March 18 was chilly and overcast as Thomas Perez ’83 made his way to the White House. Perez, the controversial assistant attorney general for civil rights, was meeting his boss, Attorney General Eric Holder, and Holder’s boss, President Obama, in the East Room, where Obama would officially announce that Perez was his choice to become the secretary of labor.As Perez’s family sat beaming in the front row of chairs beside Holder, Obama described Perez as both the embodiment of the American Dream and an energetic warrior on its behalf. “Like so many Americans,” Obama said, “Tom knows what it’s like to climb the ladder of opportunity. He’s the son of Dominican immigrants. He helped pay his way through college as a garbage collector and working at a warehouse. He went on to become the first lawyer in his family. So his story reminds us of this country’s promise, that if you’re willing to work hard it doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, what your last name is, you can make it if you try. And Tom’s made protecting that promise for everybody the cause of his life.”
By nominating Perez to replace outgoing secretary Hilda Solis—Perez was confirmed by the Senate on July 18 —Obama upped the ante in one of the most contentious debates in politics today: the role government should play in the lives of its citizens. As Perez’s long career in public service makes clear, Obama has chosen a strong advocate for activist government. The nation’s top civil rights lawyer since 2009, Perez has found himself at the center of some of the country’s most racially and philosophically contentious fights, and he’s proven to be an eager combatant.
Perez, for example, fought new voter-identification laws in South Carolina and Texas that critics labeled attempts to suppress the Democratic-leaning minority vote. He challenged state laws targeting illegal immigrants in Alabama and Arizona. He sued the notoriously anti-immigrant Maricopa County, Arizona, sheriff Joe Arpaio for racially profiling Latinos. He investigated the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida and launched a record number of probes into unconstitutional police practices. Perez advocated for Muslims in the workplace and championed the Americans with Disabilities Act. And he landed the three largest settlements in the history of the Fair Housing Act, from mortgage lenders who “used the corrosive power of fine print,” as he put it, to take advantage of people of color disproportionately.
In fact, Perez not only thinks government can open doors and level playing fields, he says so repeatedly, enthusiastically, and without qualification—much to the dismay of those who believe the government needs to step back and not intervene.
After having worked in local, state, and federal government; served under four presidents (two Republican and two Democratic); labored as a staffer in Congress; and now been confirmed to head a federal cabinet-level agency, Perez, despite the political shifts of recent years, remains a true believer in the power of the federal government to create a fairer society.
“What I love about the executive branch,” he says, “is the ability to make a difference in so many different ways with so many different people. If you can get 800 people in a division all with their oars in the water rowing in synchronicity, the multiplier effect is just remarkable. The power of agencies to affect people’s lives and to expand opportunity is limitless.”
Soon after the March 18 event, Mother Jones magazine labeled Perez “Obama’s most progressive Cabinet nominee.” Richard L. Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, told the New York Times: “At a time when our politics tilts so heavily toward corporations and the very wealthy, our country needs leaders like Tom Perez to champion the cause of ordinary working people.”
Rush Limbaugh, on the other hand, likened Perez to the late socialist Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. In fact, many Republicans view him as a radical activist who has used the Civil Rights Division to shield illegal immigrants from consequences. “This is an unfortunate and needlessly divisive nomination,” Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions told the New York Times. “The top priority of the secretary of labor should be to create jobs and higher wages for American workers. But Mr. Perez has aggressively sought ways to allow the hiring of more illegal workers. Mr. Perez has also had a controversial tenure at the Department of Justice, where he has demonstrated a fundamentally political approach to the law.”
But not all Republicans see it that way. Former Republican National
Committee Chairman Michael Steele, who worked with Perez when both were
politicians in Maryland, responded to the nomination by saying Perez
did an “incredible job” at the Department of Justice. “This is a good
public servant who should be given an opportunity,” Steele said, “and
the president recognized that.”
In a Justice Department office decorated with pictures of Robert Kennedy, Frederick Douglass, and, strangely enough, Republican Clint Eastwood (Eastwood directed scenes for his biopic of J. Edgar Hoover in Perez’s conference room, which was once Hoover’s office), Perez sat for an interview with BAM shortly before word surfaced of his new assignment. He reflected on his tenure at Justice and laid out a philosophy that applies just as much to the workplace as it does to the civil rights arena.
When Obama put Perez in charge of the Civil Rights Division, it was actually a homecoming of sorts: Perez had worked there under Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. But, after ten years away, Perez found the office had become politicized and demoralized during the presidency of the younger President Bush. Reports at the time exposed a hiring process favoring applicants’ ideology over their qualifications, and a culture in which career attorneys were virtually handcuffed.
