Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez visited Duke Monday to give the Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture, “Civil Rights and the People’s Party.” The Chronicle's Sam Turken spoke with him about the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census, unity within the Democratic Party and efforts by the Republican Party to retain seats in the House of Representatives during this year’s midterm elections. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Chronicle: You’re here at Duke to discuss voter rights and voter suppression. The Trump administration announced recently that it’s adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census. What’s your response to that?

Tom Perez: Well it’s illegal, it’s unwise and it’s mean-spirited. If you look at the so-called enumeration requirement in the Constitution, it doesn’t say ‘count the number of citizens every 10 years.’ It says, I believe, ‘count the number of people or persons in the United States every 10 years.’ And the purpose of this is to determine funding formulas for cities. It is so critically important to have accuracy—that is always the North Star. I worked in the federal government in 1990, I worked in the federal government in 2000 and I worked in the federal government in 2010—so three different times when we were talking census. Twice under Democratic administrations, once under Republican. Their North Star was always accuracy. 

They want to put this on the census and ask every person that question because they are hoping immigrants won’t participate. That way, they can suppress participation and gain a perceived advantage. That’s not who we are as a nation. And frankly, if you look at the lawsuit that was filed, one of the plaintiffs in that case is the Conference of Mayors. The Conference of Mayors is a non-partisan organization, because Republican and Democratic mayors would suffer under this. Red states and blue states would suffer under this. 

TC: You’ve called voter suppression the greatest threat to the American democracy. What do you mean by that? 

TP: We should be making it easier for eligible people to vote. When I headed up the civil rights division of the Justice Department, unfortunately North Carolina was one of the ground-zeros in this country, along with South Carolina and Texas and a few other states, in voter suppression. We should have a debate about ideas. Let’s discuss immigration, then at the end of the day, let’s make it easy—not harder—for eligible people to vote. The only reason you want to make it harder for eligible people to vote is because you are scared that they won’t vote for you. You’re scared that your ideas won’t command their support. So you want to make it harder for them to vote. That’s not who we are as a nation. 

TC: There have been some reports lately that Republicans are increasingly trying to mobilize voters by saying that Democrats will try to impeach President Donald Trump if they retake the House later this year. What is your response to that, and what is the Democratic Party’s counter?

TP: Republicans don’t want to talk about any of the issues that are keeping people up at night because Republicans are on the wrong side of the issues. So they create diversions throughout. They talk impeachment and things like that. I am singularly focused on making sure we are organizing everywhere and talking about the issues people are really focused on. 

TC: Some Democrats in the House have tried to begin impeachment proceedings in the past. So, if that is a way for Republicans to mobilize their voters, is there anything Democrats will do in response? 

TP: I leave the Republican’s strategy to Republicans. What I do know, over the last year, is everything they have tried has failed, because Democrats have been winning special elections left and right across the country. We’ve flipped over 40 seats from Republican to Democrat—most recently a state supreme court seat in Wisconsin, where the Democrat won by a double-digit margin. We’ve won big races in the U.S. Senate in Alabama. The last time we won both governors’ races in Virginia and New Jersey in the same year was 2005, and we took over the U.S. House in 2006. What I do focus on is how do we make sure we’re fielding great candidates everywhere. How do we make sure we’re leading with our values. And how do we make sure we’re organizing everywhere and building authentic relationships with voters. Because frankly in the past—Democrats all too frequently—we weren’t there. We weren’t fielding enough candidates. And here in North Carolina this year, we’ve flooded the zone. We’ve fielded candidates in every race. 

TC:  You have cited the special congressional election in Pennsylvania last month as an example of fielding candidates everywhere. Conor Lamb, the Democrat who won the race, was more of a moderate. And in the past you’ve said the Democratic Party needs to each candidate to be tailored to his district or state. Where’s the balance between doing that and also accounting for the values of the party’s more liberal progressive base? 

TP: I’ve often said that it’s important to distinguish unity from unanimity. Our unity is our greatest strength as a party. And we’ve been winning elections because we’re united. United doesn’t mean every Democrat is going to agree on every issue. I am proudly pro-choice. I believe that the Second Amendment freedoms and common sense gun reduction measures can co-exist. That is the platform of the Democratic Party and I’m proud of that. I recognize that there are others who have personally-held views on issues, and I don’t know that it’s my place to tell them they have to change their personal views. And what I’ve seen from Conor Lamb and other Democrats on the choice issue—they’ve made it clear that they know that Roe v. Wade is the law of the land. And they’re not running to attempt to overturn. We’ve been winning because we’ve recognized what we have in common as Democrats far exceeds what our differences are. 

TC: In certain primaries, it’s harder for a moderate who may have the better chance of winning a general election to defeat a more progressive candidate. Where’s the balance between supporting the moderate or the more progressive candidate?

TP: When you have an actively contested congressional primary, we at the DNC are not getting involved in those campaigns. I think we’re at our best when we do what we did in Virginia, which is you saw two candidates for governor on the Democratic side. They simply focused on the issues and at the end of the day it was a spirited campaign that resulted in great turnout. And we came out very united. 

We don’t endorse, but what we do is we will invest in the infrastructure, so that whoever wins the race is going to have an organizing infrastructure, a technology infrastructure, so they can hit the ground running the day after the election. That is what I think is the role of the DNC. 

TC: With the midterms coming up, turnout for younger voters and college students during midterms hasn’t been as high as for presidential elections. What are Democrats doing to increase turnout among college students? 

TP: What we did in Virginia and Alabama is our organizers on the ground were very consciously placed on or near college campuses because we wanted them to build those authentic relationships with college students. And it’s not just colleges. It’s not just four-year colleges. It’s community colleges. It’s apprenticeship programs—places where we might find millennial voters. It is critically important. And a key to our success in Virginia was this engagement of millennial voters. Same thing in Alabama. I often describe the job of DNC chair as a job that involves a substantial infrastructure component. We’re building a millennial engagement infrastructure. 

Above and beyond that, we’ve been investing in innovation on a competitive grant level. And we’ve been giving out grants to various states to make sure they go that step further. Here in North Carolina, we made a substantial investment under our innovation grant program, and it was about millennial engagement and base voter engagement. It’s abundantly clear to me that your generation is perhaps the most altruistic generation in American history. So what we’re doing as a Democratic Party and as part of our millennial engagement strategy is talking to millennials, engaging millennials, giving millennials a seat at the table.

TC: Lastly, the DNC has started a new campaign called iwillvote.com, which aims to mobilize more than 50 million voters by November. How’s it working so far?

TP: It’s going great. I look at Wisconsin last week. There was remarkable turnout. This was a state supreme court race. Usually, really low turnout, and we saw substantial increases. That’s what helped us win. This about making sure that voting is never again a casual sport. We have to make sure people participate every year. In 2012, after that presidential election, we saw a 47 million person drop in participation. iwillvote.com is getting people to commit to vote, commit to register to vote, commit to protect the vote from voter suppression and commit to get out that vote. And when we do that, I firmly believe, frankly, that Democrats will win.