Perez Says He'd Make Job a Bully Pulpit

Tom Perez, left, greeting Durwood Womack and other MARC commuters in Odenton, was called a man who
Tom Perez, left, greeting Durwood Womack and other MARC commuters in Odenton, was called a man who "sounds like a public servant." (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The first of three profiles of Democratic candidates for attorney general.

So, how exactly does this "kind of bald guy" from Montgomery County expect to become the next attorney general of Maryland?

Tom Perez posed the question one recent evening to a couple dozen people gathered at a waterfront house in one of Maryland's decidedly red counties. The Talbot County residents sipped wine and ate cheesecake as Perez presented his vision for the office he describes as the state's ethical compass.

"You need someone who is willing to crack a few eggs," said Perez, 44, telling the Eastern Shore crowd that the top law enforcement official in the state should do much more than handle appeals and litigate on behalf of state agencies. The office, Perez said, should be a bully pulpit to, among other things, expand access to health care, increase oversight on development, deter polluters and fight gangs.

To do all that, the Montgomery County council member first needs to win the Democratic nomination in a primary next month that pits him against a better-financed opponent from Montgomery, county prosecutor Douglas F. Gansler, and a better-known candidate from Baltimore, former state cabinet member Stuart O. Simms.

Perez, the first Latino to run statewide in Maryland, said he is banking on endorsements from major labor unions and the support of "serial activists," local leaders and opinion-makers across the state, to give him an edge.

So it was that Perez appeared on the platform of the Odenton MARC station in Anne Arundel early one morning, handing out fliers. Walking with a slight limp (he runs five days a week against his doctor's orders), Perez struck up a conversation with an employee of the U.S. Health and Human Services, where Perez once ran the Office of Civil Rights.

"I guess the place wasn't big enough for both of us," he said. "They kicked me out and kept you."

Perez has spent much of his career working for the federal government, with prominent jobs at HHS and the Justice Department. Then, when President Clinton left the White House, Perez went from "presidential appointee to a pumpkin" overnight, he said. Living in Takoma Park with his wife and three young children, he began teaching at the University of Maryland law school, then ran for, and won, a County Council seat in 2002.

His career trajectory prompted a lawsuit from a Republican activist, who argued that Perez had not been a Maryland lawyer long enough to meet the constitutional standards for attorney general. A circuit judge ruled that Perez is eligible to run; an appeals court hearing on the matter is set for Friday.

Perez doesn't shy away from talking about his federal service. But at a Democratic forum in Talbot County, he stressed that the role of state and local elected officials has never been as important, particularly given the Bush administration's policies.

"Their idea of the environment is to have a debate about whether mercury is bad for you," he said, drawing laughter from the crowd.

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