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Council Chief Builds a Base In the New Montgomery

By Cameron W. Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page C01

Montgomery County's elected leaders recognize that their community is no longer as rich, white and leafy a place as it once was. Years ago, they began to address the problems of the new Montgomery -- one that is increasingly diverse, urban and poor.

Even so, says Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring), a former civil rights prosecutor who is president of the nine-member County Council, Montgomery is "still a county with too many faces pressed against the window." Behind the glass of its Rockville office buildings is a leadership that in Perez's view remains too white, too Anglo and too unreflective of the community it represents.

Montgomery County Council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring), left, is shown with council member Howard A. Denis (R-Potomac-Bethesda). (Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)

Perez, a first-generation Dominican American, is an example of the solution he has in mind. In 2002, he ran for council by courting Hispanic immigrants and other minorities. His victory made him the second nonwhite person to be elected to the Montgomery panel. In December, when he began his one-year term as council president, he became the state's highest-ranking Latino elected official.

Parts of his agenda reflect the needs of his "new Montgomery" constituents. In recent months, he has begun working to toughen the county's laws against discrimination in lending. When the council held a public hearing on the matter in December, supportive blacks and Latinos filled the chamber. Council member Michael L. Subin (D-At Large), a co-sponsor of the bill, noted the "new faces" and "new actors" in the room.

Perez, a thin, narrow-faced man with a mostly bald head and a fringe of black, curly hair, enjoys rattling the cage of the existing order.

Last year he persuaded six colleagues to back his plan to have the county offer lower-cost prescription drugs -- in all likelihood from Canada -- to its employees and retirees. The plan drew more media attention than anything else the council did last year, in part because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which says drug imports are illegal, is based in Rockville.

Perez says that the FDA's concerns about the safety of Canadian medicines are unfounded and that the administration is in thrall to the U.S. pharmaceutical industry. He is happy to have Montgomery join what he calls a "prairie fire" of rebellious states and counties determined to reduce drug costs. The FDA has hinted that it may sue Montgomery if the county puts Perez's plan into action.

But Perez is less an insurgent than a politician willing to fight a losing battle. His literary hero is Atticus Finch, the white lawyer in Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" who defends a black man accused of rape. The jury goes against Finch and his client is killed, but the novel celebrates the decency of the lawyer's struggle.

In 1994, Perez lost a civil rights case against a former U.S. Border Patrol agent who had killed a fleeing suspect by shooting him in the back with a high-powered rifle. "It made him realize," says Suzanne Drouet, a lawyer who was Perez's colleague at the Department of Justice, "that at a certain point your hard work and the rightness of what you think you were doing was not necessarily going to bring justice in the end."

Although he prefers the term "progressive," Perez is about as liberal as Democrats get. He spent much of the 1990s working for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and as a senior official in the Department of Health and Human Services under Clinton-appointee Donna E. Shalala. But his sincerity wins admirers across the political aisle. John Kane, the state Republican Party chairman, whose party has vilified Democrats as liberals out of touch with Maryland, calls Perez "a very open and honest political person," a man of "much taller timber" than some other Maryland Democrats.

One of his closest friends on the council, Republican Howard A. Denis (Potomac-Bethesda), says working with Perez has been among "the most gratifying experiences of my life." Denis and council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) co-sponsored the drug bill.

Perez, 43, grew up in Buffalo in the 1960s and '70s, the youngest of five brothers and sisters. His maternal grandfather, Rafael Brache, was the Dominican Republic's ambassador to the United States in the early years of Rafael Trujillo's dictatorship. After Brache spoke out against the regime in 1935, the ambassador was declared persona non grata by his own government. He chose to stay in the United States.

Brache's daughter Grace, Perez's mother, married Rafael Perez, a Dominican who received U.S. citizenship after serving in the Army following World War II. "Politics," Perez says, "was my dad's passion," in part because it had cost his father-in-law his country. Both men risked their lives by defying Trujillo.

Perez's father was a Democrat unimpressed by centrists: "A Rockefeller Republican is still a Republican," he used to say.

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