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A conversation with DNC chair hopeful Tom Perez

Next week, Democrats will gather in Atlanta to choose the next chair of the Democratic National Committee. The replacement for Deborah Wasserman Schultz, who stepped down amid controversies surrounding hacked emails, will inherit a party that suffered crippling losses in 2016. Among the top candidates to replace Ms. Schultz is Tom Perez, Barack Obama’s Secretary of Labor and a former official in the Department of Justice’s civil rights division.

Mr. Perez is widely seen as the pick of more established Democrats: Among his supporters is Pennsylvania state party chair Marcel Groen. His chief rival, backed by progressive champion Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, is Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison. Mr. Perez stopped in Pittsburgh Thursday evening as part of his effort to round up the votes he’ll need next week: Nancy Patton Mills, who chairs the party’s apparatus in Allegheny County, is an undecided vote. The Post-Gazette caught up with him at a Young Democrats gathering at Steamfitters Local 449 union hall. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

I’ve been talking to a lot of Democrats in places outside the city -- in Tim Murphy’s district or Keith Rothfus’ -- who are as fired up as Democrats anywhere since the election. But I’m wondering if they’ll even have a candidate to vote for two years from now, because they haven’t always in the past. What would DNC chair Tom Perez do about that?

We implement the “every zip code” strategy, and make sure we lead with our values. We lost Pennsylvania because we didn’t implement that strategy. We’ve got to move away from “We’ll move into the Pittsburgh and Philly regions and call it a day elsewhere.” We saw what happens when you ignore rural Pennsylvania. I was in northern Wisconsin and Kansas in the last 10 days, and I heard the same story: “The Democratic Party is not present in my community.” And in fact for some it’s, “I not only feel not only disconnected, I feel disrespected.”

Our message of economic opportunity, our message of good jobs, our message of fighting for those middle-class values, resonates in every zip code. That’s how we won back the House and Senate back in 2006 and 2008, and frankly we abandoned it. We allowed Donald Trump to hijack our values. “I’m going to bring back your coal jobs” — that was a lie. But what it said was “I’m going to feel your pain.” That’s how people interpreted it.

When we lead with our values, we’re the party of the middle class, we’re the party that’s gonna lift your wages. We’re the party that brought you Medicare: They’re the party wants to privatize Medicare. We’re the party that brought you Social Security: They’re the party that wants to privatize Social Security.

So what does that strategy mean operationally, on the ground?

More boots on the ground. We have to change the culture of the DNC. We’ve got to reorient it so that we’re not simply looking at our mission as simply electing the next President of the United States. We’re looking at our mission as working to build strong parties everywhere so we can elect people from the school board to the Senate.

We need to transform our culture so that we are a partner with the state parties, not the master-servant relationship that it currently is. We have to make sure that we have a training institute, so that when we recruit candidates to run in these districts in rural Pennsylvania, they have an opportunity to get trained.

But Representative Ellison has a very similar diagnosis of the party’s problems. Why are you the better choice to carry it out?

The DNC is suffering from a crisis of relevance, and a crisis of competence. This is a turnaround job. And what it requires is not just someone who can take the fight to Donald Trump and communicate our values of inclusion and opportunity. It requires someone who has experience turning around a troubled organization at scale. That’s exactly what I did at the Department of Labor and the Department of Justice beforehand. The DNC is a complex organization. It’s not firing on all cylinders at the moment. That was [true in] the Department of Labor that I inherited, and when I left the Department of Labor, we were able to be a major player in the president’s economic agenda.

This job is more than just going on the Sunday talk shows. And if you’re [trying] to turn around a very large, complex organization with moving parts all over the country, it’d be nice to have a leader who’s done that before, and that’s what I’ve done.

A lot of Bernie Sanders supporters are already are wary of the party after 2016. And I get the sense from some of them that if the DNC doesn’t pick Ellison, then to hell with the DNC. What do you want those folks to know about you?

From the outset, we’ve made a point of being inclusive, and employing people who supported every candidate. The point I make is: look at my record. If you’re concerned about police misconduct, I did more police misconduct cases than anyone in the history of the civil-rights division. ... If you’re concerned about holding Wall Street accountable, I negotiated the two largest settlements in the history of the fair housing act for victims of lending discrimination. If you’re interested in [workplace] issues, at the Department of Labor, we were able to lift wages for 2 million home health workers.

We have a tendency as a party sometimes to worry about labels, to ask the question “Are you a progressive Democrat? Are you a conservative Democrat? Are you a moderate Democrat?” I think the most important question to ask is, do you have a track record of lifting people up or of bringing them down? When you help lift overtime and the minimum wage for 2 million home health workers, you’re lifting people up. When you go into the Seattle police department, the Portland police department, the New Orleans police department, and you forge an agreement on how the police and community can work together, you are lifting people up.

Does that make me a progressive Democrat? A conservative Democrat? All it makes me is somebody who is living the values of the Democratic Party. And we have a necessity to come together as a party for the simple reason that we have existential threats, called Donald Trump and Republican leadership in Congress. There’s chaos and carnage every single day. We can’t afford a moment of re-litigating the past.

That raises a question that came when you were challenged by people who want to primary any Democrat who doesn’t sufficiently contest Trump. Do you worry the party could be pushed into too doctrinaire a position, and alienate exactly the voters you think it needs to connect with?

The Democratic Party is a big tent. It’s our biggest strength. What I’m doing is trying to demonstrate that we have shared values, and if we demand 100 percent purity as defined by one group, that’s a recipe for shrinking the party, not growing it. And the good news is that in talking to people, I’ve seen an energy I’ve not seen in years. And it’s inspired by a lot of people who have not been active in politics but who, after this election, have seen that democracy can’t be a spectator sport. Those are the people that give me great optimism about the future.