just asking questions

DNC Chair Tom Perez on the Debates: ‘We Don’t Want to Talk About Hand Size’

Photo: John Minchillo/AP/Shutterstock

Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez hasn’t exactly been the most popular figure in Washington since he took over the faltering organization in 2017. But the 2020 cycle has been basically going according to plan, Perez insists. Twelve hours before the first Democratic primary debate in Miami, the former Obama administration Labor secretary is having breakfast in the back of a Cuban restaurant in South Beach, explaining that for all the grief he takes over his group’s struggles to raise money, to rebuild trust among Bernie Sanders supporters who felt burned by the committee in 2016, to get a handle on the 25(?!)-person presidential primary field, and to bolster its protections against attacks like the Russian one that helped fell Hillary Clinton in 2016, he’s taking a lot of it as an indication of his party’s enthusiasm for beating Donald Trump. But, two years into the job — as its most important moment begins — does he yet have the trust he needs? “It’s a timeless journey,” he told New York. Three times.

When you were setting up these debates, how much of your thinking was organized around avoiding, or fixing, the mistakes of 2016?

Oh, you always want to learn from history, and there was a strong sense that many people had, that the debates, the rules of engagement, were set forth to help one candidate at the expense of another. And so early on, our North Star principles were: We want to be fair to everyone. We want to articulate all the rules before we know who the full field is, so that nobody can credibly say that we tried to do this for one candidate or another. That’s why we set forth the debate schedule and the criteria back in February. So we gave people enough time. And, you know, it was fair to everyone. And, you know, what’s remarkable about it, actually, is we heard some criticism, like, ‘Oh, this is gonna hurt women and candidates of color, having this grassroots fundraising [threshold for inclusion in the debates].’ Well, all the women and all the candidates of color qualified under both. And so that dog didn’t hunt. There’s a lot of people in the race, so those who don’t make it feel left out. My response is that we made the rules four months ago. And I’m not going to be at all surprised if there are some who aren’t on the stage now [who] may be on the stage next month.

Okay, so then what was the specific error of the last cycle that you sought to fix here? It sounds like transparency? And the sheer number of debates?

We wanted fairness. We want everybody to feel good about the process. All but one are not gonna make it to the mountaintop. We need every single candidate in July of next year to be saying, ‘I am all in for the nominee.’ I don’t think that was the case in 2016. And that, to me, is so important. That’s why when I hear people now telling me, ‘Tom you’ve gotta work to shrink the field,’ I find myself scratching my head. That’s exactly what we shouldn’t do. The voters are the ones who are gonna shrink the field and our job is to make sure folks get a fair shake. And candidates have to demonstrate progress. That’s why we’re doing what has been done in every other primary cycle. The closer you get to the primary, you raise the bar of participation in the debates. And I’d hardly call 2 percent an unreasonable bar.

So you’re not actively trying to narrow the field by raising the threshold for qualification for the third debates?

What I think of this as doing is trying to make sure that you are demonstrating progress. I mean, this is what’s been done in every debate. We hear a lot of feedback from folks, and sometimes the feedback is a little bit contradictory, but you know, that’s the nature of the beast. I love the fact that people are engaged, you know? People have passion. People are coming to us with passionate requests about so many different things, and to me the worst thing would be apathy. And we see nothing but passion everywhere we’re going. And so, again, I feel pretty good about where we’re at because we’ve done so many things that are unprecedented. I mean, we solicited questions for this debate tonight and tomorrow and gave them to NBC, and they’re gonna look at them, and take questions, and end up using questions that were given to us from grassroots folks. So, to me, the common thread here is that from the outset we’ve really been focused on returning power to the grassroots, whether it was super-delegate reform, whether it’s having more primaries so that more people can participate, whether it’s these unprecedented pathways to the debate stage. The common denominator there is we want people to feel engaged. We want candidates to be treated fairly and we want to maximize participation.

