By Chris Johnson, Washington Blade
After high-level service in the Obama administration that included fighting for LGBT rights at both the Labor and Justice Departments, Tom Perez is looking to become the next Democratic National Committee chair.
In an interview Friday with the Washington Blade, Perez said in a crowded field of contenders his history of support for LGBT rights makes him the best candidate for the LGBT community.
“I have always fought for equality and opportunity for the LGBTQ community, and if I have the privilege of being elected, past is prologue, the best to judge what someone is going to do in the future is look at what they’ve done in the past, and I’m very proud of my history with partnership with the LGBTQ community because everybody in this country deserves to be treated with dignity,” Perez said.
Perez’s work on LGBT rights goes back as far as the 1990s, when as a former staffer for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy he said he drafted an initial version of the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
Working under the Obama administration as head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, Perez testified before Congress in favor of ENDA and led an effort in which Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota agreed to change practices to stop the anti-LGBT bullying it allowed in school.
As labor secretary, Perez was charged with enforcing President Obama’s executive order barring anti-LGBT workplace discrimination among federal contractors and interpreted an earlier order from President Lyndon Johnson prohibiting employment bias on the basis of sex to apply to transgender workers. Perez also extended federal benefits to same-sex couples, such as those under the Family & Medical Leave Act, in aftermath of the Supreme Court decision against the Defense of Marriage Act.
Also at the Labor Department, Perez hired Dylan Orr, who was the first openly transgender person to be appointed to a presidential administration and now works for the city of Seattle as director of the Office of Labor Standards.
Ed Murray, who’s gay and serves as mayor of Seattle, supports Perez and said the candidate’s background on LGBT rights is exactly what is needed at the DNC.
“Secretary Perez has been a strong partner and advocate on LGBTQ issues,” Murray said. “It is critical that our Democratic Party leader be able to stand up for the needs of the LGBTQ community, and build a national coalition that will continue to protect the civil rights of all in the face of discrimination.”
The election for chair is set to take place Saturday during the DNC’s winter meeting in Atlanta.
Here’s the full interview between Perez and the Washington Blade:
WASHINGTON BLADE: Can you tell me what you have to offer the DNC that other candidates aren’t offering?
TOM PEREZ: I think the DNC chair needs to be someone who knows how to take the fight to Donald Trump, knows how to win fights, knows how to talk to every stakeholder in our big tent and has a proven track record as a turnaround specialist. The DNC is suffering from a crisis of confidence, a crisis of relevance, and it’s a complex organization, and it needs a leader who can turn it around.
That’s what I’ve done at the Department of Labor; it’s what I’ve done at the Department at Justice beforehand. Taking organizations with a critical mission that weren’t firing on all cylinders and making sure that we got the best of out of those organizations.
That’s what I’ve done there. That’s what I hope to do as the head of the DNC is make sure we are putting our values into action, and we our values into action by among other things turning around this big ship that I think needs a lot of transformation. That’s how we succeed.
BLADE: You’ve been endorsed by Steny Hoyer and Joe Biden. A lot of a people would say you’re the establishment candidate in the race for chair. How would you respond to that characterization?
PEREZ: This is one of the first times I’ve heard of the farm workers referred to as establishment. They’re supporting me. The UFCW is supporting me, a number of other labor unions are supporting me.
I think it’s really important, Chris, to avoid labels and look at the substance of what people have done. I spent my entire life fighting for marriage equality. I worked for Sen. Kennedy in the ’90s when he was one of the lonely voices against the Defense of Marriage Act, then I fought at the Justice Department to make sure we didn’t defend it.
I took Wall Street on, negotiated two of the largest fair lending settlements in history of the Fair Housing Act. We took on bullying in the public schools in Anoka-Hennepin on behalf of LGBTQ young students. And we took a lot of grief for that, but we took that fight on. We took on the fight of police reform and negotiated more police consent decrees with police departments with my tenure as the Justice Department’s head of the civil rights division than had been in the preceding 15 years history of the statute.
