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Labor Secretary Tom Perez Makes Case To Be Next DNC Chair


After big losses in statehouses, Congress and the White House, the Democratic Party is looking for a new leader. We've been talking to several candidates for chair of the Democratic National Committee here on NPR. Now we're going to hear from one who's closely tied to the Obama administration, Tom Perez.

He spoke to us in a personal capacity, not as his main job, the Secretary of Labor under President Obama. He told me he wants to lead the DNC by focusing on party infrastructure and grassroots organizing.

TOM PEREZ: Our message of opportunity and inclusion is I think a very powerful message that does indeed speak to Americans, but we've got to do a better job of listening.

CORNISH: But it's not just that. Is the DNC, the Democratic National Committee, actually in a position to do any of this? And I want to play a clip from Harry Reid. He spoke to Nevada Public Radio. Obviously he did actually fairly well for that state in terms of helping Democrats win even in this very tough election cycle. Here's how he described the DNC.


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HARRY REID: One of the failures of the Democratic Party has been the DNC. The Democratic National Committee has been worthless. They do nothing to help state parties. That should be the main goal they have. I've developed everything in Nevada on my own. Their help was relatively meaningless.

CORNISH: Relatively meaningless, worthless - I mean this is the, you know, former majority leader. He was doing all this while he was running the Senate, and he's saying that the DNC was useless on that front.

PEREZ: Well, the Democratic National Committee - we have to up our game. And the reason I'm running is because we have to make sure that we are providing help and partnership with state parties. Organizing has to be a 12-month endeavor. You can't show up at a church every 4 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 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, whether it's cyber security. And we need to have a director of cybersecurity at the DNC, which we currently don't have.

CORNISH: Looking back at the hacking scandal, as we've been talking about the last couple of days, beyond what intelligence agencies say is Russia's involvement is the content of the emails themselves.

And obviously with Debbie Wasserman Schultz, then the chairman, found making disparaging comments about Bernie Sanders, about his supporters, Donna Brazile, the now interim chair, having passed debate questions to the Clinton campaign during the primary, going forward, if you were chair, how would you overcome the divide, the suspicions that people have within the party that the DNC took sides against them?

PEREZ: 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 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 fear mongering - that's what we have to fight.

CORNISH: When you look forward through at least the next four years, is it a situation of obstruction or cooperation, and what are the kind of red lines that can't be crossed?

PEREZ: Well, we need to take the fight to Donald Trump. If they're talking about deporting children, we're going to take the fight to Donald Trump. If Donald Trump wants to raise the minimum wage to $15, yes, I will work with Donald Trump.

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

CORNISH: Tom Perez is running to be the next chair of the Democratic National Committee. He's also the current secretary of labor in the Obama administration. Thank you for coming into the studio to speak with us.

PEREZ: Great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.