AUSTIN, Texas — The Democratic National Committee (DNC) is having its come to Jesus moment.
The DNC’s inability to make the Democratic Party competitive in state and congressional races had been masked by having a Democrat in the White House. Now, as a Republican president comes into office with the backing of a GOP-led Senate and House, the failure of the top Democratic institution is on full display. And with Donald Trump about to take office, getting the DNC firing on all cylinders could not be more urgent.
Why anyone would want this job, is beyond me — the DNC is a mess. But a couple of people have thrown their hats in the ring and among them two highly qualified candidates have emerged, Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison and Labor Secretary Tom Perez.
Both Ellison and Perez are not just accomplished, they are men who through their life’s work have demonstrated a passion for righting injustices.
However, the devil is in the details and the details that differentiate Perez from Ellison make Perez the best pick for the new DNC chair.
Progressive and Establishment Fluency
The DNC has been entrenched establishment territory. As we saw in the Wikileaks emails, there wasn’t much love for the progressive wing of the party among the party's leadership. Yet as Bernie Sanders' campaign showed, progressives need to be a core part of the Democratic Party going forward. At the same time, moderate Democrats should not be banished.
Both Ellison and Perez are progressive Democrats. Ellison is one of the most outspoken in this camp, but that has put him at odds with the opposite wing of his party. Perez has progressive policy street cred, but as his current position in the administration shows, he also has experience with the party's leadership.
Perez is politically bicultural, fluent in the progressive and establishment world. Hunkering down on one extreme and alienating a whole bunch of Democrats is what got the DNC in this mess in the first place. The incoming DNC chair needs to bring balance.
The electoral viability of the Democratic Party requires a reconnection with American workers. Yes, this means labor unions, but it also means folks working at non-union jobs like McDonald's or Wal-Mart. Issues such as minimum wage and overtime pay are colorblind and critical to connecting with the electorate on worker equity.
As Labor secretary, Perez has been knee-deep on these issues and has a running start on establishing real, sustainable ties with laboring Americans. And given the likelihood of the repeal of Obamacare, wages will take on a much more important meaning for working Americans.
President-elect Donald Trump kept bringing American workers into the spotlight by promising policies and actions that would boost jobs. The Democratic Party through the DNC needs to do the same and Perez’s labor heft is the right start.
Latinos are a constituency whose policy positions put them within the Democratic Party’s reach. But the DNC has taken Latinos for granted.
Helping the DNC with its Latino problem isn’t just about Perez being a Perez. As Labor secretary he has deep linkages to the bread and butter issues that matter to Hispanics on wages, employment opportunities and working conditions. But Perez also has extensive experience combating voter and civil rights violations through his work in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.
Then again, there is something to Perez being a Perez. With a Latino at the helm of the Democratic Party it will not be as easy for the growing constituency of Hispanic voters to be put on the back burner.
Now Perez is not a perfect candidate; one of his most glaring deficiencies is that he has spent a long time in the Beltway. Perez will have to immerse himself in the Democratic world outside of D.C., and he needs to do it quickly.
The incoming DNC chair will have to take a page out of the Republican playbook and build a foundation that supports local and state Democratic efforts — the party desperately needs to build a much stronger political pipeline. This is key, and once this foundation is in place, then the national efforts will naturally follow.
There are no perfect candidates to head any party; that doesn't exist. What's most important is that Perez’s background and ideological balance makes him the right guy for what the DNC needs right now.