Tom Perez, Democratic National Committee, speaks during The Cap Times Idea Fest at UW-Madison in Madison, on Friday, September 13, 2019. Photo by Michelle Stocker

DNC Chair Tom Perez on Friday touted Dems’ revamped infrastructure and ground game in Wisconsin, a state he said would be “the ground zero” for the 2020 presidential election.

Perez said his primary job since taking over as the leader of the national Dem Party in early 2017 was to “rebuild” the DNC’s voter outreach programs, data collection and analysis initiatives, as well as trust with voters.

He said Dems’ infrastructure was built in 2011 in the lead up to President Obama’s reelection. It was only expected to last a short period. But Dems allowed that infrastructure to decay to the point where Dem organizers in 2017 were using technology to access voter files that was equatable to a Palm Pilot.

“Eight thousand people were running for office last year using those voter files,” he said at the Cap Times Idea Fest on the UW-Madison campus. “When you’ve got a rickety thing like that, you’ve got a real problem.”

And while Dems’ technology infrastructure “frayed” post-2012 and the party’s organizing infrastructure became “virtually non-existent,” Perez said the GOP studied what Dems had and “beat us at our own game.”

“This was tragic because it was so preventable,” he said.

He said the best way to address that challenge was by bringing in “top-flight talent” and touted the addition of Twitter’s former chief engineer as the party’s new technology officer.

Alongside the “night and day” upgrades to technology, Perez said the DNC is aiming to empower state parties to grow grassroots support and organization, an initiative he said Dems didn’t pursue in the lead-up to the 2016 election.

But Perez added the party has learned from the 2016 defeat and corrected course to engage voters earlier than ever before. He praised Wisconsin Dem Party Chair Ben Wikler of doing “a bang-up job of” just that.

“Under Ben’s leadership in Wisconsin in 2019, they’ve knocked on 200,000 doors in the state of Wisconsin,” he said. “Four years ago, I am prepared to argue it was probably closer to zero.”

Perez stressed this early interaction with voters would play a key role in the party’s goal of “elect Democrats from the school board to the Oval Office.”

Key to that aim, Perez said, would be ensuring voters understand the “north star” of Dem presidential candidates “is making sure that everyone has a fair shake.”

“Yes, there are policies and issues that people care about, but they care about something bigger,” he said. “What we want is a Wisconsin where everyone has a fair shake.”

Perez refused to tip his hand as to which Dem presidential candidate he is backing, rather choosing the praise the field as a whole for “a remarkable values alignment.”

“Whether it’s healthcare, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s a women’s reproductive health, whether it’s the economy that works for everyone, everybody understands that,” he said.

While the candidates largely aligned ideologically, they differ on policy, which Perez believes will be a strength for the party. But he rejected the “false choice” between pragmatism and idealism and called the media spotlight on Dems so-called lurch toward socialism “BS.”

He instead charged it was a “distraction” ginned up by President Donald Trump, but said he expected the work done by grassroots activists to help voters to “see right through it.”

“I think this is where it gets back to a lot of the nuts and bolts: when you’re organizing, when you’re listening, when you are leading with your values, you win,” he said. “That’s how you cut through all of these distractions.”

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