RICHMOND — “Trust me.”
U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez said that’s what he tells heads of state around the world when they ask him: “What the hell is going on in America with Donald Trump?”
The Hillary Clinton surrogate on Saturday night gave a rousing call for optimism in the midst of a hostile election season as the featured speaker at Virginia Democrats annual Jefferson Jackson fundraiser.
Perez has generated buzz recently as a potential running mate for Clinton, but demurred when asked if he thinks he’s being vetted by the presidential campaign.
“I honestly don’t give a thought for the following reason,” Perez said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I’ve got so much going on in my day job. And I’ve been around politics enough to know all the swirl that’s fit to print, and so I focus on the reality of the here and now.”
Leaning forward with clasped hands, he added, “It’s all about her, it’s not about me.”
His trip to Virginia followed stints in Washington state and Wisconsin for Clinton; he traveled to Arizona, Iowa and his native New York for her during the primary.
The son of first-generation immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Perez has become a progressive favorite, labor hero and one of President Obama’s top emissaries to Latino constituencies.
It’s plain to see why he’s in demand on the speaking circuit.
His thoughtful tone in the interview morphed in a fiery tirade against Trump that left his voice hoarse at the dinner. “Discrimination is not a national defense strategy!” he said.
His rallying cry for collective bargaining brought 700 Democrats to their feet.
“The right to work for less is what it’s all about,” he said, referring to Virginia’s anti-union right-to-work laws. “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re on the menu!”
An advocate for raising the federal minimum wage, Perez said 20 percent of the U.S. population lives in places that have passed or are about to pass a $15 minimum wage.
That includes New York, California and the District, where city council last week unanimously passed the measure.
In the interview, he called the policy “another bellwether of the tone deafness of the Republican Party,” noting four red states passed minimum wage ballot initiatives in 2014 despite GOP opposition to higher wages.
“There’s been a hostage taking,” he said. “The tea party is holding the Republican Party hostage, and I’m hopeful that the dam is going to break after this election.”
Perez, who likes to say he’s traveling the country for Clinton “in my personal capacity,” was elected to Montgomery County Council and worked in former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley’s cabinet as the state’s secretary of labor, licensing and regulation.
He went on to serve in the Justice Department as assistant attorney general for the civil-rights division with a focus on police discrimination and voting rights issues before Obama promoted him three years ago to secretary of labor.