When you think about your overall job, then — including the debates, but also the entire nominating process — how much of that thinking is defined by the idea of responding to specific 2016 mistakes? It sounds like a lot…

Well I think it’s always important to understand history so you don’t repeat the mistakes of history. It’s equally important not to overcorrect. So I think we’ve found a sweet spot that has really provided opportunities for candidates to show their stuff. I mean, I believe this cycle candidates have had more opportunities to earn, to get earned media than ever before. We worked very closely with a number of the networks to make sure they were doing town hall meetings, not just for the perceived frontrunners, but for everybody, and they did that, to their credit. There’s been more forums than ever before. Planned Parenthood just did a great forum last weekend in South Carolina that just about every candidate attended. I really like the field, and my job is to make sure they have maximum opportunities to connect.

This is the biggest presidential primary field ever, by most counts. Does no part of you worry that it’s so big it risks making the process unruly?

I really believe that every candidate understands that it’s bigger than them. They understand that Job One is to take down Donald Trump, and make him a one-term president. He needs to be fired, and they understand that this is the most important election of our lifetime, because our democracy as we know it is on the ballot. I think people have an acute appreciation for that, and that’s why I’ve heard candidates, time and time again, talk about they’re gonna support whoever the nominee is, and they’re gonna support that person unconditionally. When we established our Democratic Unity Fund, we didn’t have a trouble getting [candidates] to participate.

I understand the concerns that get raised about a large field. Will we have robust debate in the primaries, and spirited debate? Of course. Frankly, one thing that comes out of a 20-plus person field is whoever wins will truly be battle-tested, because you will have to have withstood a host of incoming. And that’s a good thing, because we know that the other side is gonna hit below the belt. They will cheat, they will try to suppress the vote, and so our candidate is gonna be ready.

One thing you talk a lot about is the new nominating rules you were able to implement. You’re not concerned they could lead to a messier-than-usual spring and summer next year?

To the extent that your question is, ‘Am I worried about a brokered convention?,’ I’m not. And I’m not for the following reason: It’s a very front-loaded primary schedule. And, by design, when people are voting in Iowa, they’re gonna be getting their ballots in California, and elsewhere. You can’t win the presidency by running an Iowa-only strategy. I think it’s really hard for someone to do that, because you’ve gotta have organization in place, you’ve got ballot access requirements that come into place early on. If you’re not on the ballot in these states because you haven’t a multi-state infrastructure it’s gonna be really hard to win. And then, if you get less than 15 percent of the vote, you get zero delegates.

So people frequently ask me the question: Well what happens if ten people are accumulating votes in Iowa? If that’s the case, there’s a very high likelihood there’s only gonna be a handful of those that are accumulating more than 15 percent of the vote. So the rules, I think, create a centrifugal force that will create momentum for whoever that nominee is. And so I actually have numerous bets with friends who are concerned about this, of dinner at a place of our choosing. I’m confident that this process is going to be spirited, and, again, I have no idea — we’re in mile six of a marathon right now, so anyone who says they know who the nominee is, is speculating at best. But I do have a lot of confidence that we will get down to that point where the nominee becomes clear in relatively short order.

You’ve rejected Governor Inslee’s calls for a climate-specific debate. Can you explain to me your perspective on not hosting any policy-specific debates, given how many debates you’ve scheduled overall? The argument for having generalized debates is obvious, but do you see the argument for a climate debate, a healthcare debate…

We’re still working out the format for future debates, and I could easily see a scenario where a portion of a future debate is taken up with discussion of healthcare, or climate, or immigration, or foreign policy. I have no doubt that we’ll have discussions with the networks about having a debate focused on a few issues, so that we can really drill down. At the same time, as it relates to climate, as I’ve said to everybody who’s asked, we’re gonna have the most robust and spirited and in-depth discussion of climate ever. And the beauty of it is it comes in the context of many issues, because climate change is a cross-cutting issue. When we’re talking about infrastructure and job creation, we’ll talk about combating climate change. When we talk about environmental issues, we’ll talk about climate change. When we talk about, healthcare we can talk about the impact that fossil fuel emissions has on people’s health. So to pigeonhole it in one debate, in my judgement, understates the cross-cutting nature of the issue. So I have no doubt that we’re gonna have numerous opportunities to drill deeply on the issue. And, frankly, when I was negotiating with the networks, climate was the issue I used most frequently to say, ‘We don’t want to talk about hand size, we want to talk about the issues, we want to talk about healthcare, we want to talk about climate.’

