There are days when Tom Perez feels the weight of 2020 collapsing in on him—the sense that the future of his party, the country, and the world all depend on him pulling off a victory next year.
“If you have an impulse that you have to be liked by everyone, don’t take this job,” Perez told me as we drove around Ohio a couple of weeks ago, on the day before the October Democratic debate. “Because my job is not to be liked by everyone.”
On the General Motors picket line outside Cincinnati that morning, Perez got close to a striker huddled under a Bengals blanket, who was staying warm by the heat of a trash-can fire. He told the woman that he wished he were still labor secretary, so he could do more to help her cause. Before the protest, Perez participated in an hour-long roundtable with gun-violence victims in Dayton. There, he met a teenager who’d been shot in a school cafeteria and a woman who wanted to know why her bipolar son had been able to just walk into a sporting-goods shop and buy a gun, which he later used to take his life. Perez listened and took notes. He told a mother whose two adult children had been shot that she was right—politicians do owe her change.
Before leading the Democratic National Committee, Perez spent his whole career in government: Justice Department attorney, Ted Kennedy aide, Maryland county elected official, Maryland labor secretary, head of the Justice Department civil-rights division, and labor secretary during Barack Obama’s second term. Those jobs, he said, had been full of meetings that he would leave and feel like he could do something practical. Meetings these days, like the one he had with gun-violence victims, leave him “just profoundly sad and mad,” he said.