Chair of the Democratic National Committee Tom Perez took the position knowing it was “a turn-around job, where I needed to change the culture.” In a Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture Monday, Perez discussed how he is leading that culture change, what’s at stake, and the importance of the large millennial generation.
Perez was interviewed by Deondra Rose, assistant professor of public policy and political science at the Sanford School.
The loss of the presidency in 2016, both houses of Congress, governships, and more left the party grappling with the question: what happened?
“What happened is we stopped organizing. We used to be the grassroots party,” Perez said. The party focused on swing states, and lost its technology advantage.
“Our mission devolved from being the party who elected people up and down the ballot, including the Oval Office, to the party whose mission it was to elect the president every four years,” he said.
“You end up with a 10-month innovation cycle every fourth year,” he said, adding that no enterprise could survive with that inconsistent strategy.
Perez did not mention the Bernie Sanders campaign and the divisions it reveled in the party.
Perez said the DNC is now investing in campaigns “from the school board to the Oval Office.” As examples of recent wins, he pointed to support for Doug Jones during his special election race for Senate in Alabama, and for a Supreme Court justice candidate in Wisconsin last week.
“Every zip code counts,” he said. “We can win everywhere when we organize, when we build authentic relationships – not transactional relationships,” he said.
Among the DNC’s technology improvements is a website with a toolkit for Democratic candidates to help them leverage technology to engage voters. The DNC also has a mobile app canvassers can use to find 10 registered voters in the area, and send the information back to headquarters. In Virginia last year, the DNC sent a videographer to candidates, who spent three days filming and created 90-second videos for them to use in social media and online.
“We don’t spend a dime on TV. Television is yesterday’s technology.” he said.
Even with the recent wins and renewed support of the DNC, Rose questioned: “How much of that is the Donald Trump effect? One could argue that Trump is the Democratic Party’s MVP for the upcoming races.”
“Donald Trump has awakened our democracy, and that’s a silver lining,” Perez said.
“He’s the most serious stress test on our democracy, and this is a global virus,” as authoritarian leaders are rising around the world, in Turkey, the Philippines, Austria and more.
Rose asked what the party is doing to improve diversity among elected officials, “to help average Americans see public service as a reasonable endeavor.”
“The Senate and the House still don’t look like America,” Perez agreed. “What we have to do as Democrats is build the pipeline of qualified candidates,” he said.
In North Carolina, Perez pointed to Anita Earls, an attorney and voting rights expert running for N.C. Supreme Court – her first race for public office. He gave credit to the state party for “flooding the zone” and fielding candidates across the board.
On Donald Trump’s continual claims of voter fraud, “the only fraud is that statement,” Perez said, calling it an excuse to suppress the vote. He pointed to the voter purges in North Carolina and the Texas voter I.D. law. The Texas law was supposed to combat voter fraud, but there were only a handful of verified incidents out of more than 44 million votes and so it was stuck down by the courts. The DNC is working on voter protection and empowerment in all 50 states.
When Perez headed the civil rights division of the Department of Justice, the department brought dozens of lawsuits on behalf of disenfranchised military voters. Someone had asked him why, since many of them voted Republican.
“Number one, I’m offended by your question. Number two, I don’t know how the heck they vote and number three, I don’t care,” he said.
“They are serving our country. We should be making it easier for them to vote, not harder.”
Perez was encouraged by the leadership shown by women, in organizing the Women’s March in 2017 and by the teenagers in Parkland with the March for Our Lives. On March 24, leaders of the march were invited to the DNC office, and they “had pointed questions” about the party and the organizations.
Millennials are now the largest voting bloc in the country and Democrats have been doing well with that group. The DNC now has a line item in their budget just for college Democrats.
Q & A
During the Q&A period, Elliot Davis, a Duke sophomore, asked if the Democratic Party now had a clear and concise message and what that message was.
It’s not enough to be against Trump, Perez said. The Democratic Party needs to do a better job communicating that it is the party that “has your back” on the issues and values that people care about: health care, education, voter protection, immigration reform.
“I’m a Democrat because we must always understand the importance of exercising moral leadership.”