MESA, Ariz. — At 7 a.m. last Thursday, Tom Perez found himself sprinting through Reagan National Airport, dripping sweat, with no ticket in hand, determined to plead his case to a skeptical flight agent, re-open the boarding door, and take his seat.
Earlier that morning, around 5 a.m., a Lyft driver’s flat tire had derailed his plan to fly from Baltimore to Salt Lake City, where he was due to rejoin Bernie Sanders for the final stretch of their week-long “Come Together and Fight Back” tour — an early effort by Perez as the new chair of the Democratic National Committee to bridge a divided party and bring alienated progressives back into the fold of institutional politics.
So he made his way home to Takoma Park, got in his car, and re-routed to Reagan National for a 7:15 a.m. nonstop. “I don’t even remember where I parked,” he laughed. At 6:50 a.m., “I’m at the counter with no ticket. And the guy looks at me like, ‘You gotta be fuckin’ kidding me.’” Perez booked a later flight instead, but ran through security, heading for the 7:15 a.m. gate. “I see the guy literally about to close the door, and I’m like, ‘Yo! Sir! Can you help me!” He’s looking at me like, ‘You got a ticket for this?’” (No.) “So I walk a short distance away. I’m figuring out my plan B, watching the plane.” A few minutes later, a delay was announced. Perez flashed what he called a “puppy-dog look” back at the gate. The agent relented: “OK,” he motioned, “come over here.”
In Perez’s telling, it wasn’t too different from most days on the job as chair.
“I’ve always felt that you get more bees with honey than with vinegar,” he said later that night from the backseat of a darkened suburban, rolling from an evening rally outside Phoenix to the airport, where a chartered plane would be waiting with Sanders.
The mantra extends to his approach when it comes to the liberal activists who attended the party’s week of “unity”-themed rallies to cheer on Sanders and, in several instances, to boo Perez and the DNC, drawing national headlines questioning the tour’s success.
Perez, the 55-year-old former civil rights lawyer and labor secretary, is now two months into the job. The DNC, a relatively powerless Washington institution when it comes to the task of running races across the country, has nevertheless become a major source of dissatisfaction among voters on the left. During the 2016 Democratic primary, hacked internal emails showed the DNC unfairly favored Hillary Clinton over Sanders. And earlier this year, the 15-week chair’s race between Perez and the progressive candidate of choice, Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, now DNC deputy chair, came to embody the running tension inside the party between establishment power and grassroots activism.
The same signs of strain spilled out into the public as Perez and Sanders traveled together to rallies from Florida and Utah to Arizona and Nevada. At one event in Maine, the crowd followed a round of “Bernie!” chants with a wave of boos when an introductory speaker mentioned “the new DNC chairman and the future of the Democratic Party.” At another in Las Vegas, staffers paced the room on watch for protesters, escorting one with a “No Super Delegates Or STFU” sign to the back of the University of Nevada arena.
Perez both shrugs off the incidents and insists they’re part of the point. “For every booer,” he said, there are hundreds more “who want the party to succeed, have frustrations, and want to make sure that somebody is listening to them.”
“And that’s what I’m trying to do — and that’s why I haven’t seen my family very much lately, and that’s why I almost missed a flight this morning.”
The job of party chair, Democratic or Republican, can be thankless. But as Perez sees it, his primary role in these first six months is simply to listen — to “of course” let people vent, he said, even boo if they want. “I want to hear directly the frustrations of people who feel the party hasn’t met their expectations.” So far, Perez has heard a lot of that: the black voters from Flint, Michigan, who told him, “You guys take us for granted”; the steelworker from a family of Democrats who said, “I don’t know who to trust.”
The party’s most pressing problem, Perez said, is “we lose the battle of the bumper sticker.” In his estimation, President Trump is leagues ahead. Take the steelworker: When “Trump says I’m gonna bring your coal jobs back,” Perez argued, “he knows that’s bullshit, but at least Donald Trump is speaking to his fears. And he knows that his dad was a Democrat, and he was a Democrat, but he’s not sure why anymore.”
