WASHINGTON – U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez – a Buffalo native who could end up as Democrat Hillary Clinton’s running mate – delivered a 30-minute rebuke of Donald Trump at the National Press Club on Wednesday without once mentioning the likely Republican presidential nominee’s name.
In a luncheon address so impassioned that it brought sweat to his brow, Perez argued that anyone who says that America is in decline – as Trump consistently does – is “peddling what I believe is fiction.”
Calling himself “a chronic optimist” in an era when optimism seems to have gone out of style, Perez said: “Some politicians find it expedient to exploit people’s worst fears, to accentuate the negative and eliminate the positive, to turn people against each other instead of toward each other.”
Perez then sought to do just the opposite – to prove such politicians wrong, and to toss them into the historical dust bin alongside earlier American nativist movements.
To hear Perez tell it, the numbers paint a very different picture than the naysayers do. He noted that when President Obama took office, the unemployment rate was heading toward 10 percent – but that it has fallen to less than 5 percent in recent months as the nation has experienced 75 consecutive months of private-sector job growth.
In contrast, Trump has called the Obama administration’s jobless rate “phony numbers” and has said the real unemployment rate could be as high as 42 percent – a claim that PolitiFact, the fact-checking news service, labeled a “Pants on Fire” lie.
For Perez, Trump’s claim proved ripe for mocking.
“You might hear that the unemployment rate is more like 40 percent,” he said. “That might be true if we counted your 98-year-old grandmother, or the 11.9 million Americans over 80 years old; your high school freshman … or the 20.7 million Americans ages 10 to 14.”
But Perez – who is beloved among progressives because of actions expanding labor rights and worker safety during his three-year tenure at the Department of Labor – also acknowledged that much should be done to better balance the economy to provide opportunity for all. A higher minimum wage and paid family leave would be two steps that would help do just that, he said, noting that such proposals have met a wall of resistance from the Republican-led Congress.
Noting that some politicians want to “turn back the clock,” Perez then coyly managed to connect Trump – who has called for a wall at the Mexican border and a temporary ban on Muslim immigration – to failed nativist movements from earlier times.
“We’ve seen this movie before, folks,” he said. “The Know Nothing Party in the mid-19th century ran on a platform of nativist fear and ignorance. In the 1880s, Congress actually passed a law called ‘the Chinese Exclusion Act.’ A few decades later, the Senate was gripped by a communist witch hunt.”
Every time, though, he said, those movements failed, always for the same reason. “We’ve appealed to our better angels of inclusion, opportunity and optimism; and we’ve returned to first principles,” Perez said.
Perez’s National Press Club speech came as aides to Clinton work to whittle down her list of nine possible vice presidential nominees – which, according to the Wall Street Journal, includes Perez, whose Dominican roots could appeal to Latino voters and who has built strong ties to the labor and civil rights movements.
During the question-and-answer session after the luncheon, though, Perez dodged a series of questions about the vice presidency.
Asked if the Clinton campaign was vetting him for possible inclusion on her ticket, Perez said: “You’ll have to ask the campaign if I’m being vetted. What I know is that I love my work right now, I have 212 days left of that work, and I’m going to make sure I do everything possible to leave the Department of Labor better than I found it, and to help more people get access to opportunity in that process.”