Tom Perez on Democrats’ Mistakes and Why Iowa Shouldn’t Go First

For the past four years, Tom Perez had perhaps the most thankless job in American politics: chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

During that time Mr. Perez, the first Latino to lead the committee, oversaw the rebuilding of the party apparatus from an indebted hollowed-out mess after years of neglect during the Obama administration to a cash-flush organization with more than twice as many employees as it had when he took over in February 2017.

But Mr. Perez, who was urged to seek the party chairmanship by former President Barack Obama after serving under him as labor secretary, hardly had a smooth tenure. He faced internal dissent in 2018 for stripping superdelegates of their voting power in presidential contests and took public and private fire throughout 2019 from more than half of the party’s two dozen presidential candidates, who bellyached about, among other things, standards that Mr. Perez had set to qualify for debates.

Mr. Perez spoke with The New York Times on Thursday about his experience running the party, the results of last year’s elections and his future political plans. His final day working for the party committee was Friday. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Do you think that the D.N.C. should have devoted more attention and resources to down-ballot contests given the results in state legislative and congressional races?

The thing about this election cycle that is really regrettable is that we had record turnout. And we should be celebrating that on a bipartisan basis, because we did really well. We won the presidency. We have the House. We have the Senate. And Republicans won in a number of critical races. That’s undeniable. They won a number of Senate seats. They won a number of congressional seats. And they won because a lot of their people turned out. And instead, what Donald Trump and the far right chose to do is to invest in this fiction that there was some sort of massive voter fraud, which is inaccurate.

The reality is we won a series of really important races. And they won a number of down-ballot races. Those are the facts of 2020. And that’s why we’re absolutely drilling down deeper to answer the question of how did we do well for Mark Kelly and Joe Biden in Arizona and not so well in some of the State House and State Senate races. Really important question. It certainly wasn’t for lack of investment. And that’s why we’re looking to understand what else do we have to do.

Why was Latino support for Democrats so much softer in 2020 after four years of Trump than it was in 2016 and elections before that?

Do we need to do more with Latino voters? Absolutely. And I am very committed to that. We did more than the party has ever done. But again, every cycle, we need to build on what we did before. And that’s exactly what we will do. The misinformation campaigns in South Florida were very real. And they involved both domestic and foreign actors.

And the appeals to socialism in South Florida were more successful. They made those same socialism arguments in Arizona. But they fell flat. And they fell flat, in no small measure, because we had a really aggressive and longstanding organizing infrastructure in Arizona that enabled us to counteract that.

Will the 2022 and 2024 elections be a referendum on President Biden’s handling of the pandemic and the economy?

What voters are going to ask themselves is the same question they always ask. “Am I better off than I was two years ago? Am I seeing results that are improving my life?” As they are able to return to normalcy, whatever normalcy is going to look like post-Covid, I think that they will appreciate that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris led during this crisis.

Should Iowa and New Hampshire keep going first in the presidential nominating process?

That will be up to the D.N.C.’s Rules and Bylaws Committee.

I’m aware. But what does the private citizen Tom Perez think?

A diverse state or states need to be first. The difference between going first and going third is really important. We know the importance of momentum in Democratic primaries.

I’ll try one more time. Could you make a case for defending Iowa and New Hampshire going first?

The status quo is clearly unacceptable. To simply say, “Let’s just continue doing this because this is how we’ve always done it,” well, Iowa started going as an early caucus state, I believe, in 1972. The world has changed a lot since 1972 to 2020 and 2024. And so the notion that we need to do it because this is how we’ve always done it is a woefully insufficient justification for going first again.

This is the Democratic Party of 2020. It’s different from the Democratic Party in how we were in 1972. And we need to reflect that change. And so I am confident that the status quo is not going to survive.

How far down the road are you in thinking about running for governor of Maryland?

I’m seriously considering a run for governor in Maryland.

We need a governor who can really build strong relationships with the Biden administration, will build strong relationships with every one of the jurisdictions in Maryland.

