Tom Perez helped Democrats retake the White House in 2020. Now he hopes to be the Democrat to reclaim Maryland’s governor’s mansion after eight years of Republican control.

He brings to his campaign a long and diverse resume — chairman of the Democratic National Committee, federal secretary of labor, state secretary of labor, civil rights lawyer, Montgomery County Council member — and believes his experience makes him the best qualified in the field to lead the state as governor.

After leading the national Democratic Party and getting President Joe Biden elected (though not without serious stumbles), Perez started looking for his next opportunity. He found it in Maryland.

“For every professional chapter that has come to an end, like the DNC, I’ve always asked myself the question: Where can I do the most good? Where can I make the biggest difference?” Perez said. “I think I could make the biggest difference here in state government, because we have just a tremendous set of opportunities here.”

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Perez, 60, is part of a crowded and talented field of 10 Democrats vying for their party’s nomination for governor in this summer’s primary election, alongside four Republicans. All are hoping to succeed term-limited Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican.

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Perez has become the favorite of progressive Democrats in this campaign, sewing up endorsements from several large labor unions and the advocacy group Progressive Maryland. He promotes himself as a candidate with the necessary experience to actually make good on his campaign promises. He’s worked at all levels of government — a member of the Montgomery County Council, state labor secretary under Gov. Martin O’Malley, and assistant U.S. attorney general and later national labor secretary under President Barack Obama.

As a member of the Montgomery Council in the early 2000s, Perez worked to make the county’s laws against discriminatory lending tougher and advocated for a plan to save money on prescriptions for county workers and retirees by allowing them to import drugs from Canada.

He tried, in 2006, to become Maryland’s attorney general, but was removed from the ballot for not having the legally required 10 years of experience as an attorney in Maryland. (He graduated from Harvard Law in 1987 and worked for years as a lawyer, but didn’t join the Maryland Bar until 2001.)

Perez takes an everything-happens-for-a-reason view of that episode. “I’ve learned in life there’s no such thing as failure, the only failure in life is the failure to swing the bat,” Perez said. And even though he felt like his campaign and ambitions were “run into a brick wall” with the court ruling, he picked up the pieces and moved forward.

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While frustrating, Perez said that missing out on a chance to become attorney general opened the door to become Maryland’s labor secretary. That led to working on Obama’s transition team and positions in the presidential administration.

Perez has not been shy to tout his Obama administration credentials, airing a campaign ad that uses an old video clip of Obama praising him as “tireless” and “wicked smart.” However, Obama has not endorsed Perez or any other candidate in the race.

Perez likes to say that he’s part of the “G.S.D. wing of the Democratic Party — Get Stuff Done.”

“That’s what folks are looking for, you know?” Perez said. “They want government to work for them.”

Perez frames his policy positions around a theme of “jobs, justice and opportunity.”

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“We’re in a moment of crises — plural. We have a pandemic. We have job issues. We have health care. We have an opioid crisis,” Perez said, before turning hopeful: “At the same time, we are in a moment of remarkable opportunity.”

Throughout history, he said, moments of challenge have led to growth — as the Great Depression led to the New Deal and racist strife led to the civil rights movement.

“It’s going to take a real multitasker-in-chief, someone who can hit the ground running day one and tackle — aggressively and effectively — the challenges of the moment,” he said. “I think I think it’s really important to have a governor who’s experienced.”

Perez’s campaign promises include improving mass transit, further reducing the number of Marylanders who lack health insurance and partnering with Baltimore officials to improve opportunities in the state’s largest city.

Gubernatorial candidate Tom Perez speaks during a candidates forum on healthcare issues sponsored by the Maryland Democratic Party at BC Brewery on May 31, 2022.   (Kaitlin Newman for The Baltimore Banner)
Gubernatorial candidate Tom Perez speaks during a candidates forum on healthcare issues sponsored by the Maryland Democratic Party at BC Brewery on May 31, 2022. (Kaitlin Newman for The Baltimore Banner)

The son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic who was raised in Buffalo, New York, Perez would be the first Latino nominated for governor in Maryland if he wins the primary. Maryland’s 30 governors have all been white men.