So, when you look at the fights I’ve done and you move away from labels, I think the evidence is pretty clear that I’ve taken on some pretty important fights on behalf of long-established principles of the Democratic Party, the principles of inclusion, the principle that every deserves a fair shake and the principle of economic security — that if you work hard and play by the rules you can punch your ticket to the middle class. And I’ll hold my record of accomplishment on these long-established goals and values and principles of the Democratic Party up against anyone.
BLADE: You say you’re 44 votes short of getting a majority of the delegates to win the race for DNC chair. How do you envision claiming victory in Atlanta?
PEREZ: Well, that was as of two days ago. So, every day since we reached that mark, we keep moving forward. And I’m out in Chicago right now, was in West Virginia, Pennsylvania yesterday and I’ll be in Iowa later today. And I’ll be criss-crossing the country between now and next week. A lot of undecided voters out there, and we’re taking our case directly to them and that’s what grassroots campaign are about, making house calls.
That’s what the Democratic Party needs to do more of in order to make sure we’re winning seats from school board to state houses across this country is make house calls. That’s what I’m doing and I’m learning a lot on my visits with various people around the country.
BLADE: As chair of the DNC, you’ll be doing a lot of political organizing for the upcoming elections. There was a lot of discussion as to why Hillary Clinton lost the last one. Why do you think Hillary Clinton lost the election?
PEREZ: First of all, it’s important to remember that she did win the popular vote and there were a lot of factors that led to her not crossing the electoral finish line. Certainly, the Russian hack had something to do with it. Certainly, the Comey letter had something to do with it. And certainly there were mistakes that were made that were absolutely critical, and these were mistakes that have been occurring, frankly, for a number of election cycles.
We have to make house calls. All too frequently now, Democrats across the board have relied on paid analysts to the exclusion of that on-the-ground, 12-month-out-of-the-year organizing presence.
So in places like Milwaukee, we underperformed in Milwaukee, in places like Wisconsin where Romney got more votes in 2012 than Trump in 2016, we underperformed because we didn’t do enough to talk to people both in the Milwaukee area and frankly in the rural parts of the state. I did a visit to rural Wisconsin about a week or so ago, and what I heard directly from people is that we feel ignored. Many people in Michigan felt ignored.
And the Democratic Party abandoned its 50 state strategy a number of years ago and we’ve ignored whole swaths of zip codes, and we’ve got to change that. That wasn’t something that simply began in 2016, that’s something that’s been going on for some time. And so, the 57-state strategy of organizing in every zip code — not just the states, but the territories and the District of Columbia. It’s all about making sure we’re making house calls again, it’s all about getting back to basics, organizing, organizing and organizing.
The Republicans won Florida in no small measure because after they lost for the second consecutive time to President Obama in 2012, they embarked on a joint venture between the RNC, the Koch brothers and mostly the Southern Baptist Church, and it was a four-year, 12-month-a-year grassroots campaign to identify their voters and they identified roughly 125,000, 130,000 [voters] — and that was the difference in the 2016 campaign. We’ve got to do the same thing.
Our values are solid. We didn’t lose this election because we have the wrong values. Our values of economic opportunity, good jobs, middle-class security and inclusion and opportunity for everyone — those are timeless values of the Democratic Party. So what we have to do is get back to basics and make sure we’re building those strong parties, we’re talking to people, we’re communicating a consistent message and many people didn’t people didn’t hear a message sufficiently about the Democratic Party.
And again, it’s not just what happened in the presidency that I ask, it’s what happened over the last eight years when we lost over 900 seats in state legislatures. That wasn’t Hillary Clinton’s doing. That was the doing of, I think, a number of systemic mistakes that the party has made, and what I’m all about is getting back to our grassroots organizing everywhere. Supporting the development of strong state parties, making sure that we’re supporting candidates from the school board to the Senate. I’ve been talking recently with Democratic attorneys general about how we can support them. I’m meeting with secretaries of state tomorrow.