Marylanders are just like everybody else. We want an end to this pandemic. We want to put kids back to school. We want to put people back to work. The pandemic has disproportionately touched women and communities of color in Maryland. And I’ve had the fortune of working in local government, and with the nonprofit faith communities and state government there.

So I’m currently listening. I’m on a listening tour in Maryland. And I think we need leadership, really, with a bold vision of inclusion and opportunity because ZIP code should never determine destiny in any community across America.

Has Larry Hogan been a good governor for Maryland?

I appreciate the fact that Larry Hogan has said critical things about Donald Trump. I appreciate that. What we really need, I think, in Maryland is leaders who will sweat the details of governance. The pandemic rollout, the vaccination process has been nothing less than chaotic in Maryland. We’ve had an unemployment insurance crisis, people waiting months and months to get their unemployment benefits. That’s just a failure of leadership at a state level.

I didn’t hear a yes or no on Hogan.

I applaud that he tried to get some tests from South Korea. But then it turned out that the tests didn’t work. And he covered it up. And there’s always going to be moments where mistakes are made. And good leaders fess up to those mistakes. But he tried to sweep it under the rug.

Again, it’s great to see a governor who criticizes Donald Trump. But we need governors who do a hell of a lot more than just criticize.

What would you be doing differently to accelerate vaccine distribution and reopen schools faster?

I would be on the phone every day with county executives making sure: “What do you need? What do you not have? What do you have? What can we do?” I would be relentlessly reaching out to our colleagues in the federal government to say: “Here’s what we need. Here’s what’s going on.” I would have a war room set up and, again, every single day, say: “You value what you measure. You measure what you value. What are we doing?”

Donald Trump is partly to blame for this. He was a disaster. But you look at other states — other states have been able to work around that and are doing better. Our vaccination rates do not compare well. We’re the richest state in the United States — Maryland — but we have way too many people who are on the outside looking in.

You said good leaders admit their mistakes. What were the biggest mistakes you made at the D.N.C.?

I wish that we could have won more elections. And so I’m looking back at what we did and some of the races we didn’t win. I was really frustrated in January and early February of 2017, because Donald Trump was in power and he was issuing all sorts of executive actions that were turning life upside down for so many people. That was in the middle of the D.N.C. race because the election wasn’t set until the end of February. So we got a late start. And I think that was a mistake.

It was frustrating to see Feb. 27, a month into the administration, and I’m just showing up at work for the first time. So I think we have to be very mindful. And if there are periods of time in the future where we’re in a similar situation, where we’ve lost the White House, we better make sure we start early because I had to play a lot of catch-up. And that was a mistake.

The thing about this election cycle that is really regrettable is that we had record turnout. And we should be celebrating that on a bipartisan basis, because we did really well. We won the presidency. We have the House. We have the Senate. And Republicans won in a number of critical races. That’s undeniable. They won a number of Senate seats. They won a number of congressional seats. And they won because a lot of their people turned out. And instead, what Donald Trump and the far right chose to do is to invest in this fiction that there was some sort of massive voter fraud, which is inaccurate.

The reality is we won a series of really important races. And they won a number of down-ballot races. Those are the facts of 2020. And that’s why we’re absolutely drilling down deeper to answer the question of how did we do well for Mark Kelly and Joe Biden in Arizona and not so well in some of the State House and State Senate races. Really important question. It certainly wasn’t for lack of investment. And that’s why we’re looking to understand what else do we have to do.

Why was Latino support for Democrats so much softer in 2020 after four years of Trump than it was in 2016 and elections before that?

Do we need to do more with Latino voters? Absolutely. And I am very committed to that. We did more than the party has ever done. But again, every cycle, we need to build on what we did before. And that’s exactly what we will do. The misinformation campaigns in South Florida were very real. And they involved both domestic and foreign actors.

I’m aware. But what does the private citizen Tom Perez think?

A diverse state or states need to be first. The difference between going first and going third is really important. We know the importance of momentum in Democratic primaries.

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