With the election for chair of the Democratic National Committee occurring at the end of the month, Democrats are rallying behind leaders who they hope can revive the party, including Thomas Perez ’83 P’18, former U.S. secretary of labor.
Perez is looking to be elected as chair to strengthen the Democratic Party at a grassroots level, he said. President Donald Trump is attempting to undercut “fundamental democratic principles of opportunity (and) inclusion,” Perez added. “We need a strong Democratic Party … to fight these existential threats.”
The Democratic Party must prove that it will support the “people in the shadows,” including marginalized communities and members of the working class, Perez said.
Because of his working class background, Perez understands “what families have to go through to make it in America,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Texas Democratic Party. “He knows what families — when they sit at the kitchen table late at night — talk about: How they’re going to be able to make ends meet, … how they’re going to be able to ensure that they have access to healthcare,” Hinojosa added.
As the son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Perez also “understands what Hispanics are dealing with every day” and “can provide a firsthand knowledge on what immigrants go through,” Hinojosa said.
Perez attended Brown on a Pell Grant and his work-study experience with social justice organizations influenced his choice of career, Perez said. As a member of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, Perez recognized that the privilege of a Brown education should be an option for more students, he said.
“He has the power to motivate a different section of the Democratic Party,” said Wendy Schiller, professor of political science and international and public affairs. Perez’s background will enable him to “speak to communities that defected from the Democratic Party in this election and try to win them back,” Schiller added.
“We have to reach out to working class white folks in rural America and … talk about their issues,” Hinojosa said, noting that the Democratic Party must expand its base to include groups that are not traditional allies.
By pursuing a grassroots strategy and focusing on state and district races, the Democratic Party can regain state and local seats that will act as a foundation for recovering national positions, Perez said. The tendency to view the presidential contest as the only important election is misguided, as Republicans in state seats were able to stymie former President Barack Obama’s agenda due to Democratic weakness at the state level, said Pieter Brower ’18, who interned for the DNC last summer.
“Democrats must find a way to generate representation that is more proportional to their support in the population,” wrote John Friedman, professor of economics and international and public affairs, in an email to The Herald. Nationwide organization, direct conversations with voters and an effective strategy for getting voters to the polls can “increase performance for (the Democratic) party at a state, local and national level,” Hinojosa said.
Leading up to the 2018 election cycle, the Democratic Party should concentrate on state legislative and gubernatorial races as state legislatures can make changes that shape the 2020 presidential election, Schiller said. Currently, Republicans have control of the House of Representatives because of gerrymandering — which was possible due to the Republican Party’s focus on state elections prior to the last census, said Richard Arenberg, adjunct lecturer in international and public affairs. When the district lines are redrawn after the 2020 census, Democrats must gain positions in state legislatures in order to ensure that the party can exercise greater control over redrawing, he added.
Though the media has cast Perez as the establishment candidate of the Obama administration and his chief competition, Representative Keith Ellison, D-MN, as the face of liberal progressives, Perez is defined not by a label, but by his progressive record and accomplishments, he said.
Perez “was out fighting on civil rights issues, for LGBT marriage equality,” Hinojosa said. “He indicted and convicted police officers in New Orleans who killed African American residents during Hurricane Katrina.” Perez also spearheaded the nationwide fight for voting rights, Hinojosa added.
In his commitment to fair working conditions, labor rights and democratic participation, Perez is “a good fit for what the Democratic Party advocates for,” Schiller said, adding that Perez’s experience in the civil rights division of the Justice Department also makes him an impressive candidate for DNC chair.
Perez is prepared to manage the Democratic Party because of his experience as secretary of labor, where he oversaw a 6,000-person department, Hinojosa said. “He has a comprehensive knowledge of a lot of the areas that a DNC chair would need to address in a period of time where the Trump administration is going to be making … decisions that dramatically reverse the direction that this country has been going in,” he added.
The media-driven dichotomy between Perez and Ellison is inaccurate, as both candidates are “working off the same broader ideas about how to reform the DNC,” Brower said. “The fact that there’s more agreement than disagreement is a good sign,” he added.
While the Republican Party has considerable organizational infrastructure, “the DNC is the only organization that can … organize in every state and coordinate with different state parties” for Democrats, Brower said. The Obama-era perception that “the DNC was just an appendage that wasn’t really doing much” has to be dispelled so the DNC can be maximized as an organizational resource, he added.
The DNC must “be a force for the party,” Schiller said, adding that it will be most successful if it proves to Democratic activists that it supports the party as a whole, not one particular candidate.
Hinojosa said that Perez is qualified to reorient the DNC, as he understands the party’s past mistakes and has the ability “to turn this huge ship around and head it in the right direction.”