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Mark Preston: Even with Trump's historically low approval ratings, Tom Perez still has a lot of work to do to restore faith in the Democratic Party

The limelight on the administration is taking away from the attention that the Democrats need to gather support for their agenda

Editor’s Note: Mark Preston is CNN’s executive director of political programming and senior political analyst. He hosts “Full Stop with Mark Preston” on SiriusXM POTUS 124. His full interview with DNC Chairman Tom Perez can be heard on Saturday at 12 p.m. ET, Sunday at 1 a.m. ET, and Sunday at 5 p.m. ET. Follow him at @prestonCNN.

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Defeated, yet defiant, Democratic activists and demonstrators flooded streets across the country and around the world in late January to protest Donald Trump, who just 24 hours earlier was sworn-in as the 45th President of the United States. In Washington, it was a startling sight to see: where Trump supporters had watched his inauguration one day before, now political opponents stood in their place.

The official name of the protest was the Women’s March, but it became something bigger, much bigger, and expanded to include many traditional Democratic Party constituencies including environmental groups and unions.

For Democratic operatives and organizers, January 21, 2017, was akin to Christmas and your birthday falling on the same day: the party’s political base was frustrated, but not depressed. Political organizers could skip months of therapy sessions designed to excite Democrats and move straight onto crafting plans for the November 2017 elections and the 2018 midterm elections.

Donald Trump had unified the Democratic Party. Or had he?

A month after the Women’s March, Tom Perez was elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee – a high profile position tasked with the boiler room responsibilities of raising money, motivating voters and building infrastructure from the ground up. Hardly a plum assignment for the former Barack Obama Cabinet secretary following the surprising loss of the White House. To make matters more complicated, Perez took over a fractured party still reeling from the controversial Democratic presidential primary.

Perez, a former Secretary of Labor and Justice Department official, is now charged with trying to unite the party’s liberal and establishment factions, while restoring credibility to the national party organization, whose email system was hacked by Russia in 2016.

Perez said he sees an opportunity in this age of Trump for Democrats to rally around the party’s “values” on issues ranging from health care and income inequality to public education.

“We all succeed when we all succeed, and we are all better when we are united,” Perez said in a recent interview on SiriusXM’s “Full Stop with Mark Preston.”

Except it will not be that easy.

Many liberals are still smarting over the 2016 presidential primary – a system they argued was rigged against Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, in favor of the establishment favorite, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

More than a year after Clinton won the presidential primary and seven months into Trump’s presidency, the phrase “time heals all wounds” does not seem to apply to all Democrats, certainly not at last week’s Netroots Nation conference. The annual gathering of liberal activists was part strategy session, part political rally and speakers such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, urged attendees to demand that party leaders embrace and advocate for liberal policies.

“We don’t have to tiptoe anymore,” Warren said. “We don’t have to hedge our bets.”

Nina Turner, president of Our Revolution – the organization founded by former Sanders campaign staff and supporters – wasn’t tiptoeing when she accused the DNC of disrespecting the progressive movement. She recounted a standoff outside the DNC headquarters in late July when she was refused access to the building. Turner, a DNC member, and the activists she led were attempting to deliver petitions to party leaders. The group was not allowed to enter the building because of security concerns, which infuriated Turner.

“Unity requires give and take,” said Turner, who was named president of Our Revolution in June. “But it seems that it’s just take, take, take from the Berniecrats.”

So, even though Trump is being roundly criticized for his Charlottesville remarks, has a 38% approval rating and is losing support from Republicans, Democrats must contend with their own internal problems.

Perez said one of the first strategic acts he put in motion was a program called Resistance Summer.

“Resistance Summer is a down payment on what the new DNC is about,” said Perez, who sat for this interview prior to the Netroots Nation conference. “It was an investment that we made, and it’s in place in over 40 states, and we are paying organizers out there so that we can talk to people again. One of the things we have to do, our new mantra at the DNC, is that every zip code counts.”

This all-inclusive approach is similar to the 50-state strategy implemented by former DNC Chair Howard Dean in 2005 and a concept advocated by Sanders in the 2016 campaign. Perez notes that Resistance Summer has paid off by helping New Hampshire Democrats pick up a state House seat and electing two Democrats to state legislative seats in traditionally ruby red Oklahoma.

“So that’s the new DNC,” Perez said. “And one more observation, which is 2017 for me is feeling a lot like 2005. In 2005, we had a very unpopular president pursuing a very unpopular far-right agenda in cahoots with a far-right Congress, and what we were able to do in 2005, which we haven’t been able to accomplish since, we won the governorships in both New Jersey and Virginia. Then the following year we flipped the House, and I’m seeing a similar trend here. But the past is never prologue and what we have to do is build that infrastructure, recruit great candidates, and then organize, organize, organize with our message of a better deal and a brighter future for everybody.”

