After his father died of a heart attack when he was 12 years old, Tom Perez — a former member of the Obama cabinet with experience in state and local government — said he learned to live life with a sense of urgency, and it is a lesson he carried on to government leadership.
“People have run out of time, they’ve run out of patience, they’ve run out of money,” Perez, who is 60, said in an interview outside a coffee shop in Baltimore. “We need somebody who will approach every single day with that sense of urgency.”
As he seeks the Democratic nomination for governor, Perez said he wants Marylanders to see that government can be a force that can help improve their lives, and to him, that starts with a governor who can ensure that everyone has access to fair wage jobs with healthcare. He likes to say that he has spent most of his life stalwartly “fighting for jobs and justice.”
Perez has a list of accomplished posts in his 35 years of public service, clerking for a federal judge and then working for the Justice Department before his election to the Montgomery County Council in 2002. After his term, Perez became Maryland labor secretary under Gov. Martin J. O’Malley (D). He then led the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department under President Obama and later became the U.S. Labor secretary during Obama’s second term. Most recently, Perez was chair of the Democratic National Committee for four years.
He said he hopes voters realize that he has been “consistent through line,” noting his track record in various levels of government and ability to implement a broad vision as something that differentiates him from the other gubernatorial candidates. “Not only have I fought for these issues of housing opportunity, employment opportunity, fair wages, [but] I’ve succeeded in these issues, and we need a governor who can move the ball forward,” Perez said.
As Maryland’s labor secretary during the Great Recession, Perez boasted about passing foreclosure protections, implementing the country’s first statewide living wage law and delivering unemployment checks during one of the largest spikes in unemployment claims in Maryland.
“We rolled up our sleeves to make sure that people didn’t wait seven months for their unemployment checks,” Perez said, a dig at Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan (R) seeking to end federal unemployment programs early and backlogs in unemployment insurance claims during the pandemic. “That’s unconscionable,” Perez said.
As the Hogan administration fought to end unemployment benefits in July, Perez, who had recently became a partner at Venable, announced he would leave his position because of the firm’s representation of Hogan.
During his time at the Justice Department, Perez noted that he helped file one of the largest residential fair-lending settlements in history, with Bank of America agreeing to pay millions to settle allegations that it had discriminated against black and Hispanic borrowers during the housing boom.
And as the U.S. Secretary of Labor, Perez was key in resolving a dispute between Verizon Communications and its unions that kept almost 40,000 workers off the job and without health care for more than a month in 2016. The two sides eventually agreed on a four-year contract and also extended it. The Labor Department also extended minimum wage and overtime pay rights to two million domestic care workers, who had been previously denied benefits.
“People often ask [me] — what wing of the party are you from? I’m from the … I call it the GSD wing of the Democratic Party: getting stuff done,” Perez said.
But Perez is not the only candidate with experience in office. Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) has been in office for 35 consecutive years. Rushern L. Baker III (D) served eight years in the House of Delegates and later two terms as Prince George’s County executive.
Laura Neuman was Anne Arundel County executive in 2013 and 2014 when she was appointed — as a Republican — to take over from scandal-plagued John R. Leopold (R). Former Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D) is also in the race.
The other candidates are nonprofit executive Jon Baron, former Obama administration staffer Ashwani Jain, former U.S. Education Secretary John King (D), former non-profit executive Wes Moore, and college lecturer Jerome Segal.
Perez has racked up significant union endorsements during his campaign, notably AFSCME Council 3 and 67, Maryland’s largest state employee union which represents more than 50,000 state and local government workers.
If elected, Perez said he would expedite re-approval and construction of the Red Line in Baltimore, an east-west transit line that he said could spark generational change. Hogan canceled the 14-mile transit project early in his term.
“The success of Maryland and the success of Baltimore are inextricably intertwined,” Perez said.
Perez also pledged to build a labor council and appoint a climate and resiliency director who would be responsible for collaborating with local, state and federal government and businesses on climate policy. He envisions Maryland to be a national model for offshore wind, an industry that could be bolstered if the state invests more in career and technical education, Perez said.
On the first day on the job, Perez said he would issue executive orders that would secure project labor agreements — or collective bargaining agreements that establish working conditions for public construction projects — which Perez believes will build the middle class.
Remarking that a significant number of coronavirus-related deaths were linked to people without health insurance, Perez also promises access to health insurance for all Marylanders by streamlining health insurance enrollment whenever possible. He also said the state needs to build a pipeline for healthcare professionals and teachers, as most are currently recruited from out of state.
Perez recalled the time when he worked at the back of a trash truck when he was in college and remarked that he was a recipient of the Federal Pell Grant, a program that assists undergraduate students from low-income households. “We had people who helped us…nobody’s done it alone,” Perez said.
By the same token, Perez said he wants Marylanders to think of state government as a place they can rely on for support, as “a catalytic force that’s going to help them improve their lives.”
Maryland’s gubernatorial primary elections are scheduled for June 28, 2022.