Presumably that’s at least in part also a response to the 2016 experience, when there were famously no climate questions in the general election debates.

Oh, of course! Yeah, we studied a lot of what happened and what didn’t happen. We know that Donald Trump is gonna try to tweet during the debates and we’re gonna ignore that. We’re talking about our vision. I mean, Distracting Donald will attempt to create diversions, and for me the definition of success is voters have a really clear understanding after these debates about where our folks stand on the really critical issues of the day. Healthcare’s a Number One issue that voters are talking about all the time. Growing an economy that works for everyone, addressing climate change, what’s going on at the border — and what we’re learning about the mistreatment of young children is unconscionable, and I want to make sure that people know what the candidates think. You know, I watched it firsthand with Obama: the president has to be the multitasker-in-chief. And when I’m watching the debate, and when I’m trying to figure out a nominee, I’m asking the question, you know, How is this person going to be able to address the wide array of issues that he or she is gonna confront every single day? And that, to me, is a big part of what debates are about. How fluent are you in the wide range of issues? I can’t tell you the number of times I was with the president and he’d have to leave the room, or I’d have to leave the room, because something came up.

You talk about the idea of demonstrating to the American people what the party stands for, and who it is. Are you at all concerned that because of how the rules worked out, the one presidential candidate who’s won regularly in a Trump state, statewide, won’t be on the debate stage? That even though you’ve been transparent about the rules, that perspective won’t be shared?

Oh, I think there are ample ways in which people will see that perspective. And I have great respect for Steve Bullock.  I mean, I worked with him. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he’s on the debate stage [eventually]. We created the rules back in February and we were very transparent in putting forth those rules. It’s hard to get lower than a one percent bar for participation. I love Steve Bullock, I love what he fights for, and I love what he stands for. You know, there are other candidates, as well, I think, who can do pretty well in red states, and that’s what I think our voters will see.

When you look at Bullock’s protesting his exclusion, or Inslee’s point about a climate debate, or a huge variety of fights in the last two years, are you frustrated that the DNC is this conceptual punching bag?

I understood when I ran for this job that my holiday card list wasn’t gonna get longer, and that’s fine. That’s not why I ran. I ran because we need to win elections. We needed to build the infrastructure that is critical to winning elections. We needed to build the trust that is critical to having voters be thoroughly engaged, and that’s what our super-delegate reform was about. That’s what our unprecedented debate participation rules have been about. We’ve done a number of things that have never been done before. That’s what random selection was about, you know, not putting the thumb on the scale. Learning from the lessons of history, it is axiomatic that I will never please everyone in this job. I accept that, and I feel, when I reflect on where are we now versus where were we, we ran the table, basically, in 2018. We were able to win in Virginia, New Jersey, Alabama, in 2017. We’ve got a lot of wind at our back. We’ve got a lot of momentum. So I actually feel really excited. I mean, I’m very excited about [the] Milwaukee [convention]. We have multiple pathways to 270, and the Ohio — I’m sorry, the Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin [path] — that alone, if we replicated what we did in 2018 in 2020, that alone will be enough.

What did you think your job was when you first took over in 2017?

Bringing people together. I mean, thirty seconds after I won, the first thing I did was to ask Keith Ellison to join us as deputy chair. If he had won, I think he would have done the same, because we understood that it wasn’t about Tom Perez or Keith Ellison or anybody else running, it was about bringing the party together, and quite literally from the moment I was elected, everything I have tried to do has been guided by that north star principle: How do we make sure that we are together, we are united? And in so doing, understanding that we must not conflate unity and unanimity. I’m not asking people to agree with everything we say or do, but what I am saying is: Acknowledge that what unites us far exceeds what our differences are. We allowed, I think, differences to obscure the broader unity of values. Now, with the most dangerous president in our lifetime, we must ensure that we come out of here united.

And now that you’ve been in this job for over two years?

Ensuring unity is a timeless journey.

Okay, but is that still your primary job? Or is it now winning, or something else?

