WASHINGTON – After decades of working to enhance civil rights, Maryland Secretary of Labor, Licensing and Regulation Tom Perez has brought his expertise to the person who could make the most use of it — President-elect Barack Obama.
Perez, a 47-year-old attorney from Takoma Park, has led transition efforts for the Justice, Health and Human Services, Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development Departments for the past several months.
“He’s a tremendous, passionate advocate of civil rights issues (and has) a tremendous ability to work with people of all backgrounds and points of view,” said Montgomery County Councilwoman Nancy Floreen, who was on the council with Perez, the county’s first Latino member, from 2002 to 2006.
In his four-year term, Perez fought against predatory lending and high prescription drug prices and worked to improve literacy and immigration programs.
“He’s immensely smart,” said Councilman George Leventhal. “Tom Perez has a great analytical mind, and it’s not just his brain; it’s also his heart. He cares deeply about people who are left behind and making sure that everybody gets a chance to participate.”
Perez did not seek re-election after his term ended in 2006 because he was running for Maryland attorney general. He was removed from the ballot after the courts determined his law experience was too heavily federal to meet statutory requirements. Doug Gansler won, and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley chose Perez to head the state’s Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
Gansler has since joined Obama’s transition team, also as an adviser on the Justice Department, according to published reports.
While Perez’s appointment to the transition team has caused speculation that he may be tapped for Obama’s administration, Perez plans to remain Maryland’s labor secretary through the remainder of O’Malley’s administration “if he’ll have me,” he said.
Though he didn’t give a reason for wanting to stay in his position, he talked about the difference he has been able to make the past two years.
“I’ve been able to leverage the talents of others,” Perez said. “Working with over 2,000 people, you can really develop synergy and make a big difference.”
Before joining O’Malley’s administration and the Montgomery County Council, Perez held several other leadership positions.
He was the director for the federal Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights, the deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights under former Attorney General Janet Reno and a special counsel to Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., for civil rights and crime issues. Kennedy was not available for comment.
Working for Kennedy helped Perez move from the legal field to the political arena. Perez said he got involved in politics to make a difference.
“It’s a great way to help people who are in need,” he said. “That’s what my parents taught me — make sure the ladder’s always down.”
Perez has devoted part of his compassion to assisting immigrants.
From 1995 to 2002, Perez volunteered with CASA de Maryland, a non-profit immigrant assistance organization, as a member — and president in 2002 — of its board of directors.
“He was the person on our CASA board of directors, the first person who had the vision to tell us that we need to provide services and advocate around the state for the diverse community, and that is a factor in what we are doing right now,” the group’s executive director Gustavo Torres said.
His impact in the Hispanic community may be one reason Obama tapped him for the transition team, according to Michael Cain, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
“I think a lot of it is who he is and the fact that he’s a strong voice among Hispanics, and I think some of this may be motivated by, you know, Hispanics got him in office,” he said. “I am not saying Tom Perez isn’t great — he’s very good — but I think that probably helped him a bit.”
Even in one of his earliest jobs, Perez made an effort to reach out to people.
From 1987 to 1989, Perez was a law clerk for U.S. District Court of Colorado Judge Zita Weinshienk who said he was “very smart, very intelligent but not just book smart, he’s smart in the ways of the world and very friendly. He’s a people person.”
Perez has such a passion for helping people that he has taken on part-time teaching jobs. He taught at the University of Maryland School of Law from 2001 to 2007 and is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s School of Public Health, though he hasn’t taught any courses yet.
“I get a lot of inspiration from working with young people, and I think it’s part of our professional responsibility to work and mentor our next generation of leaders,” Perez said.
Perez is a 1987 graduate of Harvard Law School, where Obama got his law degree four years later.
The Buffalo native has completed three Boston Marathons and traveled to the Dominican Republic several times. Perez and his wife have two daughters and a son.
Whether Perez will have a role in Obama’s administration after the transition phase has yet to be determined, but his former colleagues couldn’t think of a better candidate for the job.
“If the president-elect were to call Tom for service, he would be making an extraordinarily wise choice for the country,” Leventhal said. “Tom is a distinguished public servant. I’m a great admirer of Tom and a close friend, so I think he’s got all of the capabilities that you would want for public service.”