WASHINGTON -- In two phone calls to sell himself as the best candidate to be the next Democratic Party chairman, Labor Secretary Tom Perez portrayed himself as the interlocking stitching needed to pull together the party’s many parts and become an anti-Donald Trump force.
Perez’s back-to-back conversations Thursday afternoon with state party chairs and then Latino leaders varied but held many similarities.
Perez said the party needs a chair who can “speak to every part of the big tent of the Democratic Party … who can speak to that blue collar voter in Buffalo … and the Dreamer in Las Vegas and the immigrant from Somalia and the other core constituencies of the Democratic Party.”
In the first call with state party chairs, organized by Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa, Perez admitted Democrats had failed to show up in force in rural America during the election.
In the second with Latino leaders, organized by the Latino Victory Fund, Perez, who is of Dominican descent, boasted of his record on diversity in hiring and affirmed the importance of a party structure in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories.
In both calls, he told of his father’s death when he was 12 and of the Teamster father of a friend in his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y. who took him under his wing and molded him.
“We only succeed when we all succeed,” Perez said he learned from his surrogate father. “Those are Buffalo values. Those are Latino values.”
Perez joins Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn.; Jaime Harrison, who heads the South Carolina Democratic Party and Raymond Buckley, leader of the New Hampshire state party in the competition to lead the party after its devastating election loss.
The contest is layered with the party’s inner struggle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders backers competing to lead the Democrats forward. The party is working on finding a way to win back white voters they lost in the election while energizing more Latino, black, Asian, Native American and other minority voters.
Perez had served as a surrogate for Clinton during the campaign. He had been on Clinton’s short list of potential running mates. His bona fides as a progressive had been seen as appealing to Sanders supporters.
His plan, he said, is to renew the Democrats’ “50-state strategy,” a reference to having active operations in every state, not only those considered battleground or swing states and districts.
"I want to make a difference not only in the Latino community, but across the country," he said.
Blunting criticism that he doesn’t have the experience in electoral politics his competitors do, Perez referred to his years as an organizer with CASA de Maryland, an immigration advocacy group and in local Maryland government.
“We need a chair that has an organizer’s heart and someone who will strengthen the party from the ground up,” Perez said.
Some 400 members of the Democratic National Committee will vote in the race.
In his call with Latino leaders, former Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chávez asked the prickly question of how to keep the election of the chair from pitting progressives against more center party members, black against brown and outsider against insider as the competition for the chairmanship is waged over the next two months.
“That’s what I’ve been doing for the last 25 years,” Perez said. “The reason the president sent me out to the West Coast when there was a dispute between the West Coast port operators and the Longshoremen union was because he had confidence that I could bring the parties together - and that was the same thing in the Verizon strike."
Hinojosa, the Texas state party chairman, said he's seeing enthusiasm for Perez that he hadn't seen after a forum in Denver where other candidates spoke. Hinojosa is backing Perez.
He noted that in the call with state party chairs, there was no discussion about how to engage more Latinos, saying those on the call didn't see Perez as someone whose main focus is on what he brings to the table as a Hispanic. "They know he will dramatically help us engage because they know he's going to understand how important that is," Hinojosa said.
"This is not a Latino who has forgotten his roots. This is a Latino that has gone beyond his roots to understand there's a lot of different moving parts to our Democratic Party that we have to be focusing on simultaneously," Hinojosa said. "Engaging the Latino community is going to come with everything else."