(Worth noting that in the first half of 2017, Democrats went 0-3 in three special Congressional elections).

Last month, Democrats unveiled their policy goals called “A Better Deal,” but it was not embraced by many liberal Democrats, and a Quinnipiac University poll showed that 54% of Americans hadn’t heard about it. Part of the problem for Democrats is that the spotlight is fixed solely on Trump these days, making it difficult for other political news to break through.

“He sucks up the oxygen, but it’s one thing to suck up the oxygen with affirmative things to help people. He’s been sucking up the oxygen in the room by firing all of his people, by ensnarling his administration in scandal,” Perez said. “I mean the culture of chaos and corruption in this administration is off the charts, and I don’t think the American people want to normalize chaos; they don’t want to normalize ethical lapses; they want people fighting for a better future for them – that’s what Democrats are doing.”

Listen here

But for all of the controversy swirling around Trump, the Republican National Committee is outpacing the DNC in the critical measurement of fundraising. The latest Federal Election Commission reports show that the RNC has nearly $44 million cash-on-hand, while the DNC has $7.5 million in the bank but is also burdened by $3.3 million of debt.

“Well we’re making progress; we have more work to do,” said Perez. “When I walked into the DNC, we had to rebuild our systems, and our fundraising department was a very good group of people, but we needed to quadruple their size and we’re in the process of doing just that.”

Perez said he emphasizes to donors that helping to pay for rebuilding the party infrastructure “ain’t sexy,” but noted it is critical to success.

“You know when your plumbing goes out in your house or the water pipes in Flint (Michigan) corrode, it has life threatening consequences,” Perez said. “And similarly when the political infrastructure corrodes, we lose elections.”

As Perez tries to keep the party focused on the November elections in New Jersey and Virginia, the DNC remains ground zero for Russia’s hacking in the 2016 election. Perez did not go into detail when asked about the investigation other than to note that “from the onset of this investigation we’ve cooperated with the FBI. We continue to cooperate with people on Capitol Hill, and we’ll do so throughout.”

Rebuilding, reforming, uniting and winning elections in 2017 and 2018 are some pretty difficult challenges for a person to shoulder. But that is not the only responsibility Perez is saddled with in his role as DNC chair. The wide open 2020 Democratic presidential primary is just around the corner.

“Well the most important thing we’re going to do is to build a fair, level playing field for everybody,” Perez said. “I welcome the debate. I think there is going to be a bumper crop of candidates and that the American people are going to see a very robust Democratic Party. What will unite all of them is that they are all fighting for a better deal and a brighter future and better tomorrows for everyone, not just a few at the top. And what we’re doing at the DNC is making sure we build the infrastructure, the organizing infrastructure, the technology infrastructure so that whoever … becomes the nominee that they can walk into a DNC that enables them to sprint across the finish line.

Listen here

While Perez said he hopes ideas and ideals are what helps to unite his party, it may just be mutual disgust for Trump that will act as the super glue for Democrats.

Below are some of excerpts of my interview with DNC Chairman Tom Perez. This Q&A has been edited for brevity, clarity and flow.

Mark Preston: As you look at the current state of play right now, what is the Democratic plan to address Donald Trump in this off year?

Tom Perez: Step one is that we have to take on Donald Trump in all of these areas that he’s trying to take America back, and make America weak, not make America great. Equally important though, we can’t simply be against Donald Trump. We’ve got to articulate what we are for, and we have always been fighting for a fair shake for everyone.

Listen here

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  • Preston: (W)hen you were running for chairman, … it was a bit of a contentious fight. There was a lot of criticism from the grassroots about the battle between establishment Democrats and grassroots Democrats. … What is being done behind the scenes to try to bridge the divide between those two (factions)?

    Perez: Every single day we are leading with our values. … If we want to address income inequality in this country, one of the most important things we can do is support efforts for people to unionize and form a union. When unions succeed, the middle class succeeds. When unions succeed, income inequality goes down, and what we have to do as a party is be out there on the issues that matter the most to people: health care, good jobs, the efforts to cut support for public education, we have to articulate what we stand for.”

    Listen here

    Preston: Is the focus right now for the DNC, when you’re looking at priorities, to get back the House of Representatives?

    Perez: Well, that’s a very big part of what we’re trying to do. We have a more immediate focus, which is 2017 because you know what, you win Virginia, you win New Jersey, you lay the foundation for future success. What we try to do is to make sure we’re not only winning elections today but we’re building the infrastructure for sustained success.