WASHINGTON — Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez is at the center of the biggest test his party has faced in recent history.
The party has rebounded from its disastrous 2016 performance with key midterm victories , but now stares at a long and potentially divisive presidential primary fight that could include dozens of candidates. The DNC is rehabilitating from years of neglect and infighting and lags its Republican counterpart in fundraising and data capabilities — key elements a national party organization provides its nominees.
The decisions Perez faces in the coming weeks — from finalizing rules for presidential debates to convincing state leaders to give up control of voter files and choosing which city will host next year's Democratic convention — will be picked apart for any sign that he's throwing his weight behind one candidate or another. That underscores what could be Perez's most daunting task: convincing party faithful and activists that the DNC is a neutral actor in the primary process. It's a tough argument to make to a Democratic base scarred by a bitter primary in 2016 that many supporters of Bernie Sanders said was tilted in favor of Hillary Clinton.
"Tom really does have the hardest job in politics," said Tina Podlodowski, the Democratic chairwoman in Washington state, who backed Perez for his job but sometimes criticizes him. "It's thankless."
Nearly two years into his post, Perez, who was President Barack Obama's labor secretary, has already navigated tricky intraparty tumult. Most notably, he led the DNC through negotiations to scale back the role of so-called "superdelegates" who overwhelmingly backed Clinton.
But he knows the biggest fight lies ahead.
"If we have 15 candidates, 14 of them aren't going to make it to the mountaintop," Perez told The Associated Press. "My job, our job is to ensure that every candidate and their supporters feel like they got a fair shake."
"I come to this with sobriety," he said as he contemplates his next move.
At least publicly, Perez shows no signs of strain.
The 57-year-old son of Dominican immigrants was ebullient at a recent gathering of top party donors in Washington, calling the November midterms "historic." He praised other party committees for their work regaining House control and flipping seven governor's offices and almost 400 state legislative seats. But he made sure to argue that a "culture change" at the DNC also played a leading role.
There is irony to Perez positioning himself as an agent of change. He ran for chairman after the 2016 election at the urging his old boss, Obama, who is widely acknowledged to have let the DNC and party network around the country wither. It wasn't exactly Perez's plan — he hoped to become attorney general in a Clinton administration.
The approach he took to winning the DNC post offers clues about how he will manage the challenges ahead.
He competed for the job against Keith Ellison, then a Minnesota congressman and favorite of the liberal base. Using Obama's inner circle to lobby DNC members, Perez echoed Ellison's calls to "organize everywhere," invest "in every zip code" and give a voice to activists, particularly those who backed Sanders over Clinton in 2016.
After Perez came out on top during a raucous party meeting, he called Ellison to the stage and essentially declared him co-chairman, a maneuver with dubious justification under party rules. The move and the campaign that preceded it demonstrated that Perez, much like Obama, seeks to maintain at least a toehold in multiple camps, giving critics enough of what they want but still using brute political force when needed.
A "pragmatic progressivism," he likes to say, explaining his approach both to policy and politics.
Perez immediately got behind a "Unity Commission" that Sanders and Clinton conceived to overhaul how the party chooses its nominee. He eventually pushed changes that went further than an initial compromise on superdelegates. Now, DNC members and elected party leaders, including the chairman himself, will not vote on the first presidential ballot of the 2020 convention.
Multiple previous DNC chairs cried foul, as did the Congressional Black Caucus, arguing the change punished long-serving party leaders in favor of activists from outside the party machinery. When the overhaul passed last summer, the activists who had been skeptical of Perez cheered.
"One thing I like about Tom's leadership is that you can be critical and still be heard," said Melissa Byrne, an Ellison backer and former Sanders presidential campaign aide who served on Perez's transition team.
"So much of politics is the conversations you have in hallways, but you have to be there," she said. "Tom got us in the door."
Perez says he's applying the same philosophy to the debate rules. He's committed to a low qualifying threshold for early debates to avoid blocking legitimate candidates. The DNC will draw lots to place candidates on two stages rather than picking an "A list" and "B list" as Republicans did with their own large 2016 field. Perez said he and his team are talking to previous campaigns for their input, but not to prospective candidates themselves.
To be sure, there have been rocky stretches and inconsistencies, with more to come.
Perez has mandated that no DNC employee endorse any presidential candidate. He criticized the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for venturing into a hotly contested 2016 congressional primary in Texas. Yet Perez endorsed New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo over his primary challenger, actress Cynthia Nixon, who had the backing of the Working Families Party.
Leaders at WFP and Indivisible, a grassroots group founded since Trump's election, declined to comment on Perez's stewardship.
The chairman has embraced the #MeToo movement, but never wavered in his support for Ellison when the deputy chairman's ex-girlfriend accused him of abuse. An investigation found no wrongdoing; Ellison quietly resigned from his party post after his November election as Minnesota attorney general.
Perez downplays the intraparty fights, arguing Democrats are as different as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist from New York City, and Sen. Joe Manchin, an occasional Trump ally from West Virginia. But he says they share common priorities like accessible health care, defending pensions and supporting organized labor.
"Those are FDR Democratic issues," he says.1 comment on this story
While Perez has his detractors, particularly among state party chairs who accuse him of a power grab on voter data files, even some of those critics join his allies in saying he's already accomplished his first goal: imposing a steadiness that didn't exist under Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the last elected chair and another of Obama's hand-picked choices.
"I don't want to cast any blame because they are both friends of mine," said Woody Kaplan, a prominent Democratic donor from Boston, referring to Wasserman Schultz and Perez. "But he just had such a mess to dig out of."