Editor’s Note: On Tuesday, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez paid a visit to the Pacific Northwest, stopping in Seattle to keynote Dow Constantine’s annual Filing Week luncheon and headline an event for the Washington State Democrats on Beacon Hill. Prior to that event, Chairman Perez kindly sat down for a few minutes to talk to NPI founder Andrew Villeneuve (a member of the Washington State Democratic Central Committee) about the work the Democratic Party is doing to recover from the catastrophic 2016 presidential election. The following is a transcript of that conversation.
NPI’S ANDREW VILLENEUVE: It’s good to see you. I caught your press conference earlier at the Westin. I guess the main thing I’ve been wanting to ask you — because I’ve been following your campaign, your work with Keith, doing the Democrats Live, and all those good things — [is] what do you think the party needs to do to get back into the good graces of rural voters?
What issues do we need to run on to appeal to them?
TOM PEREZ: First of all, we need to be physically present, okay? And we have to make house calls everywhere and [have a] every zip code strategy. We have to speak to people’s hopes, fears, and dreams. I’ve spent a lot of time in rural America, and folks want economic opportunity for themselves and for their family.
They want economic security. They want to make sure that the American dream is available to them, that they don’t have to watch their children go off and move hundreds of miles away. That’s often the lament of today’s generation. They want to make sure that we’re addressing the issues that are front and center.
I mean, the opioid epidemic touches every zip code across America, but there are rural pockets where it’s been decimating. When we lead with our values, as the Democratic Party, and when we’re physically present fighting for folks… we don’t win every fight. But when folks know that we’re on their side, fighting for fair wages, fighting for good jobs, fighting to make sure that the health clinic that the Republicans are trying to close because they’re engaged in this absolutely asinine effort to repeal the [Patient Protection and] Affordable Care Act that would decimate rural America, that’s why we’re there.
ANDREW VILLENEUVE: Thanks, and with respect to the framing of issues, can you give a couple of examples of how you’d like to see Democrats go on offense as opposed to play defense — where the Republicans come after us and then we defend things that we might have done in the past, like the Patient Protection Act?
TOM PEREZ: Well, I think when we talk about what we stand for, we stand for good jobs, right? We stand for pathways to middle class opportunity for everyone. We stand for healthcare security for everyone and we’re proud of it.
We want to expand coverage for people. We don’t want to make it harder for people to get coverage. And I think one of the gifts — strike that word — one of the aspects of Donald Trump’s presidency is it has enabled us, in very clear terms, to tell people the differences between Republicans and Democrats.
Because I’ve heard from a lot of people, “I don’t know the differences anymore.” I think people are starting to see the differences very starkly, because they see a president who wants to cut access to healthcare; the Democrats want to expand access to healthcare. We want to make sure we’re investing in education, and they have a budget that cuts funding for education. We want to retain those rural hospitals and clinics and they have a budget that would cut that. So, I think when we’re leading, again, specifically with our values and what we’re fighting for, and we’re clear about it, and we’re present in every community, that’s how we succeed.
ANDREW VILLENEUVE: Excellent. Well, I think it’s imperative that we retake on the states we lost in 2016. And I’m just curious, in closing, if you have any thoughts about how we do that. I mean, we lost in Michigan, Wisconsin. I know that there was some voter suppression going on there that hurt, but what is the plan to get those states back into the Democratic fold?
TOM PEREZ: The plan is, first of all, getting back to the basics: having a twelve month-a-year organizing presence so we’re talking to everybody.
You can’t show up at a church every fourth [Sunday in] October and call that an organizing strategy. That’s step number one.
Having all of the building blocks of a strong organization, not just organizing, but making sure that when you recruit candidates, you can train candidates.
Making sure that we have a voter file that is state of the art and enables organizers to be efficient. Making sure that we have effective partnerships, because success is about building strong parties and building strong partnerships with our friends in labor, with Planned Parenthood, with faith communities, and other key stakeholders in the community. And all too frequently, we’ve been bowling alone, and we need to be part of a very strong partnership.
And, then making sure we have a clear message, a message of optimism, of opportunity, a message that’s based on facts — not lying to people.
ANDREW VILLENEUVE: And science?
TOM PEREZ: Science matters! And facts matter. And healthcare matters. And education matters. We need a Secretary of Education, for instance, that believes in public education. That would be nice.
I think when we do all these things, I’m convinced that none of these challenges, and the challenges are undeniably significant, but they’re all fixable. I see the energy out there — and one of our basic challenges is to take this almost unprecedented energy and activism, and translate it into results at the ballot box.
ANDREW VILLENEUVE: So maybe through ballot measures?
TOM PEREZ: That’s one way.
And Washington State has led the way. Arizona, last cycle, had a ballot initiative on earned sick leave and minimum wage. And you see other ballot measures relating to climate and things of that nature. Washington State has a remarkable and rich tradition of citizen participation. And I think the rest of the nation can learn quite a bit from what Washington State has been able to do.
They have debunked the myth that if you raise the minimum wage, it’s a job killer. They’ve had among the highest minimum wages in the country for the last fifteen [to] twenty years, and job growth here has been among the best in the country. So Washington State is really… has exercised leadership.
The grassroots leadership is one of the reasons I came out here so often when I was the labor secretary. I wanted the nation to see that you can pay people a fair wage and still have a very solid business climate. You can treat your workers and your shareholders well. It’s not an “either/or”. You can build effective constitutional policing. That’s not an “either/or”. You can do these things.…and you’ve shown it to the nation. That’s why… again, there’s a lot of leadership here, in action.
ANDREW VILLENEUVE: Well, thank you so much for coming out here to the region. We appreciate your valuable time. We hope you’ll come back.
TOM PEREZ: My pleasure. Great. Early and often!
State-level initiatives do seem like the way to go until we get a new Congress and President.