Tom Perez Traded a Puerto Rico Statehood Endorsement for DNC Chair Votes

Carlos Giusti/AP Photo

Supporters of Puerto Rican statehood wave U.S. flags and a sign that reads "Statehood" in Spanish at a protest in San Juan. 

The DNC’s rejection of a presidential primary debate focused entirely on the climate crisis has roused the grassroots. Not only did DNC chair Tom Perez deny the request from 2020 candidate and climate warrior Jay Inslee, he flatly stated that any candidate appearing in someone else’s climate-focused debate would disqualify them for future DNC debates. Already Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke have joined Inslee in urging Perez to reverse his decision.

But a revelation in a recent book adds a rich layer of irony to the situation. Because the reason that Tom Perez is in the position to decline a climate debate in the first place is that he won the DNC election in 2017 in large part thanks to the most prominent North American victim of the climate crisis in the Trump era: Puerto Rico.

The details come in the new book We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement by Ryan Grim, Washington editor at The Intercept. The book is a distillation of over a decade of reporting inside the Capitol and within the progressive movement, and Grim captures a revealing nugget about the DNC chair race.

If you recall (and this was two years ago, which is a millennium in Trump-era time), the disparate wings of the party were coalescing around Keith Ellison, the former progressive congressman who is now Minnesota’s attorney general, for DNC chair. From Elizabeth Warren to Chuck Schumer, from Bernie Sanders to prominent Hillary supporter Randi Weingarten, everyone jumped in for Ellison—except the outgoing Obama administration.

Obamaworld recruited Tom Perez, then labor secretary, to challenge Ellison, ensuring that their imprint would linger in the party. It was a preview of progressive/establishment scuffles to come. A third candidate, a little-known Indiana mayor named Pete Buttigieg, got a little attention, but this was mainly a Perez vs. Ellison race, and within the DNC it was almost an even split.

According to Grim’s book, in a silent coup, supporters of Puerto Rican statehood kicked out all the Democratic delegates to the DNC with a new set of statehood-backing politicians, many of whom were Republicans. The coup plotters managed to call a DNC meeting with a tiny notice in El Nuevo Día, a leading island newspaper. According to Luis Gutierrez, the former Illinois congressman of Puerto Rican descent who was helping Ellison with the race, “They posted something in the newspaper, which fulfilled some fucking rule to have a meeting of the Democratic Party. … Only the statehooders showed up.”

Politics in Puerto Rico is generally structured on the statehood question, with affiliation determined along those lines more than traditional Democratic or Republican ones. The New Progressive Party (NPP) is pro-statehood while the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) is against, and both Democrats and Republicans populate each.

The leader of this coup, NPP member Charlie Rodriguez, became the president of the Puerto Rico Democrats, and he made Perez a deal: If he supported statehood, he could get all of Puerto Rico’s delegates. Perez took the offer, even though the DNC hadn’t previously taken a position on the matter. There are good reasons to support Puerto Rican statehood—taxation without representation comes to mind—but a backroom bargain to win a party chair race isn’t one of them.

Puerto Rico’s five DNC delegates all went to Perez. That combined with an 18-5 haul for Perez from the New York delegation, mostly controlled by Andrew Cuomo, whose campaigns have historically received significant supportfrom Puerto Rican bondholders. Cuomo has also made numerous trips to Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria devastated the island, and has a significant Puerto Rican population within his state. While Grim does not allege a specific relationship between the movement of votes to Perez from New York and from Puerto Rico, it’s not hard to imagine some kind of deal.

Perez ended up nudging past Ellison on the first ballot and winning on the second. There’s no question that New York and Puerto Rico’s votes combined made the difference. And sure enough, in June 2017, Perez came out in favor of Puerto Rican statehood, a somewhat obscure topic for a DNC chair to address, but not if your election depended on it. Perez also endorsed Cuomo in the New York gubernatorial primary, which a supposedly neutral party chair doesn’t usually do.

The anecdote reveals a mildly seamier side of backroom politics. But it throws the decision to nix the climate debate into even sharper relief. Tom Perez owes his chairmanship to some maneuvering on the island of Puerto Rico. If there’s anyone who owes an island devastated by extreme weather, it’s Tom Perez. And yet while he seeks the favor of power-broker Puerto Rican politicians enough to meet their demands, he won’t grant the people of Puerto Rico some debate time to address the very topic that’s led to so much of their destruction.

Climate change has become a top issue for Democrats in 2020 because voters recognize the urgency of saving the planet from the worst damage. Climate migrants, townspeople suffering flooding in Iowa, fire-ravaged Californians, and Puerto Ricans washed out of their homes do not have DNC members they can employ to bargain with Tom Perez for their votes. If transactional politics is what it took for Perez to win, the least he could do is actually honor the people his Puerto Rican political friends represent, and allow a debate that speaks to their pain.

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