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The Labor Secretary On Trade, Jobs And What Democrats Offer Voters


Now, earlier today I sat down with Labor Secretary Tom Perez. He's at the convention speaking to the media in a personal, not official, capacity. But I had to bring up one of the thornier topics here this week - the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement because anti-TPP signs can be seen all over the convention hall. So I ask Perez whether divisions within the Democratic Party signal a larger shift for Democrats away from support for open trade and globalization.

TOM PEREZ: I think we've always had viewpoint diversity on issues of trade. You go back to just about every trade agreement. There have been Republicans who've supported it, Republicans who've opposed it, Democrats who've supported it, Democrats who've opposed it.

Here's where I think there's a lot of common ground. The North Star for President Obama and other progressives is, we want to make sure there's a level playing field for workers, and that is where I think there's widespread agree. The challenge is to make sure we get there.

NAFTA, for instance, was a trade agreement that was well-intentioned, but it was promises made and not promises kept. Can we learn from the lessons and mistakes of history? That's really the discussion that we're having in the context of trade now.

CORNISH: All week we've heard Democrats basically tout the economic growth of the last eight years, but there's evidence this year, especially with working-class voters, that basically they're not buying it, that they feel like it is harder to move into the middle class, that they're not satisfied with the last eight years in terms of their economic prospects. Why do you think that is?

PEREZ: Well, actually, I think it's important to level set where we were, where we've come, where we need to go, and where we were when this president took over was the economy was in the worst ditch of our lifetime - 2.4 million jobs lost in the three months before the president got there. The...

CORNISH: But that seems to be the argument that's being rejected - right? - like, saying, well, hey, it's better than it could have been.

PEREZ: Well, I don't think it's - no, I think what - here's the bottom line. The president inherited a mess. The Democrats in Congress have moved forward - 14.8 million jobs created over the last 70 months. If you want to grow jobs, elect a Democrat. The unfinished business of this recovery is to make sure that the progress we've made results in shared prosperity, and that's what Hillary Clinton is all about.

CORNISH: What does she have to accomplish in this speech tonight? Is it about policy? Is it about addressing voters who question her integrity? What do you think she needs to say?

PEREZ: Well, I think she's going to articulate a very optimistic vision of an America that can work for everyone. She's going to acknowledge where we were, where we've come and where we need to go, and she has a very, very wide-ranging and inclusive vision, a vision that understands that we leave no ZIP code behind, a vision that understands that every person is gifted and talented and we need to draw out those gifts and talents, a vision that understands that it's a false choice to suggest that we either keep our streets safe or we respect the Constitution. We can do both.

CORNISH: One thing - I shouldn't let you go before asking about the vice presidential pick because there were a lot of voters, some Latino voters, who had an eye on your name being on the short list, Julian Castro being on the short list. Is there going to be a time where we see Latino politicians make real gains on this level the way we were seeing it on the Republican side, right? There were...

PEREZ: Well...

CORNISH: There were several candidates there running.

PEREZ: Well, let's be clear. In one hour this Monday night at the Democratic convention, there were more Latinos who spoke than in the entire Republican Convention of last week. I thought after 2012 - they did this report, the Republican Party, saying, we've got to reach out to Latinos. They have a very unique Latino outreach strategy. Let's just call it that. And when you belittle and demean Mexicans, when you belittle and frighten Muslims - not a very effective strategy.

And so I've been proud to be a Democrat, and I think Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine are a home run ticket. They are workhorses. They're not show horses. And they have a proven track record not only with the Latino community but across America.

CORNISH: Well, Tom Perez, thank you so much for sitting down to speak with us.

PEREZ: Great to be with you, Audie.

CORNISH: Tom Perez serves in the Obama administration as labor secretary. He spoke with us here at the DNC in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.