When Tom Perez and I met at a Takoma Park restaurant the other day, the former Democratic National Committee chair was just a few weeks removed from knee surgery. So when we were offered seats at a high-top table, he declined.
Being up high would be too uncomfortable, he explained, and he needed a place to sit where he could stretch his legs and spread out a bit.
To me, it felt a little like a metaphor. Here is Perez, on the cusp of seeking higher office — he’ll decide by late spring or early summer whether to run for governor in 2022. But after four grueling years heading the DNC, one of the most thankless jobs in politics, which followed eight intense years at high-level positions in the Obama administration, Perez needs a little more time to stretch out.
All signs seem to suggest that Perez is going to run. He’s created a “527” organization to do some exploratory fundraising and politicking, and he’s working with Tucker Cavanagh, a young but respected Maryland Democratic strategist who has been campaign manager for Johnny Olszewski and Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, among others.
More to the point, Perez is on “a listening tour” of the state.
“I’ve been taking the time in the past couple of months and in the weeks ahead to talk to people all across Maryland,” he says. “It’s been really educational for me, because if I decide to run I’m going to be meeting people in every zip code across this state.”
Perez says he’s getting a pretty good idea of what Maryland Democratic voters want in their next governor.
“They’re looking for someone who can get the job done,” he says. “They are looking for someone who can articulate a vision of opportunity, who can seize the moment. I think we have a once in a generation opportunity right now on racial equity, on gender equity, to address our climate crisis, and to address income equality.”
Chances are, if Perez runs, he’ll be one of the Democratic frontrunners. He’s a man of substance; he’s got progressive bona fides; he has the national contacts to raise a lot of money; he’s well-known among Democratic activists in the state — though not so well known among the general populace. He’d probably have most of the state’s leading labor unions behind him, and he’s the rare politician who can appeal to both advocates and insiders.
Maryland political history is littered with candidates who have made their mark at the federal level, working for the White House or on Capitol Hill or with a powerful interest group, and think that can translate into success at the state. Heck, in 2022, Perez, who served for four years as President Obama’s Labor secretary and four years heading the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department, wouldn’t even be the only ex-Obama cabinet member running for governor in 2022; former U.S. Education secretary John B. King Jr., who Perez calls “a friend,” is already in the race.
But Perez believes that his specific set of credentials, which include serving as former Gov. Martin J. O’Malley’s Labor secretary, as a Montgomery County councilmember, and as the board president at CASA, the estimable immigrant rights organization, set him up nicely for the Democratic primary and a conversation about moving the state forward and taking advantage of the moment.
“I had the privilege of enforcing civil rights laws and labor laws under Barack Obama,” he says. “Labor laws largely grew out of the New Deal. Civil rights laws largely grew out of the movements of the 1960s. These two movements of the ’30s and ’60s were simultaneously tumultuous moments of uncertainty and they were moments of incredible progress for our nation. And I think we’re in one of those moments now.”
Perez also believes that Marylanders, after eight years of “treading water” under Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., a popular figure with a limited agenda, will be ready for a more activist approach, one that builds on successes that Perez believes are largely attributable to the Democrats in the General Assembly, the Biden administration and the Democrats in Congress.
“Imagine if the governor and General Assembly were actually able to work together to get things done,” he says. “We could do that much more.”
Perez asserts that under Hogan, “we’ve punched below our weight in Maryland.” The state, he adds, “has a remarkable amount of untapped potential, and what I hear from people is we have the opportunity to tap that potential.”
In fact, Perez offers up a pretty harsh critique of Hogan’s time in office, even his management of the state’s multiple COVID-19 challenges — which has won Hogan positive reviews from national pundits and even some Democrats, who see him as taking the crises seriously, in contrast to President Trump and other leading national Republicans.
On the meltdown of the state’s unemployment insurance system, Perez, as a former federal and state labor secretary, is particularly withering.
“People shouldn’t have to wait five months for an unemployment check,” he asserts. “That’s an abject failure.”
The leading Republican candidate for governor right now, Commerce Secretary Kelly M. Shultz, is, like Perez, a former state labor secretary. While she had already moved over to the Commerce job by the time the pandemic and the unemployment crisis hit, it will be interesting to compare their records at the state labor department, if both wind up the gubernatorial nominees of their party.
But that’s getting ahead of things. For now, Perez will have to navigate what is shaping up to be a crowded Democratic primary field.
Over the next several weeks, Perez will serve as a paid CNN commentator — a gig that would end if he becomes a declared candidate for governor. That certainly increases his visibility, but does it also serve as a reminder that Perez has toiled professionally in Washington, D.C., for most of his career?
“Having a governor who has worked closely with folks at the White House — I would observe that that’s a net plus when you’re talking about Maryland getting its fair share out of Washington,” he replies.
With candidates looking to outmaneuver each other on the left, Perez figures he has pockets of strength around the state, and can also appeal to a broad cross-section of the Democratic electorate. Every Democratic candidate is assessing where their votes will come from. In a crowded primary, 40% — maybe even 30% — will be enough to win.
These days, Perez has an old Joe Jackson song in his head, “Be My Number Two.” It’s his hope that he won’t just be the first choice for many Democrats, but the second choice for others, whose favored candidates may falter. Chances are, he’s not the only Democratic candidate with that sort of calculation in his head
Maybe soon, if his knee allows, Perez will be able to do a slow dance to that lovely tune.