The Hill interview — DNC chief: I came here to win elections

The Hill interview — DNC chief: I came here to win elections
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Tom PerezThomas Edward PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE was only eight months into the job, but the Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman’s thoughts had already turned to his legacy as he ate cornbread and barbecue chicken between campaign stops in Virginia.

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenCanadian corporate tax cuts show success of strong economic policy Avenatti on 2020 campaign: 'The truth is my policy issue' Democrats embracing socialism is dangerous for America MORE (D-Mass.) and a leading progressive group declared in recent days that Perez would be judged by his ability to unite the Democratic Party, which is still dealing with deep divisions from the 2016 primary between Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersDems make history, and other takeaways from Tuesday's primaries Ellison wins Minnesota AG primary amid late domestic violence allegations Ironworker and star of viral video wins Dem primary for Speaker Ryan's seat MORE (I-Vt.) and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDems make history, and other takeaways from Tuesday's primaries Establishment-backed Vukmir wins Wisconsin GOP Senate primary Ironworker and star of viral video wins Dem primary for Speaker Ryan's seat MORE.

Perez spent Sunday talking about party unity on the campaign trail, but knows he’ll be judged in the short term on the party’s electoral success. Winning, he hopes, will be a salve for party wounds until Democrats can bury 2016 once and for all.

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“This is an outcomes business and legacies will be determined in no small measure by our success in winning elections,” Perez said in an interview with The Hill.

“That’s why I’m in this,” he said. “We’ve lost too many elections. I came here so we can start winning elections.”

Perez hopes that starts Tuesday, when Democrats are looking to use the Virginia governor’s race to secure their first major Trump-era victory after a dispiriting string of special election losses in 2017.

The stakes are high for Perez. Democrats expect that their candidate, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, will defeat Republican Ed Gillespie, but the contest has tightened dramatically in recent days.

“Let me assure you, as someone who three years ago had a near-death experience on Election Day, don’t take anything for granted at the polls,” Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerEurope a cautionary tale for privacy, not a guiding light Dustbin 2020: The best Dems who surely won’t get the nomination WikiLeaks says Senate panel requested Assange testimony for Russia probe MORE (D-Va.) warned supporters at a joint appearance with Perez at Kline’s Dairy Bar in Staunton, Va.

Perez isn’t taking anything for granted, either. He has crossed the state ahead of Tuesday’s election, racking up hundreds of miles and more than a dozen stops in the race’s final days.

On Sunday, Perez started the day at La Jarochita in Manassas, a Spanish-language, buffet-style Mexican restaurant in a nondescript shopping center where working class families in the burgeoning immigrant community gather to eat after church.

“Hola, me llamo Thomas,” Perez says as he goes table to table, launching into his pitch about why Hispanics must get out to vote for Northam to send “una mensaje fuerte” — a strong message — to President Trump.

There, Perez makes the rounds with councilman Hector Cendejas. The DNC chairman is simultaneously seeking to fulfill his promise of fostering relationships with local party leaders who felt ignored under his predecessor, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.). 

Perez has pledged that the DNC will act as more than just a vessel for the Democratic presidential nominee every four years.

“A lot of folks I meet here are surprised to hear I’m with the national party, because we haven’t shown up in the past,” Perez said. “It’s about building relationships. Success can’t be transactional.”

From there, Perez worked a grass-roots organizing event for state delegate candidate Hala Ayala in Lake Ridge, where he gave a pep talk to the three-dozen canvassers and activists who endured the rainy weather to knock on doors.

“The new Democratic National Committee is all about electing people up and down the ballot, from the school board to the White House,” Perez told the young volunteers.

After that, it was an office drop-by for state delegate candidate Elizabeth Guzman in Warrenton. Then the dairy bar with Warner to whip-up support for Northam. Perez’s day finally ended after 7 p.m. on the University of Virginia campus, where he met with the leader of the college Democrats in his dorm room.

After Tuesday, Perez will turn his attention to the 2018 midterms. Perez works in the same building as Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), and the two have been strategizing on the best path for Democrats to pick up the 24 seats they need to reclaim the majority.

Perez said there are 70 districts that are more competitive than Georgia’s sixth district, which Democrats lost by more than 20 points in 2016 but closed the gap to fewer than 4 points in a closely watched special election defeat this year.
“I think we have a real shot at winning the House,” Perez said, comparing the 2017 political landscape to 2005, “when we had a very unpopular president with a very unpopular agenda and a very unpopular right-wing Congress.”