“We walked into a division that was in need of restoration and transformation,” Perez said. “Those were the areas of focus when I first arrived. We needed to restore merit-based, career-driven hiring, and the lines of communication between the political leadership and the sections. We needed in many respects to restore the dignity of many of the attorneys in the division, who had been transformed from litigators and problem-solvers into memo writers.”He also sought out areas where existing civil rights statutes could be harnessed in new ways to solve some of the country’s emerging problems, and where the division could provide a more “credible deterrent” to potential wrongdoers. That’s how he wound up going after giant mortgage lenders Countrywide, Wells Fargo, and SunTrust, and eventually landing settlements worth more than $660 million.
“When I got here,” Perez said, “one of the basic questions I asked was, ‘What are the most important problems confronting the American people for which we have tools that can help?’ And one of the most important problems was the foreclosure crisis. It touched every community, but it disproportionately touched communities of color.”
As if that weren’t enough, Perez, who’d handled police abuse cases in New Orleans during his first stint at Justice, sent his criminal lawyers to that city to look into and eventually prosecute allegations that New Orleans police officers had killed unarmed citizens in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Under Perez’s direction, the federal government won several high-profile convictions of former city cops. Beyond that, Perez signed a civil consent decree with the city mandating systemic reforms at the police department. And he wasn’t done with New Orleans yet. He kept his focus on cleaning up the city, issuing another consent decree aimed at improving treatment of prisoners at the city-owned jail. Perez’s lawyers also fought restrictive rental laws in one suburban parish and investigated discrimination against Latino students in another suburb’s schools.
In the Civil Rights Division, Perez took on immigration, too, taking to court states that tried to deal with illegal immigrants by passing laws that generated fear and abuse in immigrant communities. By fighting back in court, Perez said, he actually wound up helping set the stage for immigration reform, an issue that will remain on his plate as labor secretary.
“Thanks in no small measure to the election of 2012,” he predicted, “comprehensive immigration reform is going to happen in 2013. Part of that effort that brings us here is the work that we did in vindicating the proposition that the federal government is the one and only quarterback on immigration matters. You can’t have fifty quarterbacks in a football game. You’ve got to have one quarterback.”
Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, who happens to be the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been a particularly vocal critic. In his view, it’s Perez who has politicized the Civil Rights Division. “I’m primarily interested in why he hasn’t done more to make sure that the Civil Rights Division was more nonpartisan,” Grassley told the National Review after Obama nominated Perez.
Other Republicans have criticized Perez for serving on the board of CASA de Maryland, an immigrant advocacy group that objected to what it believed to be an overly aggressive 2007 immigration raid. They’ve zeroed in on the Justice Department’s refusal to pursue allegations that the New Black Panther Party intimidated white voters, a case that predated Perez’s tenure. Others have suggested that, by assertively enforcing the Voting Rights Act, Perez in effect helped Democrats get elected.
None of these criticisms seem to worry Perez. “When we’re doing our
job right,” Perez said in his office, “we tend to anger people across
the ideological spectrum.” He listed several instances in which
politicians from his own party had wanted him to be even tougher. “We
can’t concern ourselves with whether our holiday card list is going to
expand or contract. We concern ourselves with applying the facts to the
law in a fair and independent way.”
Perez agrees that his own personal history has helped shape his sense of U.S. history and his obligation to help outsiders trying to make it in America. When his maternal grandfather, who was the Dominican Republic’s ambassador to the United States, spoke out against his country’s dictator in the 1930s, he “was declared non gratis, as they say in the business.” Perez’s father, part of the DR’s student protest movement, also fled the country and wound up in New York City, where he met Perez’s mother. After serving as a legal immigrant in the military, he eventually wound up in Buffalo, New York, working for the Veterans Administration. He died when his son was twelve.
“This country gave so much to my parents,” Thomas Perez says, “who were exiled from the Dominican Republic, so they didn’t have a country. And in turn they made sure that their kids understood that the ladder of opportunity should always be down.”
Although Obama’s East Room introduction hinted at a hardscrabble upbringing, Perez said that the Buffalo of his childhood was a Leave It to Beaver sort of place. Residents embraced his family, even though “we could count on one hand the number of Dominican families in town.”
But it was during his years at Brown, he said, that he first recognized the great diversity of the United States. His children now take such experiences for granted, he said, but for him Brown was the first place where he got to know people of different races, religions, sexual orientations, and perspectives. A political science and international relations concentrator, Perez was particularly close to “the late great Ed Beiser” and worked as a teaching assistant in Beiser’s legendary class on the politics of the legal system.
“Tom Perez, Catholic boy from Buffalo,” Perez says. “His mentor in college is Ed Beiser, Orthodox Jew from New York City, went to City College of New York, and taught me so many life lessons. That’s a microcosm of why Brown was so remarkable for me.”
After graduation, law school beckoned, in part because “I knew I wanted to do something where I could make a difference, change the world for the better. So I looked around and saw the change agents tended to be lawyers.” Besides, he realized he couldn’t be a doctor. “All my siblings are doctors,” he said. “I watched my brother operate once, and I almost fainted. So I realized I needed a different line of work.”