I mean, ensuring unity is the means to an end. When people feel part of something bigger than themselves, that’s what we try to do at the Democratic Party. This is not only the party of “you,” this is the party of “we.” And I ran for this job, in no small measure, because I asked the question, ‘Where can I make the biggest difference on the issues I care about?’ I love the work I did. When I’m asked the question, ‘What do you miss most about your old job?’ I miss helping people at scale. That’s what I did in the Labor Department and the Justice Department. When Democrats win, we help people at scale. When Republicans win, and you elect people like Donald Trump, people I care about get hurt at scale. And so for me, it’s all about making sure we’re winning up and down the ballot so we can again get back to helping people at scale. It just tears my heart apart to see young children torn from their parents. It tears my heart apart to see farmers committing suicide. It tears my heart out to see people working 70 hours a week and still living in poverty because of what this president’s done, and when you throw paper towels in Puerto Rico, the disrespect. And that’s all occurring right now because we lost too many elections. And that’s why this job is really important. And so the job will continue to be to build that infrastructure, and to build the trust necessary for us to win at scale again.

With that in mind, then, in your eyes what’s the single most important thing you’ve been able to accomplish in this job?

I think we made real progress in both building the infrastructure and in building trust. We’ve become a fifty-state party again. I was in Kansas two weeks ago, and Kathleen Sebelius said, and I have to agree with her, “We wouldn’t have a Democratic governor but for early investments by the DNC.” So I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve become that fifty-state party. We made more investments in this midterm cycle than ever before, and the beauty of it is those are the gifts that keep on giving. So our investments in data and technology, we’re night-and-day from where we were when I got there. Our investments in organizing, which is not just the Organizing Corps, but really investing in 12-month-a-year organizing, or investments in voter protection. Those are the things that weren’t there when I got there, and so that’s a big part of what’s helping us win at scale. And then, again, changing the rules of engagement.

We’ve done things that are very tangible to folks. I understand people focus and say, ‘Oh, there are members of the Black Caucus that disagree with what you did.’ The reality is that the overwhelming majority of African American members of the DNC voted for these reforms. The overwhelming majority of both people who supported Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton voted for these reforms. We came together because we had a 16-month process of engagement, and everybody’s voice was heard. Now, people didn’t agree at the end. Some people didn’t agree, but nobody had a beef that their voice wasn’t heard. And by doing things like that, that’s how, I think, we’ve been able to make it cool to be a Democrat again. Because people see that: ‘The Democratic Party is listening to me.’ I had someone come up to me and say, ‘You mean, like, I can spend a dollar in this election and have a say in who gets on the debate stage?’ My answer was, ‘Yes.’ Because they thought it needed to be, like, a hundred dollars. One dollar. And that is all about empowering average Americans. There was a sense that this was becoming the party of elites, and we wanted to take that on, head-on.

Do you think you’ve sufficiently rebuilt trust with the folks who were paying close attention in 2016 but felt the DNC wasn’t treating their perspective fairly then, or before?

Again, I think it’s a timeless journey. I think we’ve made undeniable progress and the proof is in the pudding. We’ve been winning elections, coming together. The reforms that we’ve put in place were, I think, a big part of what our success has been. But again, trust is a timeless journey, and that’s why we continued with the rules of engagement in the primary cycle, giving voice to so many people in the grassroots, and we’ll continue to do that.

So what’s your biggest regret from the last two years?

Florida and Georgia. We lost those elections. We lost Georgia in 2010 when Brian Kemp got elected secretary of state. I wish the Democratic Party had invested earlier in secretary of state and AG races, because so much voter suppression has resulted from their careful attention to taking over the levers of power. I have no doubt that if we had a fair fight in Georgia and Florida, that we’d have democrats in key positions there. We have to pay more attention to that.

What do you make of the idea that the DNC needs to be deeply invested in the battleground states right now trying to win over persuadable voters with massive ad campaigns, or being a constant presence for those people, while the candidates are sorting their process out?

