Calling him the best choice to help Democrats win back the rural areas they've largely abandoned, outgoing Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack backed Tom Perez, a fellow Obama cabinet member, to be the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee on Wednesday.
The endorsement came on a conference call with DNC members organized by Perez’ campaign in which he also announced plans for a “listening tour” of rural America.
The outgoing labor secretary's tour starts Feb. 6 in Wisconsin and will continue throughout the week with yet-to-be-announced stops.
Vilsack, a former Iowa governor who chaired the White House’s Rural Council, made it onto Hillary Clinton’s shortlist of vice presidential options largely because of his strength as an ambassador to rural areas.
“I don’t think Democrats have been as focused on, as present, and as listening to rural voters as we need to be,” Vilsack said on the call.
Vilsack said Perez could change that by educating people who have drifted away from the Democratic Party about what government can do for them.
“I know that he understands the necessity of the party spending time and resources,” Vilsack said, “and being physically present in rural areas, not just the month or two before the election, but throughout the year.”
Perez, who hails from suburban Maryland just over the Washington, D.C. border, has more experience with issues important to organized labor and civil rights activists than farmers and ranchers, and he acknowledged he has more to learn.
In fielding questions from DNC members who represent rural states, Perez repeatedly recalled one trip he took to coal country in Kentucky, and admitted he doesn’t know how the party should thread the needle between urban and rural areas on the divisive issue of guns.
Democrats’ retreat from rural areas to big cities and suburbs has been the hallmark of the party’s evolution over the past few decades. It’s proven to be politically disastrous, contributing to massive losses in down-ballot races that had been concealed by Democrats’ success on the presidential level until November.
Betty Richie, a Texas Democrat who chairs the DNC’s Rural Council, said she was thrilled Perez reached out to her group and is taking this issue seriously.
“We have found that our voices are not resounding with the rural voters,” she said, adding that what Democrats do remain in rural areas are “uncomfortable” speaking up in an increasingly urbanized party.
The first stop of Perez' listening tour will take him to Wisconsin, a state that helped elect Donald Trump after Clinton took it for granted and largely ignored it.
“Wisconsin saw firsthand what happens when Democrats fail to show up in every community,” said State Senator Janet Bewley, who will host Perez in her district. “Tom understands that the Democratic turnaround begins with listening to and organizing Democrats in every community across the country.”
Perez’ opponents in the DNC Chair race have also emphasized the need to reach out to rural areas, with all of them promising to funnel more resources to state parties.
His main challenger, Rep. Keith Ellison, enjoys the endorsement of party chairs in several rural heartland states, including Oklahoma, Nebraska, and South Dakota. And Ellison's campaign recently touted the support of 30 leaders in Wisconsin.
The DNC Chair election will be held in late February at a party meeting in Atlanta. Only the 447 members of the DNC may cast a ballot.