A Maryland high court decision that short-circuited his run for state attorney general in 2006 might have been the best thing that happened to Thomas E. Perez, whom President Barack Obama nominated Monday to be U.S. labor secretary.
Since the Court of Appeals found him ineligible for the statewide post in 2006, Perez served two years as secretary of the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation and then more than three years as the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights chief.
If confirmed by the Senate, Perez would succeed Hilda Solis, who stepped down as labor secretary after Obama’s re-election in November.
“It just shows you that political fortune can turn back around,” said Keith Haller, a Maryland pollster and observer of the state’s political scene.
“The sky is the limit for Tom Perez politically,” added Haller, president of Bethesda-based Potomac Inc., which performs public opinion polling and strategic consulting. “The opportunities are plentiful for his political future, whether it is another cabinet post or running statewide in Maryland.”
But Perez’s path to Senate confirmation could be rocky.
On Monday, Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, said he would block Perez’s nomination until the Justice Department responded to a 2011 letter in which Vitter complained about the department’s handling of voting rights law in Louisiana. Vitter says the department made registration of welfare recipients a priority while not removing ineligible voters from the rolls. Perez’s actions “specifically benefits the politics of the president and his administration at the expense of identity security” of voters.
Last week, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, cited a Justice Department inspector general’s report that found Perez gave incomplete testimony to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission regarding his office’s decision to dismiss three of four defendants in a lawsuit alleging voter intimidation by the New Black Panther Party.
“The attorney general should demand unbiased advice from department attorneys and the assistant attorney general in charge of the Civil Rights Division, Tom Perez, who appears to also have been woefully unprepared to answer questions in front of the Civil Rights Commission on a subject matter he told the inspector general he expected questions on,” Grassley, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking Republican, said in a statement. “This is troubling as it suggests a failure to also prepare for hearings before Congress, including the Senate Judiciary Committee, when questioned on this same topic.”
The report, which examined whether politics factored into the dismissal decision, concluded the department acted properly and that Perez did not intentionally mislead the commission.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which oversees the Labor Department, has not yet scheduled confirmation hearings for Perez.
Efforts to contact Perez and Grassley by phone on Monday were unsuccessful.
Perez, in appearing with Obama at the nomination announcement Monday, called the opportunity to be labor secretary “remarkably humbling and exciting.”
“Our nation still faces critical economic challenges,” Perez said. “We can keep making progress for all working families.”
Perez, whose parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic, thanked Obama in English and Spanish.
The president praised Perez, saying he “knows what it’s like to climb the ladder of opportunity.”
Perez, 51, has had an impressive string of appointments, beginning in 2007, when Gov. Martin O’Malley named him to head DLLR. Perez left the post in 2009 when Obama named him assistant attorney general for civil rights.
O’Malley, who had a front-row seat for the White House nomination announcement, said in a statement that Perez “worked diligently to find innovative ways to protect our state’s workforce in the toughest of times. … I am confident that he will serve the American people well as the nation’s economy continues a strong recovery.”
O’Malley’s appointment of Perez followed his run for Maryland attorney general, which came to an abrupt halt in August 2006, when the Court of Appeals ruled he was constitutionally barred for the post because he had not been a Maryland lawyer for the requisite 10 years.
Vicki Schultz, who was an aide to Perez at DLLR and in the Justice Department, said her old boss has “tremendous energy and commitment” and his political future appears boundless.
“Who knows where that path will lead?” said Schultz, who left the Justice Department last fall to become associate dean for administration at the University of Baltimore School of Law. “Tom always focuses on the job at hand.”
Perez also served on the Montgomery County Council from 2002 to 2006, including a stint as council president in 2005.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett, who served with Perez on the council, called him “intellectually strong.”
Leggett laughed when asked if he hoped Perez, if confirmed as labor secretary, would show favoritism toward the county he helped govern.
“You need to take more than just a parochial view” as U.S. labor secretary, Leggett said. “He will make the right call not only for the local community, but for the nation as a whole.”
Perez, a Harvard Law School graduate, served as deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights under then-President Bill Clinton after serving as a prosecutor in the department. In addition to working in the Justice Department, Perez directed the civil rights office in the Department of Health and Human Services during the last two years of Clinton’s presidency.
“I know the attorney general’s race ended in disappointment for him, but he has had a terrific career in appointed office since then,” said state Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, D-Montgomery, who, like Perez, lives in the Takoma Park area. “He’s been at the local level, the state level, the federal level. This is a great new challenge for him.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.