Tom Perez has been a member of the Democratic Party’s inner circle for a long time, as an elected official, a candidate, a gubernatorial and presidential appointee and the chair of the Democratic National Committee. He was one of the ablest members of Barack Obama’s cabinet, developing a reputation as a secretary of labor who actually cared about laborers. He has a history of taking reasonably progressive stands on issues, and he has highlighted them as part of his work with the DNC.
Following the disastrous 2016 election, Perez campaigned to become the chair of a party that needed to change. In a contentious race, he was seen as the candidate of an embattled establishment, while Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison was viewed as the insurgent challenger. After narrowly winning, Perez tried to patch things up by making Ellison the deputy chair of the DNC and touring the country with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. More importantly, Perez signaled that he would reverse the reputation of the DNC as a tool of party insiders who were invariably biased in favor of establishment candidates and major donors.
At the heart of this effort was a commitment to remain neutral in primary contests that have now taken on an edge as a “battle for the soul” of the party. For years, grassroots activists have griped that the DNC put its finger on the scale in big-ticket contests—to the advantage of predictable centrists and to the disadvantage of populists who proposed to expand the party’s appeal by exciting the base. The frustration peaked in 2016, during the primary campaign between Hillary Clinton and Sanders, with Sanders backers complaining about everything from the scheduling of debates to the DNC’s approach to resolving disputes over caucuses.
Perez said he was very serious about taking the DNC’s thumb off the primary scale in 2018 and beyond. Acknowledging lingering concerns from 2016—some of which are being addressed by a Unity-Reform Commission process—the chairman said in March: “We’ve got to make sure the process is fair in fact and fair in perception, so everyone feels like they got a fair shake.” The vital thing is that people have confidence in the Democratic Party” and its nominating processes as “open to everyone.”
Restoring and maintaining confidence in the party is a delicate task, especially with lingering mistrust among different factions. As chairman, Perez has used precise language to describe what is necessary to build that confidence. “Scrupulously neutral” was the term Perez employed just last week, when he was asked whether the national party might intervene in the Georgia primary between former legislator Stacey Abrams, a high-profile contender who had attracted significant support from progressive groups that were excited by her base-building campaign to become the country’s first African-American female governor, and former legislator Stacey Evans, who had secured endorsements from former governor Roy Barnes, former senator Max Cleland, and a number of other old-school Georgia Democrats.