We’ve got to run candidates up and down the ticket. We’ve got to support them. I’m optimistic we can do this because, I think, in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump, millions of Americans have awakened to the reality that he does not stand for their values.
BLADE: What’s your plan for LGBT issues at the DNC?
PEREZ: My plan is what my plan has been for the last 25 years of being a civil rights lawyer and a labor rights lawyer: To continue to make sure that the LGBT community has a meaningful seat at the table.
That’s what I did when I when I worked with Sen. Kennedy. That’s what I did at the Justice Department. When I worked with Sen. Kennedy, I was one of the staffers who wrote the original version of what became the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. I started working on that back in ’95.
When I went to the Civil Rights Division, the first hearing I testified at was the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the bill that I worked on with Sen. Kennedy. When I was back at the Civil Rights Division in 2009, the work we did on bullying, especially the Anoka-Hennepin case was a landmark because we hadn’t done a bullying case at the Department of Justice involving the bullying of LGBTQ communities, and when I got to the Labor Department, making we sure that we expended the reach of the landmark executive order, the anti-discrimination order from the 1960’s relating to discrimination by federal contractors that didn’t protect the LGBTQ community, and we changed that. It was incredibly important.
So, throughout my life, I have always fought for equality and opportunity for the LGBTQ community and if I have the privilege of being elected, past is prologue, the best way to judge what someone is going to do in the future is look at what they’ve done in the past and I’m very proud of my history with partnership with the LGBTQ community because everybody in this country deserves to be treated with dignity, and I have personally been involved in hate crimes cases where somebody was brutally assaulted or murdered simply because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. And that has no place in the American fabric. None whatsoever. So I’ve seen the impact of discrimination firsthand in the work that I’ve done and it’s part of my DNA.
BLADE: In terms of structure, how do you envision getting LGBT people to have “a meaningful seat at the table” at the DNC?
PEREZ: Well, Earl Fowlkes is a very strong leader of the caucus and I certainly would continue our work there. What I learned from talking to current voting members in the DNC is that they feel under-utilized. They’re not alone. It’s not just LGBTQ members of the DNC that feel under-utilized.
When I talked at the outset, you asked why am I uniquely qualified, or why do I think I’m uniquely qualified. This organization, the Democratic Party, the DNC needs culture change. There’s a command-and-control structure right now. People with tremendous talent, we’re not making use of those talents. There are so many members who are chronically under-utilized. We don’t ask for their opinions. We don’t engage them. And with the activism out there right now, with all the movements that are being established, many just are simply organic movements. It’s more important than ever that we make use of our caucuses, including, but not limited to, the LGBT caucus.
One of the promises I’ve made to every member is you will not feel under-utilized. When I got to the Labor Department, we were second from the bottom on best places to work in the federal government. And when I left, we were in the top third, including two years in a row where we were the most improved federal agency. I understand a bit on how to change culture and agencies. How to take a complex organization and ensure that it’s firing on all cylinders. One very important aspect of that is making sure you make the best use of your talent.
How often have you seen in the world of sports a team with talent that’s not performing to its potential because it’s coaching leadership is moving the ball down the field? We need to make sure we have a coach who can move the ball down the field, engage and make sure everybody’s included, everybody is being used to their highest and best talents, and that’s what I want to do.
And I want to make sure that we have — I’m a big believer in what I call diversity and inclusion. It’s not simply we got to have X number of members of the DNC who are LGBT. People have to be included in a meaningful way. Diversity is being invited to the dance, but inclusion is being asked to dance, and we need to make sure everybody at the DNC — these are talented people with a great record of accomplishment. But it’s remarkably saddening and maddening to me that they’re under-utilized.
BLADE: What role, if any, would President Obama have at a Perez-run DNC?
PEREZ: First of all, I think, the president is going to go down in our nation’s history as one of the most impactful presidents in our history. The work that he did for the LGBTQ community especially, but not exclusively, was landmark from the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to marriage equality and so many other aspects. And I know President Obama is going to stay involved because he cares very deeply about the ideals and values of the Democratic Party.
