The next election may be nearly a year and a half away, but Democrats — still reeling from 2016 — already are recruiting and organizing volunteers.

The chairman of the Democratic National Committee made a stop at a union hall rally in South St. Paul Monday afternoon, drawing a couple hundred volunteers. “We have to eliminate the term ‘off-year’ from our lexicon, folks, because every year is our year,” said DNC Chairman Tom Perez, who was secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor under President Barack Obama before being elected to lead the national party over Minnesota’s U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison.

Perez is a passionate speaker who drew attention and criticism this spring for some profanity-laced public tirades about President Donald Trump.

At his address at the AFSCME Council 5 union hall, however, Perez showed signs he has absorbed a frequent criticism among Democrats and their local affiliate, the Minnesota DFL Party — that they have opposed Trump but not offered an alternative vision of their own.

“We stand for the proposition that everyone who works a full-time job should live a middle-class life,” Perez said.

He barely mentioned Trump, focusing his fire instead on U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis — who represents South St. Paul in Congress — for supporting lighter regulations of Wall Street and the Republican health care bill currently wending its way through Congress.

Lewis, a first-term Republican, beat Angie Craig in 2016 in an election that saw the GOP stun Democrats nationwide and the DFL here in Minnesota, helping Republicans pick up seats in the Minnesota House and take the majority in the Minnesota Senate.

Stephen Bradford, a spokesman for Lewis, issued a response: “Perez clearly blinked and missed the millions of dollars the DFL spent trying to turn this seat blue in 2016,” he said. “[Perez] must have also missed the hundreds and hundreds of community banks and credit unions that closed their doors under an Obama administration law that codified too-big-to-fail, and the back to back, double-digit premium increases that Minnesotans have faced.”

This year has seen a surge of activism from Democrats. Ellison, who became Perez’s deputy after losing the race for DNC chairman, has organized 90 days of events across the country designed to get activists engaged.

“Sideline citizenship can’t work anymore. We’ve got to have active, engaged citizens who are ready to stand up and fight for the best values of this country,” said Ellison, who also appeared at the rally.

The party’s new energy will be tested in a special election Tuesday to fill a Georgia congressional seat vacated by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

Steve Cook of West. St. Paul, a recently retired building inspector, is the type of middle-aged male Democrats lost badly in 2016.

Cook called the party’s inability to win white men “perplexing.”

A veteran activist and supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders, Cook said he liked the focus on what Democrats stand for, rather than just opposition to Trump.

“[Clinton] missed the boat,” he said of Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign. “If your campaign is based on not voting for the other guy, it doesn’t work.”

Cook argued that the DFL and its national counterparts need to focus on jobs, health care, pension benefits and other bread-and-butter economic issues for working people.

“That’s the foundation,” he said. “It’s not working with corporatists, like [Clinton] was doing.”