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DNC Chair Tom Perez Discusses Diversity Of Democratic Presidential Candidates


Seven of the Democrats running for president take the stage tonight in the final debate of the year. There is only one person of color among them. Some Democrats are critical of that, including many of the candidates themselves. Nine of them, including the seven debating tonight, wrote a letter to the Democratic National Committee arguing that the qualifying rules for the debates have the unintended consequence of excluding the very people who've made this year's Democratic field historically diverse.

Tom Perez is the head of the Democratic National Committee, and that means he is leading the group that sets those rules. Welcome back to the program.

TOM PEREZ: Ari, it's always great to be with you and your listeners.

SHAPIRO: Do you agree with the candidates that tonight's debate stage is too white?

PEREZ: I take a back seat to no one, Ari, in my commitment to diversity and inclusion. And I was proud of the fact that one of the candidates who made the debate stage was Kamala Harris. And that was a matter of public record before she left the race. And it's unfortunate that she's not there. I love Senator Harris. She's a star and will continue to be a star.

And we've worked hard throughout to make sure that the rules are transparent, they're accessible and they're fair to everybody. And that's exactly what we have done. And we started out at 1%, a very low bar. We moved up to 2%, then 3% and now 4%. Nobody who's been under 4% in the December before the first primary has ever won the Democratic primary. And so you've got to...

SHAPIRO: OK, but when you've got nine candidates...

PEREZ: ...Demonstrate progress.

SHAPIRO: When you've got nine candidates, including all the leaders, saying there's a problem here, are you able to say, maybe they've got a point?

PEREZ: So the question I would ask is, what is the solution? So we could reduce this to 2% and then bring 12 people on the debate stage. I think the problem we had four years ago is there was a perception that many held - and it undermined the credibility at times of the DNC - that we were reverse engineering rules to help certain candidates.

And that's why we set forth the rules early on, and we gave people that opportunity. It's polling criteria that is determining, in part, along with our grassroots fundraising, who gets on the debate stage. And everybody has to make progress as you move up to December.

SHAPIRO: So I hear you saying...

PEREZ: No one objected to that.

SHAPIRO: I hear you saying, we don't determine the outcome; we just set the rules. So why do you think that what was at one point the most diverse slate of candidates in American presidential campaign history has now been whittled down to a largely white core?

PEREZ: Well, again, understanding that - we had Kamala Harris on the stage. So eight people made the debate stage for December under our rules. When more people aren't making the debate stage, the reason is because in polling right now, the people who are being called are expressing their preference, and they're expressing their preference for candidates. We gave...

SHAPIRO: But to push you on that, I mean, does that mean that people - what? - I don't know - prefer white candidates - that, like, the electorate is racist? I mean, what is the reason for this?

PEREZ: The electorate, of course - that's not the answer to the question, Ari. People are listening to candidates. We're - they're kicking the tires on candidates right now, and they're making their judgments. And candidates need to demonstrate that progress. They're making judgments on who is the best person right now to carry the Democratic Party's flag in our election next year and who is best positioned to do that. And so the question they're asking - and again, we've given unprecedented opportunities for everyone to reach the debate stage. And...

SHAPIRO: But I'm just trying to figure out why that would lead us to the results of so many people of color falling by the wayside. Do you have a theory?

PEREZ: Well, again, I - again, I think what we've done here and - is to create a opportunity for everyone. And right now, the voters are speaking about what their preferences are. Kamala Harris would have - did make the debate stage again. So we had eight people in the field, two of whom are people of color, 25% who made the debate stage.

I love Cory Booker. I think he's a remarkable senator. I've known him since he was mayor. He is not - his polling average over the last two months is roughly 2%. And I think the rules have been very fair and inclusive. And it is up to the voters in these polls to express their preference.

SHAPIRO: Tom Perez is the chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Thanks for coming on the program again.

PEREZ: I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.