Our DNC war room and initiatives like Organizing Corps, and investments that we’re making in battleground states are examples of that. I mean, the work we have done around the war room is all about going into Ohio, which we did when Trump was there — we have one of the biggest repositories of oppo research, and all the footage going back literally decades. So he goes to Ohio, we have to footage of Donald Trump saying, ‘There will never be a plant closure,’ and then we have, through the eyes of real people there, the localization of the broken promise: ‘My dad worked at the Chevy plant, my grandpa worked at the Chevy plant, I worked at the Chevy plant. Democrats, you know, Obama saved the auto industry and now these plants are closing down.’ We’re doing the same thing in Wisconsin, and we’re doing the same thing in New Hampshire, with promises he made at the naval yard. And so that’s the example of localization. Organizing Corps is about putting organizers in seven key battleground states, and handing that over.

That wasn’t done for the candidate before. And our investments in data and tech, I mean, our new Chief Technology Officer is one of the best political analytics people in the ecosystem. So we’re literally gonna hand to the nominee really granular battleground plans: ‘Here are the key people, here’s where we fell short, here’s how we stem that. And here’s what we’ve done already to stem that.’ So, I mean, when I talk about infrastructure, that’s what I’m talking about, and frankly that just didn’t happen, Gabe, in 2016.

With respect to how you’re messaging against him, you seem to think using real people to talk about broken promises is the most potent line to follow?

I think one of the most potent messages is, he’s not only divisive and destructive, he’s chronically ineffective. I mean, we are less safe now in the Middle East because of him. He has owned the situation at the border. He’s the president. They had the senate, they had the House, and you look at the chaos at the border. And that’s because, rather than trying to solve problems and bring people together, he spends all his time tweeting and trying to figure out nicknames for his foes when he should be doing work. And when I talk to people, I want people to solve my problems. And so I think highlighting his ineffectiveness. And elections are about the future. People want to know, ‘Who has my back on the issues that matter most?’ And the reason we were successful in 2018 and 2017 is the same reason we’re gonna be successful in 2019 and 2020, because we have people’s backs on the issues that matter most, and now he has a record. Before, he could make all those promises because he had no record, having not run before. He was able to persuade a number of people to take a flyer, and people wanted change when they voted for him. But they wanted change that was gonna improve their lives. And so healthcare is, again, one of many examples of promises that he made that were promises broken.

One could read that answer as suggesting you don’t think it’s going to be outrageously difficult to beat him.

I’ve never said that. They’re gonna lie, cheat and steal. I mean, they’re gonna make it hard for our voters to vote. They’re already — there’s more voter purges. We won a case here in Florida involving the signature match requirement. I know that they have a massive amount of money, so that they can put in. I have always said that I feel very confident that we can win, I feel equally confident that it won’t be easy, because of all the reasons I’ve said. But that’s why all the work we’re doing now to build this infrastructure, and to build trust and to make sure that everybody feels good — we need everyone to spend 100 percent of their day training their fire on how to defeat Donald Trump.

He recently suggested he’d accept foreign intel for his campaign in 2020. Obviously when that happened in 2016, some of it came from the DNC. What role do you have in combating that this time?

Well, I mean I was the first to write a letter to [RNC chair Ronna] McDaniel saying, ‘We should be all coming together. This isn’t about right versus left, this is about right versus wrong. That’s criminal behavior.’ And, again, that question illustrates my point. They will lie, cheat, steal, take information from foreign adversaries. He’ll do whatever it takes to win. It’s not hard to figure out why he’s Putin’s poodle, because Putin’s gonna help him. He helped him in 2016, and he’s gonna help him again in 2020. And that’s why we have a whole group of people who do nothing but going on the Internet and combating, identifying nefarious bots and other things, and working with social media companies to have those taken down. We built an app for candidates so they actually get an automated message when we see something that relates to them, and we’ve helped facilitate taking down something like nine hundred nefarious bots and other things on the internet. But I also know that’s the tip of the iceberg. I mean, this isn’t gonna stop. Because it was effective for them in 2016, so they’re gonna continue to try to do it.

This article has been edited and condensed from an extended conversation.

DNC Chair Tom Perez: ‘We Don’t Want to Talk About Hand Size’