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It’s Perez’s variety of experiences — local, state and national — that leads state Sen. Cory McCray to believe that Perez is the best-qualified candidate in the field.

“At the end of the day, you’re not going to find anybody else with that level of qualifications to lead the state at this moment,” said McCray, a Democrat from East Baltimore. With experience in criminal justice, civil rights and labor issues, Perez is uniquely qualified to help the city with its challenging needs, from housing to crime to job opportunities, McCray said.

“He has the tools, he has the know-how to be able to help us navigate and get through these types of things,” McCray said. This spring, Perez and McCray wore matching purple-and-white Perez jackets as they opened a campaign office in McCray’s 45th legislative district.

As the gubernatorial campaign got under way, retired educator Lisa Fuller started watching online candidate forums, looking for a candidate who would support the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, an ambitious plan to boost the quality of the state’s public schools. What she saw in the forums was that while the Democratic candidates all professed support for the plan, Perez had the deepest understanding of the details — from the need for career-prep pathways for high schoolers to the goal of improving educational equity. She signed up to volunteer with the campaign.

“I said, ‘My God, he’s a geek. He’s a Blueprint geek,” said Fuller, who lives in North Potomac. “This guy really gets it. It wasn’t the umbrella view of it. He can really talk about why it’s so important in everyone’s life.”

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Perez has also won the backing of several labor unions, including the AFL-CIO and AFSCME Maryland, the largest union representing state government workers.

AFSCME members in their signature green T-shirts have been a fixture at Perez campaign events, a key element of a boots-on-the-ground, get-out-the-vote effort for the campaign.

For all his government experience, Perez has faced challenges in his post-government life.

As chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2017 until early 2021, Perez faced criticism for his leadership. The Congressional Black Caucus took a vote of no confidence in Perez in 2018, after the DNC limited the power of superdelegates at the presidential nominating convention. The change would have forced elected officials, such as members of Congress, to run against constituents for the coveted role of choosing the party’s presidential nominee.

Then in the 2020 elections, the Iowa Democratic caucuses were a fiasco, as a system used for tallying reports failed, leading to delays in reporting results. Some Iowa and national Democratic leaders called for Perez’s scalp while he publicly remained silent for a few days before finally mounting a defense.

“If you have the Iowa situation you don’t throw them under the bus, you stand up and you support and you try to fix it,” then-U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge said at the time. “He doesn’t lead on anything.”

Perez also won few friends with his management of the presidential primary debates, setting thresholds for participation that ended up keeping viable candidates out of some debates, such as New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and former U.S. housing secretary Julián Castro of Texas.

Perez maintains that he was “very proud” of the debate rules, which he said were more transparent than in past presidential cycles. As for the Iowa caucuses? There were many failures, and it solidified his opinion that caucuses aren’t the best method of selecting candidates and that Iowa shouldn’t go first.

“I think whenever you succeed, it’s a joint effort. And when you fail, it’s joint responsibility,” Perez said.

After leaving the DNC, Perez joined the massive Venable LLP law firm as a partner — the same firm that had been hired by the state to defend the Hogan administration’s decision to end enhanced pandemic unemployment benefits early. As Perez came under fire for working for Venable, he resigned barely a month after he had been hired.

Unafraid of conflict, Perez has been one of the few candidates this year to occasionally ruffle feathers and criticize other candidates. At times, he’s cited their past votes or quoted their words back to them.

At a Democratic event in Western Maryland this spring, Perez suggested that some of his opponents were too conservative for the party.

“My friends,” Perez told the crowd, “I am 100 percent ‘true blue’ Democrat.”

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Pamela Wood covers Maryland politics and government. She previously reported for The Baltimore Sun, The Capital and other Maryland newspapers. A graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, she lives in northern Anne Arundel County.

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