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'I'm Seeing Excitement Everywhere': DNC Chair Tom Perez Visits Pittsburgh

Cliff Owen
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez speaking at the Women's March in Washington D.C. on Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018.

Ordinarily, you wouldn’t expect the chair of the Democratic National Committee to be so excited after seeing his party lose a closely watched special election. 

But when Tom Perez stopped in Pittsburgh Thursday evening, he was brimming with enthusiasm after Democrat Danny O’Connor’s apparently razor-close loss to Troy Balderson in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District on Tuesday.

“What we saw was a unity of purpose, organizers on the ground,” Perez told 90.5 WESA. “If we replicate on Nov. 6 what happened in the 12th Congressional District here earlier this week, we’re going to take over the House. And I have every confidence we will.”

Pundits largely agree with that sentiment: The 12th has traditionally been a Republican bastion, and the close finish suggests – as have numerous other such contests since President’s Donald Trump’s 2016 election – that Democratic enthusiasm could mean a “blue wave” of wins this November.

“We’re organizing everywhere, we’re investing everywhere, and I’m seeing excitement everywhere,” said Perez.

Republicans have held onto their seats in most of the past year’s closely-watched special elections, but Democrats have overperformed significantly. Perez said Democrats had flipped more than 40 offices at various levels of government from red to blue, including Conor Lamb’s special-election win in a congressional district just outside of Pittsburgh this past spring.

Perez was in town for a Hill District “Seat at the Table” forum focused on electing black women to office – long a challenge in Allegheny County as elsewhere. Panel members, who included Wilkinsburg Mayor Marita Garrett and longtime Pittsburgh politian Valerie McDonald-Roberts, shared stories about funding challenges and other hurdlers.

Such barriers are especially notable in Pennsylvania, whose Congressional delegation is entirely male. Allegheny County itself has only one female representative in Harrisburg, though that number is set to increase next year. Perez told 90.5 WESA the party was rapidly changing, with female candidates winning primaries all around the country. He noted that Pennsylvania Democrats had chosen a woman, Nancy Patton Mills, as their chair earlier this year. “I’m very proud of that.”

“Look at the current crop of candidates we have,” he continued. “We’re going to have to continue to build the pipeline, and make sure we build a diverse pipeline. That’s why we’re here today – because we want to touch every community.”

On the Congressional level, the party’s focus in western Pennsylvania has largely been on Democrat Conor Lamb, who is facing Republican Keith Rothfus in the 17th District, and Ron DiNicola, a Marine veteran and lawyer challenging incumbent Mike Kelly in the 16th District north of Pittsburgh. By contrast, the lone female seeking a U.S. House seat in the region, Bibiana Boerio, is receiving little attention in the staunchly Republican 14th District south and east of Pittsburgh.

Perez said the party wasn’t neglecting Boerio.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the last 18 months, it’s that you’ve got to expand your risk-tolerance threshold," he said. 

The party has invested $600,000 to bolster the state party infrastructure so far, he said, and had provided it a phone list of some 3 million cell phone numbers. That, he said, benefits candidates up and down the ticket: “She’s using a much more robust voter file.”

Some of the most notable gains by women, meanwhile, have come as a result of challenging male incumbents in primaries this year. Locally, state House candidates Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee toppled two members of the Costa family in the May primary: More recently, New York Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio Cortez toppled a top-ranking House Democrat in a primary. All three women had support from the staunchly leftist Democratic Socialists of America.

Perez celebrated those wins.

“These are cases of good Democrats competing against good Democrats.," he said. "That’s what it’s about.”

And he played down the idea that the party had to choose between electing diehard progressives like Ocasio Cortez and far more moderate Democrats like Lamb, who disappointed some Democrats by voting in favor of a GOP resolution supporting federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officers. Abolishing that office outright has become a rallying cry for many on the party’s left.  

“What Alexandria and Conor have in common is they both reflect the values of their districts,” Perez said. While Ocasio Cortez’s platform reflects the interest of a heavily immigrant community, “Conor was talking about the right to join the union, he was talking about pensions, he was talking about health care.”

Across the party, he said, there was a “unity of purpose” on such bedrock issues.

“Understanding that we’re fighting for our health care, we’re fighting for good schools, and we’re fighting, frankly, for our democracy.”