WASHINGTON — U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez, one of several candidates running to lead the Democratic National Committee, said Monday he would use the position to expand the party's efforts to protect voters in the wake of ballot laws cropping up across the country.
The Takoma Park resident, a former Montgomery County and Maryland state official, said the national party needs to take a more active role to ensure voters can cast a ballot, coordinating responses from state and national leaders and "playing offense" by expanding voter registration in every state.
"We are going to establish a very robust protection and empowerment effort," Perez told The Baltimore Sun on Monday, a day before he was to address the Maryland Democratic Party. "The DNC needs to play a very important role in combating [suppression] and ensuring all eligible voters can vote."
Perez, 55, is one of a half-dozen candidates hoping to rebuild the party after Hillary Clinton's upset loss to Republican Donald Trump in November's presidential election.
That defeat has forced the party to examine what went wrong and prompted a debate about how best to move forward.
When Perez was head of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, he moved to block voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina. He declined Monday to offer details of his plans on the issue for the party, but aides said a more formal announcement will come soon.
Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, another prominent candidate for the job, has also been vocal on the topic of access to voting. He has introduced legislation in Congress to guarantee same-day voter registration, and has made "DNC-level planning to protect against voter suppression" part of his platform.
Ellison could not be reached for comment late Monday.
Perez criticized Gov. Larry Hogan, arguing the Republican had not taken comprehensive approaches to education or transportation, but said he would not run for governor if he became the DNC chair.
Some have cast the race for the chair as a repeat of the progressive-versus-centrist battle at the center of the 2016 Democratic presidential primary between Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Clinton. But that characterization misses more nuanced concerns of local party leaders.
Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, has the backing of liberal heavyweights such as Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Perez is also liberal, but is closer to the administration — a point likely to help him with some, and draw skepticism from others.
"I just don't think that's what this race is about, or should be about," said Westminster Common Council member Gregory Pecoraro, a Democratic national committeeman who is undecided in the DNC race.
"What it's about is looking at how did we get here — in terms of losing this [presidential] race and a lot of other races — and [deciding] what kind of chair and officer team we need to change that."
Perez, a former Montgomery County Council president who led the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation from 2007 until 2009, has said national party leaders need to do a better job listening to state and local parties.
Asked what they would have heard had they listened during last year's election, Perez pointed to a need for a sustained party organization that continues in nonelection years.
"Data analytics should never supplant good old-fashioned organizing and persuasion," Perez said. "Organizing is a 12-month-a-year enterprise."
Perez was a frequent and fiery surrogate for Clinton. But he has never run a successful campaign for statewide office himself, and he has not been a prolific fundraiser for the party.
Maryland Policy & Politics
He ran for Maryland attorney general in 2006 but was knocked off the ballot by the state's Court of Appeals, which held he lacked the 10 years of legal experience required by the Maryland Constitution.
Other candidates for the DNC chairmanship are Raymond Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party; Jaime Harrison, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party; Sally Boynton Brown, executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party, and Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind.
Party officials have scheduled a series of candidate forums beginning this week in Phoenix and concluding in mid-February in Baltimore. About 450 voting members of the party will pick the next chair and other officers in Atlanta in February.
Obama once said Perez's life story "reminds us of this country's promise."
The New York-born son of Dominican immigrants was 12 when his father died of a heart attack. He put himself through college with scholarships and jobs as a trash collector and as a warehouseman before rising to the upper echelons of the federal government.