Tom Perez and the Democrats’ First Virtual Convention

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When Tom Perez became chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 2017, his slogan was “stop fretting, start fighting.”

In recent months, at least, the fretting has never stopped.

Since March, Mr. Perez has been tasked with reinventing the party’s national convention for the coronavirus era. Not only did the effort require creating technological solutions for decades-old processes — like drafting the party’s platform — but also soothing the frayed nerves of hundreds of delegates, dozens of V.I.P.s and the entire city of Milwaukee, which had already poured millions into the event.

I talked to Mr. Perez about what we can expect to see when the convention begins next week. Next week, we’ll hear from Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, about what her party has planned. (As usual, this interview has been condensed and edited.)

There has never been an online convention. What should we expect next week? Glitchy Zoom calls? Surprise celebrity guests? Can you do balloons, virtually?

We have been planning for months for every contingency. We dramatically expanded the production team understanding that there was a chance that this was going to be unlike any other convention. And that’s what it’s turned out to be.

This will be certainly different than any other convention. You’ll see fewer podiums but you’ll see more people in living rooms. You’ll see them on factory floors and schools and communities. And I think it’s going to be an opportunity to really capture the moment. Our fundamental theme is uniting America and we’re going to highlight not only Joe Biden but the resilience of America.

By having the ability to come into people’s communities and have a convention across America, it’s going to give us a better opportunity not only to highlight the stars of our party but to highlight the unsung heroes of our party, the first responders, ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

I think the American people want leadership that will unite us, leadership that pushed hope over fear, leadership that is competent — who can get the job done. And that’s what people are going to see. They’re going to see our governors and mayors who’ve been leading the charge in the absence of federal leadership. They’re going to see first responders and others who have been doing heroic work. It’s going to be really exciting. And yes, there will be a couple surprises which I won’t tell you about.

What’s the overarching message the party wants to communicate to voters watching this at home?

Uniting America is our overarching theme. Building back a better America. Making sure that we bring our country together. This is a convention for everyone, not simply people who voted for a Democrat last time around. People are so tired of the politics of division. What you’re going to see in the contrast between the two conventions is we’re bringing the country together. We have hard-core Democrats, independents, Republicans. Everyone coming together. I think the contrast will be very, very palpable.

Speaking of what the Republicans are planning, President Trump has floated the idea that he might speak from the Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg, Pa., or from the White House. Do you think that’s appropriate?

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I would describe it as ironic because the party of Lincoln is dead. It’s been replaced by the party of Trump. Going to Gettysburg is a reminder of what the Republican Party used to be, but not what it is now. And doing it in the Oval Office — this president has never regarded ethics as any barrier to doing anything. Every ethics lawyer in America worth his or her salt is shaking their head at the notion that you would deliver an acceptance speech or a convention in the White House.

A former D.N.C. chairman, whom I won’t name, described the convention as the best week of a terrible job. What has it felt like to have to dial back this big event, one that would showcase the work you’ve done at the committee?

Well, it’s a matter of necessity. I mean, this is not about Tom Perez’s feelings. This is about making sure that we put on a convention that will highlight our party, our values, our leaders, and give us momentum moving forward. I am so appreciative of the great people of Milwaukee. I am sad that we can’t highlight them in even greater fashion. We will do our best to highlight Milwaukee and the great state of Wisconsin, and to a person they’ve been tremendous partners. They understand this pandemic and the public safety imperative.

I never lost sight of the fact that our democracy is on fire. It’s a five-alarm blaze. That’s what I think about day in and day out. So, yes, it’s a different convention, and we’ve had to make some tough choices along the way, but I’m proud of what we have done and how we have done it. We have always been motivated by what was safe for people.

Is Milwaukee an automatic pick as a host city in four years because they got robbed this time around?

Lisa, I will not be the D.N.C. chair, OK, in four years. So, that will be a question for my successor.

I am proud to have done this job and we’re going to continue to sprint to the finish line because I do feel optimistic, not only at the presidential level but up and down the ballot, across the country. I’m going to continue this sprint for the next 84 days and then leave questions like that to people who will come in and try to build upon our success.

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After Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, chose Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate this week, Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote that Ms. Harris, among all the candidates Mr. Biden considered, was “the safest of the bunch.” Mr. Biden, he said, “obviously believes the polls that give him a significant lead over Trump and wants above all to protect it.”

In an Op-Ed, the political scientist David Hopkins also argues that Ms. Harris is a safe choice — but takes a longer view than Bruni. “As a biracial Black and Asian-American woman, Ms. Harris is a member of social groups that are important sources of party support but that have been historically underrepresented in elective office,” Mr. Hopkins writes. “She is an orthodox liberal, but not an ideological purist. She is young enough, and new enough to national office, to represent a generational contrast to the older cohort of party leaders.”

Mr. Hopkins believes that Ms. Harris reflects a shift away from gerontocratic party leadership and a return to the youthful feel of the Obama years. And as a matter of politics, Ms. Harris was an obvious choice for Mr. Biden, of a piece with his general strategy of playing it safe during this time of social and political upheaval.

— Adam Rubenstein

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