And, frankly, a big part of the work of the DNC right now is to protect his legacy because the Affordable Care Act is not a job-killer, it’s a life-saver, and people are starting to realize how important the Affordable Care Act is as Republicans attempt to repeal it, and we have to make sure we fight that. And I know President Obama is going to be fighting side-by-side.
It was an honor of a lifetime to work with him and I am confident that he is going to be a strong supporter of our efforts to ensure that the Democratic Party is firing on all cylinders.
BLADE: Let’s talk about some recent news related to your old job as labor secretary. What do you make of Andrew Puzder withdrawing his name from consideration and President Trump nominating Alexander Acosta?
PEREZ: Well, Andrew Puzder was unqualified and unsuited for the job. He had a lot of experience with the Department of Labor. I have to acknowledge that, but it was bad experience. He was a chronic defendant in wage and hour and other employment actions. His whole philosophy is to profit off of the hard-earned labor of low-wage workers. His called his own workers “the worst of the worst.” And he was just unsuited for the job, and not only did Democrats understand that, but because of advocacy of so many in the us, Republicans started to understand this guy was bad news.
And so, the withdrawal of that nomination is a very good example of the power of organizing. People talked about, well, Tom, you don’t have the White House, you don’t have the Senate, you don’t have the House. We have something far more important because while January 20 was undeniably important and we lost some levers of power, January 21 and beyond was far more important because the American people in the millions are rising up and saying to Donald Trump, “Andrew Puzder doesn’t stand for our values, Andrew Puzder is antithetical to who we are. You are the president, but you don’t stand for our values, you didn’t win the popular vote and you’re the most unpopular president entering office in our nation’s history. And we’re going to keep fighting.” And I think the Puzder fight is a great example.
I am going to study the record of Mr. Acosta. I haven’t studied it enough, so I think it’s important to make sure that I’m studying the record before I offer any opinions. I can say that I studied the record of Mr. Puzder very, very carefully, and he was categorically unsuited for the job. So, frankly, I’m relieved…The day before yesterday was a good day for working people with the withdrawal of that.
But it’s another illustration of this “Chaos Cabinet.” Lt. Gen. Flynn is an abject danger to our national security, and his resignation is the tip of the iceberg. We need to an independent counsel to take a look at that, and the notion that Jeff Sessions is an independent person to look at what criminal activity Flynn was involved in and who else with him, that’s quintessential fox guarding the hen house. They were out on the campaign trail for Trump, so we go to make sure that there’s something, that there’s an independent counsel or commission that’s looking at this because this is serious stuff what this president has done.
It’s clear that he was involved during the campaign in contact with the Russians. That’s outrageous. And if Hillary Clinton had won this election with help from Vladimir Putin, they would have already drafted articles of impeachment. They had 15 hearings on Benghazi, and now so many of them have a sock in their mouth on this issue. It’s rank hypocrisy.
BLADE: Despite all the things that President Trump has done, one thing that the White House has said is that he is going to keep the Obama-era executive order barring LGBT discrimination among federal contractors in the workplace. Do you think that’s a good thing and how confident are you that he’s going to keep to that promise?
PEREZ: I have no confidence in anything that this president says. Look at who he just nominated for the Supreme Court. If I’m someone who cares about labor unions, if I’m someone who cares about women’s reproductive health, if I’m someone who cares about LGBTQ equality, marriage equality, this nominee is trouble with a capital “T.”
And this president has started this administration by going after all of our allies and one thing I learned from working with my colleagues and friends in the LGBT community is that we are all together in coalition. I think we are all under assault because he has made our nation less safe, he’s made our democracy less than the envy of the world. We’re the laughing stock of the world. His assaults on immigrant rights, his assaults on refugee rights, his nominations, there’s nothing but trouble ahead.
NOTE: This interview has been edited for length.