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Perez Sees the Good in Government and Imagines Big Things on Climate Change

Former Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez at the 2021 J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Fifth in a series.

During his long career in public service, which includes stints at the federal, state and local levels, Tom Perez has seen government do consequential work. And there have been times when he has been in the thick of major policy debates.

The lesson for Perez is that government works best when there are strong leaders articulating ambitious policies and then following through to ensure that they are enacted.

That’s the message Perez is amplifying on the campaign trail, as he seeks the Democratic nomination for governor.

“Maryland needs sustained executive leadership, and the ability not just to articulate a vision, but to sustain and execute a vision,” he said in a recent interview. “Doing things isn’t sexy, but it’s what people are looking for — the capacity to get things done.”

Perez, who is 60, began his government service as a civil rights attorney and the Justice Department and then as an aide to the late U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He later spent four years on the Montgomery County Council.

Click here to read more from this series.

Next, Perez worked as Maryland secretary of labor under Gov. Martin J. O’Malley (D). Then he headed the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department under President Obama, and went on to become U.S. Labor secretary during Obama’s second term.

For the past four years, Perez was chair of the Democratic National Committee, a high-profile if thankless job. Perhaps as a result, he sees the failures of government — or at least the perceived failures — through a partisan lens.

“People have lost faith in government,” he said, lamenting “the whole government is the problem narrative that took off with Ronald Reagan.”

“It hurts Democrats more than it hurts Republicans,” he said.

But that’s also why Perez wants Maryland government to do big things. He says the state is at a critical juncture but has an opportunity to address some of its most pressing problems — including racial and economic inequities, criminal justice reform, funding shortfalls, and climate change. To properly confront these challenges, Perez believes, Maryland needs a strong governor who will lay out a bold agenda.

“The priorities that a leader sets can really move the needle,” he said.

Perez has never worked directly in the climate space, but he often opens his speeches with a climate joke — or at least a weather joke. He teases that his parents, fleeing oppression in the Dominican Republic, immigrated to Buffalo, N.Y., “because the weather was so similar.”

But Perez is not joking about climate change. He views the imperatives facing state government with a certain solemnity and he argues that the Hogan administration hasn’t shown the requisite urgency when it comes to confronting climate change. He’s especially critical about the administration’s record on green energy.

“We haven’t led,” he said. “We’ve punched below our weight on offshore wind. The notion that Massachusetts is ahead of Maryland on offshore wind when they have a Republican governor too, is frankly galling to me.”

Like some other Democratic candidates for governor, Perez says he would appoint a climate “czar” to help coordinate his administration’s efforts to prepare for the ravages of climate change. But he concedes he’s uncomfortable with the word and is searching for an alternative.

“This person is going to be a convener, someone who is going to be a silo buster in state government,” he said.

Like John B. King Jr., another Democratic candidate for governor who served in Obama’s cabinet, Perez name-checks Gina McCarthy who was Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator and now is serving as an in-house coordinator of domestic climate policy for President Biden.

“Gina McCarthy is a traffic cop for a sustained federal approach,” he said.

At the state level, Perez credits Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) for the same approach — which he describes as “a comprehensive vision and a cross-cutting government agenda. And they’re getting things done.”

On his campaign web page, Perez’s plans for confronting the environmental crisis are broken into five categories: climate change, renewable energy, environmental justice, the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, and stormwater management.

Befitting a man who has headed the state and federal government’s top labor agencies, Perez thinks a lot about climate change in the context of the economic opportunities — not just the policy challenges. A flourishing green economy, he said will boost the entire economy — and, if done properly, will provide opportunities for communities of color that have largely been shut out of the economic revival of the past decade. He argues that these opportunities will inevitably unite environmentalists and organized labor.

“I give so much credit to Joe Biden on that,” Perez said. “When I think of climate change, I think of jobs. And when I think of jobs, I think of jobs.”

But Perez is taking lessons from the recent past to chart a course for the future.

“One thing we learned from 2009 and the Great Recession, we had great hopes that the stimulus bill would create a great number of jobs in the clean energy industry,” he recalled. “When you look back at it, we didn’t meet those goals. Weatherization was talked about as this huge job creator and while there was some job growth there, it wasn’t enough. I think we’re in a great moment now because the attention is being paid [to climate change] nationally, and the infusion of resources at a national level gives us these opportunities.”

As two major offshore wind companies stand up businesses in Maryland, Perez is excited by the potential.

“We have an opportunity for a 50-year job cycle, a multi-generational job cycle of $30 an hour jobs,” he said. “And one of things we have to make sure we do is ensure that the job creation includes every community.”

Perez said that when it comes to boosting solar energy generation in the state, the government is well-positioned to take the lead.

“We have a lot of leverage points — whether it’s school construction, whether it’s state-owned property,” he said. “The state has so many buildings where we can put our priorities into practice.”

‘We can’t pave our way out of gridlock’

Perez is reluctant to embrace the idea of imposing a carbon tax or pollution fee in Maryland, and feels that’s more appropriate at the federal level. But he won’t rule it out, either.

“I haven’t seen a state that’s been able to do this effectively yet,” he said. “But I do think we have to put everything on the table.”

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Perez also believes that nuclear energy and even natural gas must be a part of Maryland’s clean energy portfolio for now.

“Nuclear is certainly part of our future here in Maryland,” he said. “And natural gas right now is an indispensable part of what we’re doing. So we have to recognize the realities of the moment.”

Perez is highly critical of some of Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s transportation decisions. He recalled a recent conversation with former U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), a leading Senate appropriator, and said she remains outraged that Hogan canceled the Red Line east-west transit project that would have run in Baltimore City and through parts of Baltimore County.

“It still sticks in her craw no end that we gave $800 million back to the federal government,” he said.

Perez wants to do more than just revive some iteration of that proposal, as most of his Democratic opponents do. He said he wants to set up a regional transit authority for the Baltimore area, which he said would also improve bus service and commuter rail. Perez also supports other proposed transit lines in the state and suggests they can be paid for, in part, by the anticipated influx of federal infrastructure funding.

Perez also said the state needs to do more to promote hiker and biker paths, faulting the Hogan administration for eliminating “in the cover of night” a proposed walking path across the new Nice/Middleton Bridge now under construction in Charles County. He notes that the hiker-biker path of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) insisted upon, “has more volume than a lot of roads in Maryland.”

Perez said he is strongly opposed to the Hogan plan to widen sections of Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway and notes that when he served on the Montgomery County Council, he was a skeptic of the Intercounty Connector Highway, which was just being revived at the time after Glendening had paused it.

“We can’t pave our way out of gridlock,” Perez said. “I’m always struck, when I’m on the ICC, by how few cars are on it. It definitely did not deliver on its promise.”

Perez’s personal climate hero is…

Asked to name his personal climate hero — a question Maryland Matters posed to all the Democratic contenders for governor — Perez cited a high-profile member of the Clinton administration with whom he served. Former Vice President Al Gore, he said, “put climate on the map before anybody else did.”

“When he first started talking about it people were laughing at him,” Perez said. “He was just 20 years ahead of his time and now the nation has caught up to Al Gore. It’s unfortunate that we had to catch up.”

Coming Thursday: An interview with Rushern L. Baker III. Click here for other stories in the Climate Voter’s Guide series.

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Perez Sees the Good in Government and Imagines Big Things on Climate Change