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Buffalo-born Dem chair Tom Perez: 'The Democratic Party is back'

The Democratic Party that Tom Perez promised emerged on Election Night in places like Kansas and Oklahoma City.

And to hear the Buffalo-born chairman of the Democratic National Committee tell it, unexpected wins in such places only mark the start of the party's resurgence.

"The Democratic Party is back," Perez told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor Thursday, two days after Democrats won the governorship of Kansas and a House seat in Oklahoma City while winning control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Perez, a former U.S. labor secretary who has been party chairman since February 2017, worked on a Buffalo garbage truck during college and still follows the Bills daily in The Buffalo News.

He faced a big job: expanding the party's playing field beyond the coasts and the nation's largest urban areas.

While Democrats suffered some big disappointments in this year's election — including losing several U.S. Senate seats and governor's races in Ohio and Florida — Perez's investments in Republican territory contributed to the party notching some important surprise wins across the country.

Former Rep. John J. LaFalce,  a Town of Tonawanda Democrat who keeps a close eye on national politics, was impressed.

"I think he's done a magnificent job," LaFalce said. "I don't know how anyone could have worked harder or more effectively."

Perez's job from the start involved rebuilding a party organization that for years largely served Democratic presidential nominees rather than grassroots Democrats.

"Our goal was to build a 50-state party," Perez said. "Our goal was to compete everywhere. Our goal was to expand the electorate. Our goal was to reshape the electorate. And that's exactly what we have done."

Perhaps most notably, Democrats captured governorships in three key swing states that Republican Donald Trump won in 2016: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

"Those three states made up the so-called 'blue wall' that crumbled so dramatically to make Trump president," wrote Cameron Joseph, a blogger for Talking Points Memo. "But it looks at least for now like those walls are starting to get rebuilt."

The key to that, Perez said, was the kind of on-the-ground work the DNC did in Wisconsin. The party invested in the state early, not for the candidate for governor, but for a Democratic hopeful for a state court judgeship.

By doing so, Perez said, national Democratic staffers did field work in rural parts of Wisconsin that are largely Republican — and were able to elect not only that candidate for judge, but to also build higher-than-usual rural Democratic vote totals for the party's gubernatorial candidate.

"That's how we beat Scott Walker," the longtime Republican governor of the state, Perez said.

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Perez said from the start that the DNC had to work much more closely with local party organizations, and that's just what it's done. The party was able to give local Democrats tens of thousands of new cellphone numbers for voter outreach efforts, said Jeremy Zellner, Erie County Democratic chairman.

In addition, Perez got personally involved in Democrat Nathan McMurray's effort to oust Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican. Perez made a campaign appearance with McMurray and reached out to former Vice President Joe Biden to ask him to campaign with the Democratic congressional candidate.

"Tom Perez made that happen," Zellner said.

That sort of aid from Democratic headquarters in Washington helped the party win control of seven additional governorships and seven additional state legislative chambers. After losing more than a thousand state legislative seats during Barack Obama's presidency, Democrats regained about 350 of them Tuesday night.

Since governors and state legislatures control legislative redistricting, those wins strengthened the Democrats' position for drawing congressional maps after the next census.

None of that got as much news coverage, though, as the fact that some of the party's most prominent candidates — such as Beto O'Rourke, the Senate hopeful in Texas, and Andrew Gillum, the gubernatorial nominee in Florida — lost.

That led to disappointment among some Democrats, but Perez urged people to look at the bigger picture.

"We didn't make it in those races now, but we are far further along now than we were before," Perez said.

O'Rourke's run revitalized the Democratic Party across Texas, he said, and Gillum's race is still so tight that he might end up winning.

The DNC helped in both those races and, of course, will be involved to try to defeat Trump when he runs for re-election in 2020.

Given the successes Democrats had in electing candidates throughout the country, Perez said he's confident the party will nominate a candidate who can beat Trump.

In fact, doing so is central to the party organization's purpose.

"The mission of the new Democratic Party is organizing and mobilizing and electing Democrats from the school board to the Oval Office," Perez said.

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