Meet Tom Perez, a politician, civil rights lawyer and a candidate for the chair of the Democratic National Committee. If elected, the New York-born, Maryland-living Dominican-American would be the first Latino to hold the position, an opportunity he doesn’t take lightly.
“It would be an honor of a lifetime,” Perez, 55, tells us.
In his decades-long career, the Harvard Law School graduate dedicated much of his time to civil rights, including a stint in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights department, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights and, under President Barack Obama's second term, Labor Secretary.
When Perez talks, he is passionate about transforming the culture of the Democratic Party and fighting back against President Donald Trump’s unconstitutional executive orders and risk to the country’s democracy. Resistance to nefarious political leaders runs through his veins. His grandfather, Rafael Brache, who was the Dominican Republic's Ambassador to the United States, was cast out of the country after speaking out against Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo in the 1930s.
Ahead, Perez talks about the DNC race, why he's running and what he’d like to accomplish.
You announced your bid for DNC chair in December. What would becoming the first Latino in that position mean to you?
Well, it would certainly be an honor. One of the many reasons I decided to run for this is because politics and public service is about helping people, and I think about people like Ellie Perez (no relation), a DREAMer from Arizona. She is a superbly talented person, and is every bit as talented, if not more, than my own kids, but what she lacks is U.S. citizenship. She was born in Mexico and came to the U.S. when she was very young. DREAMers are more than a group of people; they’re a value statement. Should I get the opportunity to be elected, I want to help the Ellie Perezes of the world. It would be an honor. This is what it’s about. My mom said, “In order to get to heaven, you have to have letters of reference.” There are so many Latinos living in fear, and I want to send the message to not live in fear and instead to fight, make your voice heard, advocate and register to vote. The way we will turn this around is to engage politically. Trump wants us to crawl into a cocoon and live in fear. We will not allow that to happen. We will not allow these raids of abuelitas to take place. Last week, there was a DACA recipient in Seattle who was jailed and is now facing deportation, and that’s wrong. We need to keep fighting for DREAMers and for all communities that have barriers to opportunities. This is what the Democratic Party is about. We are fighting for them and for everyone who wants opportunities, and Trump has sent a clear message about what he thinks about Latinos. It would be an honor of a lifetime to have it.
You recently said that, "the Democratic Party needs to transform itself. It needs dramatic culture change.” What change would you hope to bring?
First, in terms of culture, we need to redefine ourselves. We don’t just elect the president; we work together to support and elect people from the school boards to Senate. When we have strong parties everywhere, we have more opportunities. Also, we need to change the way we speak to voters. We need to get back on the phones and organize in communities 12 months a year. There are a lot of Latinos in Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida who are eligible to vote and are not voting. In a world of Trump, where we have these really serious threats to our democracy and communities, we have to make sure the Democratic Party is organizing and mobilizing every day.
During the 2016 election, Democrats lost some of its base, particularly workers who felt that they were more heard and understood by multibillionaire Donald Trump than the party that often prides itself on being on their side. As former Labor Secretary, how can you be a leader that working-poor Caribbean folks in the Northeast, immigrant communities on the West Coast, impoverished African Americans in the South as well as poor whites in rural America believe in?
The best civil right is a good job. When you have a good job that allows you to punch your ticket for the middle class, it resonates in rural America, urban America and minority America. It resonates in every ZIP code. The Democratic Party has been the one to support workers, always fight against Republicans, who want small government and to privatize social security and voucherize health care. Small government means a government for the rich at the expense of the poor, and we have to communicate that message.
You are the son of Dominican immigrants, a Latinx group that is rarely centered in the immigration conversation and that expands outside of Trump's "border wall.” In the past, you have stated that the U.S. needs immigration reform that breaks barriers, not builds walls. Can you talk about that?
We need comprehensive immigration form. We need what was passed in 2012 in the bipartisan Senate. Immigration reform is an economic imperative. It’s bringing people out of the shadows and into jobs. It’s a family imperative, where we are keeping families together instead of tearing them apart. Immigration reform is a national security and a moral imperative. When you pit one group against another, and that’s Trump’s staple, saying “you can’t get this job because of the immigrants,” that’s bogus. There’s another B-word that comes to mind, but I’ll stick with bogus. We succeed as Democrats when we put hope on the ballot and don’t do so well when we let others put fear on the ballot. I am in Latino communities. I see the determination. We won’t let this person define us. We have to channel that and turn it into long-term movements. We can make more progress, and we have to because he doesn’t represent our values.
Trump has kept good on his campaign promises on immigration, issuing several orders in less than a month that have hundreds of thousands across the country taking to the streets and calling their representatives. He has helped ignite activists and organizers and bring everyday people into the cause. Of course, resistance must also come from the inside. How do you intend on fighting back against the Trump administration's controversial orders on immigration?
We will continue to fight them in the court of law, on the streets across America, in Congress, in the state legislature, and we will take the fight directly to them. Have you seen the rallies in airports across America? Trump has energized progressive opposition in ways I haven’t seen in years. We will continue to take this fight to Trump in all of those venues. He should have read the Constitution before tweeting about it. He’s not making America safe. He’s making it more dangerous. He’s doing a great disserve to our democracy. We have to turn this moment into a movement, and I intend on doing that.
Of course, Latinxs aren't a monolith and care about a myriad of issues that impact them. Among them: mass incarceration. Latinas make up one of the fastest-growing prison populations, which as you know often breeds more poverty and violence. How might you help to ameliorate this problem?
When we invest in opportunity at an early age, and provide that, we can prevent other issues, and I have spent my entire life expanding opportunities. When young people have access to quality education, the odds of success are exponentially well. When we allow people to have second chances – look, it’s far more cost-effective to invest in education than building prisons. That’s a revelation even Republicans are coming to understand. As Labor Secretary, we invested heavily in second-chance programs and programs for at-risk kids. ZIP codes shouldn’t determine destiny. Birthplace shouldn’t determine destiny. First language shouldn’t determine destiny. Those are the issues we have been working on, and the Democratic Party has always understood that we all deserve a fair chance.
Is there a message you want to send to our Latina readers, who have expressed much fear about their undocumented families and uncertainty around their DACA statuses as well as anxiety around their reproductive rights and physical and sexual safety under this new administration?
I’m going to fight for you. I have always been and will always be on your side. We are much stronger together, marching for all of our issues. Get engaged and stay engaged. January 20, the inauguration, was important. But January 21, the Women’s March on Washington, was also important. Communities across the country stood to tell Trump, “you didn’t win the popular vote. You entered as most the most unpopular president-elect in modern U.S. history. You don’t understand our values.” I want to help lead that fight and hope to have that privilege. We will fight together and successfully.