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Outgoing / Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez has an impressive track record of fighting for progressive ideals. Some might argue it’s in his blood—his paternal grandfather was exiled for opposing former Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.
A first-generation American, Perez grew up in Buffalo, the youngest of five siblings and the son of a physician who worked for the Veteran’s Administration. Perez attended Brown University and helped pay his tuition by working as a garbage collector. He went on to earn a law degree and a Master’s of Public Policy from Harvard in 1987.
In 1990 Perez became a federal prosecutor in the civil rights division of the Department of Justice and prosecuted a gang of Texas white supremacists who preyed upon African Americans. From 2002 to 2006, he served as the first Latino on the county council of Montgomery County, Maryland. Then in January 2007, he became the head of the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation where he crusaded to allow Maryland workers to buy prescription drugs from Canada.
In 2009, Perez returned to the Department of Justice and worked as assistant attorney general for civil rights. He fought against discrimination of people with HIV/AIDS, implemented new hate crimes legislation, and endorsed non-discriminatory hiring practices for the LGBT community. He was also the lead investigator on the Trayvon Martin case, filed a lawsuit against the Maricopa County (Arizona) Sheriff’s office for discriminatory police practices against Hispanics, and challenged voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina.
In 2013, Perez became the US Labor Secretary and fought for increased minimum wage and paid parental leave. He pushed for the new overtime law so that workers who make $47,000 or less a year must receive overtime pay. He advocated for home-care workers’ protection under minimum-wage and overtime law, and curbed the retirement advising industry so that consumers’ best interests must now come before the adviser’s financial interest. He also put into action a neglected rule that limits workers’ exposure to silica dust.
Perez campaigned for Hillary Clinton and supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, arguing that the trade deal does more to protect American workers and the middle class than any prior deal.
Perez has been criticized by some Republicans for being part of the Obama Justice Department’s dismissal of the case where members of the militant New Black Panther movement intimidated white voters in Philadelphia.
Also, Perez’s grandfather actually worked for Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo before denouncing him, so some critics say Perez has misrepresented this when he talks about his grandfather.
Appeal to Demographics
Perez doesn’t have much experience with electoral campaigns since he has only run for office a few times. But he knows how to get things done. He is seen as having achieved a great deal in terms of workers’ rights in the few short years he has been labor secretary.
Perez is known for making on site visits to get feedback and hear what workers have to say. In his quest to become DNC chair, he has said “listening” to Democratic workers would be a priority. He’s very left-wing, which could be alienating to moderates and pro-business people.
He has also said the DNC has failed to be a “year-round operation” and no longer listens to state-based organizers. He said his DNC would be “very much grassroots” and “bottom up,” labeling the recent DNC as too “Washington centric.” Finally, he has said he wants to learn from Bernie Sanders about grassroots fundraising.
Perez appeals to Hispanics/Latinos. As they are the fastest growing demographic group, finding a way to motivate them to vote in future elections is really key for the party. He also appeals to blue collar workers and rust belters, due to his childhood in Buffalo where he saw firsthand the demise of industry.
Perez has been endorsed by United Food and Commercial Workers—1.3 million members in the retail, pharmacy, food processing and manufacturing sector— the United Farm Workers—10,000 members, many in California—and the International Association of Firefighters—300,000 members—plus five–Colorado, Louisiana, Rhode Island, Virginia and Pennsylvania–of the 17 Democratic governors.
Perez missed out on the endorsements of other labor unions because Keith Ellison entered the race first and they backed him. But there’s no doubt that labor unions love Perez. His allies include Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
(Image credit: Official Portrait Asst. AG for Civil Rights 2008)
Author Nancy Averett is a freelance writer and former newspaper reporter who has worked for dailies in Missouri, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. She has a BA in International Affairs from the University of Colorado and a Master’s in Magazine Journalism from the University of Missouri. Currently she writes about science for national publications and research institutions.