Thomas Perez, a civil rights lawyer and educator, has announced his candidacy for the Montgomery County Council, the first Latino to seek election in the majority-minority District 5, which includes the Silver Spring area, and one of only a few to run for local office.

Perez, 40, a Democrat, is running for the open seat vacated by incumbent Derick Berlage (D-Silver Spring), who announced that he will not seek reelection after serving 12 years on the council.

Perez's candidacy comes at a time when the only minority member of the council, Isiah Leggett (D-At Large), who is black, also has indicated that he will not seek reelection. Montgomery County is 40 percent minority, and community leaders say representation for African Americans, Latinos and Asians is essential.

District 5, which includes Silver Spring, Takoma Park, Wheaton and Kensington, is 54 percent minority, according to county figures; 20 percent are Latinos. Perez said he would be a vocal advocate for the entire district.

"I am Latino and I am proud to be Latino, but I am also proud of my ability to reach out to all communities regardless of race and color," said Perez, a first-generation Dominican American. "Government needs to reflect the diversity of the community, but I want to be a voice for everyone. And I'm looking forward to making sure our government responds to the needs of the county."

In 1998, community activist Maria Pena-Faustino was the first Latino to run for the County Council when she ran for an at-large seat.

Perez, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, said he would focus on improving the quality of public education, ensuring that adequate funding is used to maintain smaller class sizes, extend full-day kindergarten and provide critical training to teachers.

He said he also would address gridlock in Montgomery County and support the living-wage legislation. Perez said that although it is important to have anchors for the redevelopment of downtown Silver Spring and Wheaton, supporting small businesses would be equally important.

Last week, Perez was endorsed by Leggett, businessman and Democratic Party leader Terry Lierman, Takoma Park Mayor Kathy Porter (I) and Del. Susan C. Lee (D) -- a lawyer from Bethesda and the first Asian American woman to serve in the state legislature.

"His background and experience with civil rights and criminal justice makes him an extraordinary candidate and we should be honored to have someone of his stature running for local office," Leggett said.

Perez said he has worked for years in District 5 and understands the issues. He is president of the board of directors of Casa de Maryland, Maryland's largest community-based organization serving the low-income Latino community. Casa operates programs in a wide range of areas, including education, employment and training, housing, health and leadership.

He also serves as a senior technical adviser to the Latino Health Initiative of Montgomery County, established by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) to produce an action plan for improving the health of Latinos across Montgomery County.

A graduate of Brown University, Harvard Law School and the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Perez has spent his entire career in public service. He was a federal prosecutor for six years in the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice. He also served as director of the office for civil rights at the Department of Health and Human Services under former secretary Donna E. Shalala.

Perez and his wife, Ann Marie, a lawyer, live in Takoma Park with their two children, Amalia, 5, and Susana, 3. They are expecting their third child this month.

"This is a remarkably diverse county, and our diversity is our strength," Perez said. "I want to make sure that all voices in the community are heard. The role of a civil rights attorney is to make sure people's voices are heard, and that's what I've done my entire career."

Thomas Perez says he wants to improve public education.