Despite the negative reviews of the “Come Together and Fight Back” tour, “for me,” said Perez, it was “a great trip” — in part, he added, because of the week on the road with Sanders. The two didn’t know one another well before the tour. Some flights were quiet, aides said, with Sanders reading his iPad and eating peanuts. On others, the two spent hours talking about Perez’s kids, Sanders’ grandkids — and about policy. (On one westward stretch, a staffer said, Sanders pointed in outrage at the empty desert below, asking how there could be so much sun and land and not a single solar panel.)
Asked what Sanders is like, Perez had a simple reply: “He is passionate.”
A protester outside the Perez-Sanders event in Salt Lake City.
The 75-year-old Vermont independent, drawing fans to the DNC rallies with “Bernie 2020” signs and “Join the Revolution” t-shirts, has maintained if not grown his influence and celebrity status in the months since last year’s presidential race. At one point on the the tour, a woman ran up to Sanders in an airport and broke into tears. Perez, by comparison, said it is “an absolute surprise to me” every time he’s even recognized.
To critics who ask, “well, why do you spend time with a person who’s not a Democrat,” Perez volunteered in the back of the SUV, “Well, the answer is, if we’re gonna take back this nation, we need to get everyone who shares our values working together.”
If Perez does admit to having frustrations, they’re with the press.
“I had a chat with a reporter they other day who acknowledged — you had 2,500 people there and maybe half a dozen people booing,” he said. “I’ll just note, there’s empirically a very interesting distinction between local reporting and you national folks. Because local reporters actually report the totality. And the national folks — no offense — tend to like to write about the six people. They don’t like to write about the dozen standing ovations and applause lines and things like that. But I digress.”
“Making house calls” is the line you hear Perez use most — in interviews, at rallies, multiple times in each of the eight candidate forums during the DNC chair’s race. “Something I hear when I make house calls is ‘I need to know what the Democratic Party stands for,’” he said as the suburban coursed its way to Sky Harbor International.
Perez is a spirited campaigner, sometimes yelling point-blank into the microphone, but he is not a natural one. He’s never held statewide office, and although he was vetted by Clinton during her search last year for vice presidential nominee, he did not secure one of the top spots alongside Democrats such as Tim Kaine, Cory Booker, and Tom Vilsack.
His bid for DNC chair was based largely on his record as Barack Obama’s labor secretary, which he cast as an internal “turnaround job,” helping to remedy the culture at a federal agency that used to rate second from the bottom in employee satisfaction, he said.
“What I’m doing now is no different than what I’ve done in every one of the three or four leadership jobs I’ve had. My first six months have always been about getting out there and listening — understanding what people’s concerns are, what people’s hopes are — and building an organization and a plan that responds to that.”
For now, his plan includes house calls — and building coalitions between the DNC and other left-leaning institutions like Democracy for America, the Working Families Party, and the grassroots organizers leading protests against Trump across the country.
Before his rally on Thursday in Arizona, Perez met with leaders from the network of activists known as Indivisible (some “very eclectic” folks). They invited the DNC to participate in a training this June — “and my instruction to my team was make sure we’re a conspicuous part of it.” (“Not taking it over,” he added. Just being “partners.”)
As the SUV pulled onto the tarmac, Perez made his final point. Up ahead, Sanders was already on the plane, reading his iPad, face framed in the yellow light of a window.
A successful chair of the DNC, Perez said, needs five things: “listening,” “consistent house calls,” “thick skin,” “humility,” and “always making clear to folks that I can handle the truth.” Over the last two months, that’s what he’s picked up in conversations with other Democrats about the job now ahead of him, including Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton (“She cares deeply about the party”), and former DNC chairs like Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
The one piece of advice he always gets?
“You’re never gonna please everyone. And I’ve learned that very fast.”