My former boss, Ted Kennedy, died nine years to the day before Sen. John McCain passed away of the same disease. The two were famously close friends —— lawmakers who rose above the petty resentments of party tribalism to respect and love one another based on their shared passion for public service.
Ted Kennedy is not here today to honor his dear friend in the same way that Sen. McCain honored him when he passed away. But as chair of the Democratic Party, I want to take the opportunity to honor Sen. McCain. Not because I agreed with every policy position he took, but because, like Senator Kennedy, he was guided by a loyalty to public service and the American people.
When I was nominated to serve as President Obama’s labor secretary in 2013, Democrats controlled the U.S. Senate by a slim margin. I needed every Democrat and six Republicans to vote in the affirmative to clear the cloture hurdle before I could be confirmed. The rift between left and right seemed insurmountable. But then, there was always John McCain.
He was everything you wanted a public servant to be: fierce but kind, passionate and principled. And without John McCain’s cloture vote, my nomination would have failed. My public service career could have ended there. He didn’t vote to score political points, he voted to make democracy work.
Both Kennedy and McCain viewed bipartisanship as a virtue, not a sin —— because they knew that if you could get something done to help everyday families, it didn’t matter whose name was on the bill, or what party it was associated with.
Consider their fight for immigration reform as an example. The McCain-Kennedy immigration bill was a good-faith bipartisan effort to solve the complex problems that still plague a complex system. They didn't resort to the lazy demagoguery of hollow sloganeering. They sought a solution. Both of these men understood that they must compromise on the “how” of the problem to fulfill the “why” that they agreed upon.
Why compromise on immigration reform? Both agreed on the answer: "In order to form a more perfect Union."
We need that sense of comity and principled compromise today. On so many of the issues they worked on —— from immigration and health care to climate change and criminal justice —— we need more senators to lead with that same sense of good-faith bipartisanship to get things done for the American people.
The "Lion" and the "Maverick" may be gone, but their lessons of public service should continue to guide us.
At Ted Kennedy’s memorial service, John McCain closed his remembrance with these words: "I will go back to the Senate, and I will try to be as persistent as Ted was and as passionate for the work. I know I'm privileged to serve there. But I think most of my colleagues would agree, the place won't be the same without him."
I knew Ted Kennedy. Ted Kennedy would be proud of his friend John. He would be proud of his persistence and his passion. He would be proud that John’s moral compass never strayed from true north. And he would have roared from the floor of the U.S. Senate to tell the world that we need more "Mavericks" with the courage and character of United States Sen. John McCain.
Tom Perez is chairman of the Democratic National Committee and served as U.S Secretary of Labor from 2013 to 2017.