Perez earned a joint degree from Harvard Law School and the John F. Kennedy School of Government, clerked for a federal judge in Denver, then joined the Civil Rights Division as a lawyer prosecuting police misconduct and hate crimes. He rose rapidly in public service, becoming special counsel to Senator Ted Kennedy, and then becoming head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights. He also taught at the George Washington University School of Public Health and the University of Maryland School of Law. In 2010 the Brown Alumni Association honored his civil rights work with the William Rogers award, given to alumni who live up to the University charter’s call to live lives “of usefulness and reputation.”
In 2002, Perez left the federal government to work at the local
level. He won a seat on the Montgomery County Council representing a
suburban district that includes Takoma Park, where he lives with his
wife, Ann Marie Staudenmaier—a lawyer with the Washington Legal Clinic
for the Homeless—and their three children. Perez was the first Latino
elected to the council. During his single term he pursued his typically
activist agenda, introducing legislation to crack down on predatory
lending, pushing to allow county employees to import cheap prescription
drugs from Canada, and successfully advocating for a Comcast employee
who’d been fired for union activity.
Then, in 2006, he entered Maryland’s attorney general race, vowing to use that job, too, as a bully pulpit. He never got the chance. A judge removed him from the ballot on a technicality, ruling that he hadn’t put in the requisite amount of time as a Maryland lawyer to meet the job’s minimum requirements. The setback didn’t sideline him for long. In 2007, new Governor Martin O’Malley appointed Perez to the state-level equivalent of the federal post he now holds: Secretary of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation.
Leonard J. Howie III, Perez’s top deputy during those years and the current Maryland labor secretary, says his priorities included enforcing wage and hour laws, preventing misclassification of employees as independent contractors, and helping to pass a “living wage” initiative mandating that government contractors pay at least $11.30 per hour. “Governments,” Perez said at the time, “should use [their] purchasing power to lift up workers and set an example for employers.” The unions loved it.
In Maryland, Perez looked for a tool to help deal with the aftermath of the housing crash. He found it in the department’s jurisdiction over state-chartered lending institutions. Howie recalls, “Tom worked with agencies, major banks, consumers—he got everyone in the room—and said, ‘What can we do with our laws to make the foreclosure process a more fair process?’ This agency wouldn’t have been involved prior to that. He had the vision to see we had not only a role, but a leadership role.”
In his Justice Department office, Perez said that his background as a state and local official has given him a perspective he could not have gotten in Washington: what it’s like to be regulated. As a result of that experience, he said, he looks to be a consensus-builder, and at Justice he quietly pursued many cases in coordination with local jurisdictions.
“There are times when we are in an adversarial posture—with the state immigration cases, obviously, and with voter ID cases,” he said, but “actually, there are probably more examples that come to mind of where we’ve been able to work collaboratively. I’m a huge believer in partnerships.”
As Obama's secretary of labor, Perez is the closest Brown alum to the presidency since 1921, when President Warren
G. Harding appointed Charles Evans Hughes, class of 1881, to be his
secretary of state. (As secretary of labor, he will be ninth in the
succession to the presidency. U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke ’62 had
Cabinet-level status during the Clinton administration but was not part
of the succession chain.)
As Obama’s labor secretary, Perez will continue working on some of the issues he grappled with at Justice. He will likely try to improve conditions for immigrant workers, for example, and help the president make the case for a higher minimum wage. Bringing returning war veterans into the workforce is also on the to-do list, Obama said at his nomination press conference. The emphasis, the president said, will be not just on promoting policies that lead to growth, but on making sure the growth is “broad based” enough to boost the fortunes of the middle class.
Resistance to his activism, of course, will also follow Perez at Labor. As Howie explains, “When you propose things that are really meant to level the playing field, for those who are getting leveled, maybe they don’t like that so much.” Perez will also face continuing allegations that he’s too strong an advocate for better working conditions for immigrants; his sympathy for unions is another possible sore point with big business interests.
Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, points out that Solis also came in as secretary with strong pro-labor credentials but was not always able to aggressively pursue worker-friendly policies. In an attempt to appeal to the political center, she said, Obama has sometimes distanced himself from the labor movement. He also did not include Solis in his inner circle of economic advisers, something the president suggested he’d do with Perez when he announced that the new secretary would be an ‘integral part” of the White House’s economic team.
Based on Perez’s background at the Civil Rights Division, Bronfenbrenner says she expects Perez to be a vocal advocate for immigrant rights and for a higher minimum wage, which, she argued, is “especially important now, given how far behind so many workers are.” How successful he’ll ultimately be, she predicted, depends less on his own enthusiasm and commitment than on the president’s.
“This is Perez’s job,” she said, but “he can only do it well if Obama backs him up all the way.”
New Orleans writer Stephanie Grace is a former political columnist with The Times-Picayune.