A year later, in 2006, Democrats took back the House.

The real prize is the Senate. The map is stacked heavily against Democrats, with so many of the party’s incumbents seeking reelection in states Trump won. But there is hope among Democrats that GOP infighting and anti-Trump energy among grass-roots liberals will propel the party to a majority in the upper chamber.

“The thing about the Senate is that the map continues to expand,” Perez said.

Perez is eyeing pick-up opportunities in states where Democrats believe GOP infighting has left Republicans vulnerable.

Perez mentioned Arizona and Tennessee, where GOP Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeGOP senator: Republicans should not be 'okay' with Trump calling Omarosa a dog Senate GOP campaign arm asking Trump to endorse McSally in Arizona: report Arpaio says he misheard Sacha Baron Cohen questions MORE and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerGOP leaders: No talk of inviting Russia delegation to Capitol Collins and Murkowski face recess pressure cooker on Supreme Court Tougher Russia sanctions face skepticism from Senate Republicans MORE have announced they will not seek reelection after feuding bitterly with Trump. Nevada, where GOP Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerBattle of the billionaires drives Nevada contest Trump’s endorsements cement power but come with risks Collins and Murkowski face recess pressure cooker on Supreme Court MORE has attracted a primary challenger, and Alabama, where Breitbart-backed candidate Roy Moore is a lightning rod for controversy, are also on Perez’s radar.

Perez said he’s working closely on those races with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman, Sen. Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenNew sanctions would hurt Russia — but hurt American industry more Dems ask Mnuchin to probe Russian investment in state election tech Tougher Russia sanctions face skepticism from Senate Republicans MORE (D-Md.), Perez’s home-state senator and a “longtime friend.”

Perez is also in regular contact with his “two great mentors” — former President Obama and former Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenTech companies earn White House praise for committing to easier health data access Biden honors Heather Heyer: She is 'in every person who stands up to reject hatred and bigotry' Avenatti on 2020 campaign: 'The truth is my policy issue' MORE. Perez said both men have been instrumental in helping him make the transition from civil rights attorney and Labor secretary into the world of campaign politics.

“Whether it’s talking to the president directly or talking to his innermost circle, he’s been exceedingly helpful,” Perez said.

Still, Perez faces systemic challenges at the DNC. The Republican National Committee has outraised their DNC counterparts by a 2-to-1 margin — more than $50 million — in 2017.

Perez bristled at the notion that some Democratic donors are so frustrated by the DNC’s dysfunction over the past few years that they have sworn off giving money to the national party.

“I’ve talked to donors who said they’d never write a check again, and now they’re writing checks because they’ve seen our plan,” he said.

Perez said the DNC is keeping pace with past fundraising efforts and the party was able to take back the House in 2006, when they were similarly outraised by a 2-to-1 margin. Perez noted an uptick in small-dollar donations, saying the DNC had its best third quarter ever as it hauled in $5 million in donations of $22 or less.

“But I’m not satisfied, we have to do more,” he said.

Even as he tries to maintain focus on the party’s future, the Democrats have been unable to out-run the ghosts of 2016.

Old wounds reopened this week when former interim DNC Chairwoman Donna Brazile alleged in book excerpts that the Clinton campaign took over the DNC before winning the primary against Sanders.

Brazile’s revelations blindsided the DNC and angered Perez.

“It certainly wouldn’t have hurt anyone for [Brazile] to wait a week,” Perez said. “The timing for me is undeniably frustrating, but I will not let anything distract me from the task at hand.”

Still, Perez says he’s taking the substance of Brazile’s allegations seriously. Over the weekend, he released a memo stating that the DNC would be transparent with the primary process and would make changes, including announcing the debate schedule before the candidates are even known.

Perez said he has worked with Rep. Keith EllisonKeith Maurice EllisonDems make history, and other takeaways from Tuesday's primaries Somali-American Ilhan Omar wins Minnesota Dem primary Ellison wins Minnesota AG primary amid late domestic violence allegations MORE (D-Minn.), his opponent in the DNC chairman race and a Sanders supporter, who Perez later tapped to be his deputy chairman in a show of party unit.

“We fell short in carrying out our obligation to ensure people felt the entire process was fair,” Perez said. “What we have to do is send a clear signal. If people feel the playing field isn’t level or the process is opaque, they’re going to lose faith in the party. We can’t have that.”