The story of the email scandal that never was might be the best illustration of the character and talents of the newly elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez.
It was the fall of 2014, and Attorney General Eric Holder had announced his impending resignation. Speculation about his replacement reached a fever pitch inside the Beltway, with interest groups lobbying for their favored pick. Latino organizations seized on Perez, then the U.S. Labor Secretary, previously an Assistant Attorney General for civil rights, as a favored choice. African-American groups were pushing then-U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch. LGBT activists were promoting Jenny Durkan, the first openly gay U.S. Attorney, to break that glass ceiling in the Justice Department.
I couldn’t resist. I picked up my iPhone and quickly penned a jokey email to my old friend, Tom. “Hey buddy. I’ve got a great idea. I’ll announce tomorrow that we’ve been dating for over a decade. You’ll definitely get the nod!”
I hit send and almost immediately regretted it. My old friend Tom was now an Obama Cabinet official. As his colleague, Hillary Clinton, was beginning to realize, personal emails were no longer a protected class. And while I couldn’t guess at the time, in retrospect, the Russians might have already intercepted my missive.
Did I just torpedo Tom’s candidacy? Would my ill-considered communique ensure the 2016 election of an erratic GOP strongman to the White House?
But before I had time to panic too fully, my inbox refreshed. Within a minute, Secretary Perez had responded: “Jonathan, I’ve always enjoyed your sense of humor.”
Classic Tom. He dispatched the crisis with speed…and kindness. No lecture about email security or inappropriate communication — he knew I would get the message. Just a compliment from one old friend to another, as he clarified the record for any Freedom of Informational Act request.
Tom and I had met in 2005 when we were selected as the inaugural class of the Aspen Institute’s Rodel Fellowship for Public Leadership program. Aspen had identified a bi-partisan group of 16 young elected officials from across the country to participate in study groups about the principles of democracy, to learn from leading experts on theories of leadership, to help rebuild New Orleans and visit international hotspots, and most significantly, to develop personal bonds to help transcend the rising tide of toxic partisanship that was paralyzing American politics.
We were an experimental kennel of alpha dogs. Some would surge to prominence: Maryland Lt. Governor Michael Steele ran the national GOP and now holds court as an MSNBC regular; Kansas Treasurer Lynn Jenkins got elected to the U.S. Congress and rose into House leadership; Arizona state legislator Gabrielle Giffords emerged as an international icon on the subject of gun violence. Others would be enhancing the U.S. Senate roster today had they not be so unlucky to run into the teeth of party and anti-establishment tide elections: New Jersey’s Tom Kean, Missouri’s Robin Carnahan, Kentucky’s Trey Grayson, Nebraska’s Jon Bruning.
It would be hagiographic of me to describe Tom Perez as the very best and the brightest of the whole bunch. Sure, he was popular, smart, well-spoken, and incisive. And yes, he too has a wonderful sense of humor. But what really stood out about Tom was his personal kindness. Tom Perez is a gentleman in all senses of the word; it’s the little things that define his character and integrity, the small gestures of warmth and friendship and compassion. In a setting where 16 over-praised, Ã¼ber-ambitious young men and women were gathered to promote civil and thoughtful discourse, Tom modeled the very characteristics that the Aspen Institute strove to nurture and develop. And when Gabby Giffords was shot, Tom was both a rallying force for action and a virtual shoulder to cry on.
For many who supported Tom Perez’ DNC candidacy, his background seemed to check all of the right boxes (or I suppose, left boxes). The son of Dominican immigrants, raised in the blue-collar, Rust Belt community of Buffalo. A civil rights lawyer and labor advocate who emerged from the progressive wing of the party, yet who also fit in comfortably into establishment circles. A solid retail politician who can both articulate a persuasive message in TV soundbites and fire up a passionate crowd.
But the real reason that Tom Perez is the right man at the right time is his enduring character, his impeccable traits of calmness and compassion. As the party and the nation boil over in rage and resentment, Tom will serve as a beacon of composure, sobriety and sensibility — indeed, he’s the anti-Trump. Of course, as one of a handful of national party leaders and spokespeople, Tom must aggressively combat and resist the very worst of GOP and White House malfeasance and misdirection. But Democrats need to do more than inflame and incite the base; fully rebuilding the party will require reaching out to the millions of Americans who were either misled by Trump or turned off by the system all together. And Tom’s inherent capacity to look at the world through the eyes of others will empower him to develop unifying messages, as the President continues to try to tear the national fabric to shreds.
I’m proud that my friend, Tom Perez, a good and decent man, is in a position to restore some goodness and decency into our system of politics. Please share my congratulations with him: Given my history, and the security problems at his new offices, I won’t be emailing him any time soon.