discussed, whether it's cybersecurity, and we need to have a director of cybersecurity at the DNC, which we currently don't have.

On hacking during the election, and what is revealed about the DNC favoring Clinton over Sanders

Well, we have to have transparency. We have to have inclusion. And we have to have a leader, who will listen. So, for instance, one of the things that I would want to do, if I have the privilege of being elected, is to set up a structure so that we will have a debate calendar in place prior to when we know who the candidates are, so that we can eliminate any sort of perception that — or reality — that the thumb was being placed on the scale of justice to help one candidate or another.

I think we have to do things like that and we have to earn the trust of every stakeholder in the party. And I think we can do that, because the reality, Audie, is that we are fighting much bigger forces. Donald Trump's vision of America, his nativist vision of America, his fearmongering, that's what we have to fight." ...

Audie Cornish: After that episode and what we know now, do you essentially believe that the DNC tipped the scales in one way or another during the primary?

Perez: Well, listen, I think the DNC made a number of mistakes during the primary. But this is not what happened yesterday. This is about what we have to do in the future. And what we have to do in the future is build a Democratic Party that works for everyone. I think our big tent is our greatest strength.

Cornish: But there may be some Sanders fans who want the next DNC chair to say, "Yes, this happened. We made a mistake and we're moving forward."

Perez: And we have to always learn from what we did. That's why I said before, Audie, that one of the things I would do, if I had the privilege of being the DNC chair, is set forth a, for instance, debate schedule in which we would set that far in advance of when we knew who the candidates would be. And that's a way to ensure that the playing field is level. I think it's very important for the DNC chair to be that honest broker. And that's what I would aspire to do if I had the privilege of being the DNC chair. And I'm confident that I could do it.

On Democrats' strategy for dealing with Trump

Well, we need to take the fight to Donald Trump. If they're talking about deporting children, we're gonna take the fight to Donald Trump. If Donald Trump wants to raise the minimum wage to $15, yes, I will work with Donald Trump. If Donald Trump wants to pass comprehensive immigration reform, I will work with Donald Trump. If Donald Trump wants to acknowledge that we have a pay gap for women and we need to address it, I would work with Donald Trump.

But you know what? If they are going to try to have a deportation task force, and they're gonna try to continue to deny climate change, you're damn right we need to fight. And we will continue that fight. Because this is the battle for the heart and soul of who we are as Americans.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 8, 2017 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story incorrectly called Tom Perez a native of Maryland. He's actually a native of Buffalo, N.Y., and resides in Maryland.
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