Democrats abandoned rural America: Won’t happen again, says new DNC leader


Tom Perez can only hope that the Democratic Party has hit bottom.

He has taken over as chairman of the Democratic National Committee just as the party is struggling to recover from a November rout that left Republicans in charge of the White House, both houses of Congress and most of the nation’s governorships and state legislative chambers. It’s hard to imagine how things could get any worse in 2018 or 2020.

In an interview with The Times, Perez was candid about some of the party’s failures in 2016, most notably its abandonment of vast stretches of rural and small-town America.


But Perez, 55, who was Labor secretary under President Obama, offered little detail on what changes the party would make to win over President Trump’s supporters in those areas.

He also glossed over the internal rancor that lingers from the party’s split between establishment leader Hillary Clinton and insurgent Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential race.

What follows are excerpts from Perez’s remarks.

He zeroed in on the party’s loss of more than 900 seats in state legislatures over the last decade.

We need to redefine the mission of the Democratic Party so that we are not only electing the president, but we’re electing candidates up and down the ballot, from the school board to the Senate. And the best way to do that is to ensure that we have a robust presence in all the states and territories.

Donald Trump won Wisconsin because we underperformed in Milwaukee, and we got clobbered in rural Wisconsin because we did not have an “every ZIP Code” strategy. In places where we once had a presence, like the northwestern corner of Wisconsin, we have largely abandoned it.

Perez is embarking this month on a “Democratic turnaround tour” of Michigan, Texas, Virginia and New Jersey with the new DNC deputy chair, Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota. Perez outlined the party’s core values but signaled no shift in direction with its agenda.


We’re the party that has fought for Medicare. We’re the party that has fought for Social Security. The Republicans have tried to privatize Social Security and voucherize Medicare. We’re the party that’s fought for increased wages, fought for the union movement, fought to make sure that collective bargaining is not eviscerated, it’s strengthened. And when we communicate those messages, we succeed.

Perez fretted over how few Americans realize that millions more jobs were created under Democratic Presidents Clinton and Obama than under Republican Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.

What we have to do as Democrats is continue to not only communicate that message but continue to fight for the investments that ensure that middle-class folks, and those who want to get into the middle class, can succeed. We allowed the Republicans to hijack that message.

As for Sanders supporters who still mistrust the party establishment because it favored Clinton over Sanders, Perez insisted both sides have enough in common to overcome their differences.

That’s why you saw Americans come together in force in the aftermath of this ill-advised Muslim ban. That’s why you see the coming together under the Affordable Care Act, the coming together around the revelations of how our national security was compromised by the conduct and interaction between the Trump administration and the Russians.

Perez voiced no hesitation about Democrats’ obstructing Trump’s agenda with the same ferocity that Republicans in Congress showed in opposing Obama’s.

I think we should accord Donald Trump the same courtesy that [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell [R-Ky.] accorded Barack Obama. Donald Trump has shown no interest in working toward increasing the minimum wage, no interest in doing anything but immigrant baiting, no interest in doing anything but filling the swamp with a band of billionaires who are simply trying to help the wealthy.

Perez faulted his own party for failing to promote Obamacare effectively.

The Affordable Care Act is a lifesaver, but it was very effectively marketed [by Republicans] in 2010 as a job killer. Now, the majority of Americans support the Affordable Care Act. It cost us votes in 2010 because Republicans ran against it, and they effectively lied about what the Affordable Care Act was going to do for people.

The same thing happened in the aftermath of Social Security and Medicare. If you look at the years that followed, Republicans kept saying, “Oh, Social Security is going to bring our country down.” Ronald Reagan in the ’60s said, “Medicare will lead to socialism in America.” The playbook can bring short-term political advantage, and we didn’t do an effective enough job as Democrats of marketing the benefits of the Affordable Care Act.

Looking ahead, Perez said Democrats would do a better job of recruiting candidates and volunteers in parts of America it has long ceded to Republicans, but did not specify how.

We failed to do that effectively enough. We have allowed so many ZIP Codes to be ignored. Our message in rural America is just as powerful as it is in urban America. But because we haven’t been a physical presence there in any sustained way, we have a lot of voters there who no longer believe that the Democratic Party is working for them.

When people understand what we stand for as a party — good jobs, ladders of opportunity to the middle class, retirement security, inclusion and opportunity for everyone, regardless of where you were born, which god you worship, who you love, your first language — people understand and embrace that aspect of the Democratic Party. But we have to be out there everywhere talking about it.

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