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Council Chief Builds a Base In the New Montgomery

Rafael Perez died when Tom was 12; he found a surrogate in a friend's father, a Teamster who had lost his job. The union helped keep his friend's family afloat in hard times, and their experience made Perez a labor supporter.

He received his undergraduate degree at Brown University in Providence, R.I., where he spent some of his free time at the dog races with a cook he befriended while working in a dining hall. In 1987 he received law and public policy degrees from Harvard University.

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)

The high point of his six years as a prosecutor in the Justice Department's civil rights division was a 1995 case against three white men who had cruised through Lubbock, Tex., with a shotgun and a plan to start a race war. They killed one black man and wounded two others before police stopped them. A federal district judge sentenced the men to life in prison.

At the end of the Clinton administration, Perez took a teaching job at the University of Maryland School of Law and began consulting. In late 2001, he also began thinking about running for the Montgomery council from District 5, which includes parts of Silver Spring, Kensington, Wheaton and Takoma Park. Perez had dreamed of elective office since childhood.

Sally Sternbach, his main opponent in the 2002 Democratic primary, had spent years serving on redevelopment task forces, leading a parent-teacher association and heading up the Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce. By the measure of traditional Montgomery politics, she had done what it would take to win.

Perez, a Takoma Park resident since 1995, had a record of community involvement that was more limited: He served on the board of Casa de Maryland, which was founded to help Central American refugees, but it was crucial in helping draw Latino voters. "Nobody, nobody thought the Hispanic community could be mobilized to the extent it was," Sternbach says.

From his council pulpit, Perez frequently criticizes Republicans in Washington and Annapolis for shrinking social programs that help the vulnerable. "Local governments used to be the last line of defense; now we are the first and sometimes the only line of defense because of state and federal budget cuts," he says. For that reason, he has supported Leventhal's efforts to use county money to expand a network of community medical clinics that serve people without insurance.

Perez's ambitions may distract him from Montgomery in 2006. He says he might run for attorney general or Maryland's 8th Congressional District if the incumbents move on.

But he already has taken a step in the hope that Montgomery's elected leadership will continue to become more diverse. In January, on the day that former council member Isiah Leggett, the only African American ever elected to the body, announced his campaign for county executive in 2006, Perez endorsed him.

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