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This article appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here. It was originally posted to the web on June 22, 2016.
May was a good month for Tom Perez, though you won’t hear it from him.
In mid-May, the United States labor secretary flew on Air Force Two with Vice President Joe Biden to Columbus, Ohio. There, at a downtown outlet of a socially conscious, all-natural ice cream chain, they announced the White House’s bold new overtime rule, which Perez is widely credited for making as strong as possible. The rule will likely increase incomes for millions of workers; many have already cast it as the administration’s biggest second-term domestic policy achievement.
The weekend before the overtime announcement, Perez met privately with the CEO of Verizon and the leaders of two unions, 40,000 of whose members were embroiled in an increasingly contentious strike—the largest and longest U.S. work stoppage in years—against the company. Perez convinced Verizon and the unions to go back to the table and restart negotiations. Less than two weeks later, Verizon and the unions announced that they had reached a contract—one that’s been heralded as an unusually strong win for workers in a time when workers seldom win anything at all.
In his three years as President Barack Obama’s second-term labor secretary, Perez has become one of the most prominent members of the president’s cabinet and has worked his way into the White House inner circle. With the administration’s ability to promote its domestic agenda—centered on policies to revive the middle class—limited almost entirely to the executive branch, Perez’s department has arguably become the White House’s most important asset.
“Everything is a workaround, just about,” Perez told employees at the website Gawker last year. “I’m not waiting for a functional Congress to do my job. And the good news is, I have ample tools in my toolbox to do my job,” he told The Washington Post. His mission, as the Post describes it, is to “shore up workers’ rights with the regulatory equivalents of duct tape and string.”
One of the most accomplished labor secretaries in history, Perez is now rumored to be on the short list for HIllary Clinton's vice presidential pick. Here, Clinton laughs as Perez endorses her during a campaign stop in Sioux City, Iowa, December 4, 2015.
Perez has proven himself an able handyman, steering a dizzying array of labor rules and regulations through Washington’s often-stymied bureaucracy despite constant political threats and general hostility coming from Republicans and the business lobby. Those include not only the overtime rule, but an expansion of federal labor protections to cover home-care workers; a long-shot crusade to establish new standards in the retirement-advising industry; an executive order to use the federal government’s contracting process to create good jobs; and a stern guidance aimed at stopping rampant worker misclassification.
His ability to promulgate a clearinghouse of policy proposals that have been on union and labor advocate wish lists since as far back as the Carter administration has led some of his allies in the labor movement to call him the most important U.S. labor secretary since Frances Perkins, who, under Franklin Roosevelt, implemented the trailblazing federal labor laws of the 1930s that still make up much of our framework to this day.
“[Perkins] was the gold standard. If she is gold, [Perez] is certainly silver,” says Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, a nonpartisan labor advocacy group that has worked closely with the DOL on policy issues. “He came in with a sense of opportunity and need and was really grounded in all the ways that workers had lost ground under both Republican and Democratic administrations. He took on some big issues that had languished and made sure he pushed them through.”
Perez has Perkins’s portrait right behind his desk—he’s read her biography and has repeatedly called her his “North Star” during his tenure at the department. And the policies that he’s helped implement and advocate for have built on her legacy—the first federal minimum wage, overtime laws, and bargaining rights for workers were enacted on her watch.
“I think even though his tenure has been fairly short, he’ll end up in the pantheon of really excellent secretaries of labor,” says Seth Harris, who was acting labor secretary before Perez took the reins. “He’s shown a surprising level of courage and insight into a wide range of issues that were quite knotty.”
As Perez has steadily risen through the ranks of government, he has effectively shifted the trajectories of the institutions where he’s worked—from Montgomery County Council and the Maryland state government to the Justice Department’s civil-rights division and now the DOL—in a more progressive direction. At each stage, he’s won admirers—from civil-rights and immigrant-rights advocates to labor activists. Now, Perez is rumored to be on the short list for Hillary Clinton’s vice president pick. He’s an attractive political choice for more than just his resume and accomplishments: He’s Latino and might just be progressive enough to enthuse Bernie Sanders’s supporters come November. No prior labor secretary has scaled comparable political heights.
WHEN LABOR Secretary Hilda Solis stepped down at the end of Obama’s first term, labor saw a chance to insert a staunch ally who, unlike Solis, could gain access to the White House.
With prior experience as Maryland’s labor secretary, considerable popularity in progressive circles, and the reputation he built heading the civil-rights division at the Department of Justice during Obama’s first term, Perez was on many people’s lists. He had shown himself to be a talented asset to many in the president’s inner circle, including Perez’s boss, Eric Holder, and Obama’s confidante, Valerie Jarrett.
In 2015, Perez worked with Senator Elizabeth Warren to implement the fiduciary standard, mandating that retirement advisers put their clients’ best interest, not their own financial interest, first. Here, Perez and Warren listen as President Obama speaks at AARP in Washington, Monday, February 23, 2015.
“People recognized that this was a person who was ready for an even larger platform to work on and try to accomplish the president’s goals in the last four years,” says Melody Barnes, Obama’s domestic policy adviser in the first term and a former colleague of Perez’s on Senator Edward Kennedy’s staff. “There was a confluence of things that came together.”
That confluence included a seismic strategic shift within the White House—the Obama administration had finally given up trying to compromise with a Republican-controlled Congress that had become paralyzed by Tea Party intransigence. Obama and his advisers were determined to advance a second-term domestic policy agenda that hinged on executive power, much of which, it turns out, fell under the Labor Department’s authority.
Obama nominated Perez in 2013. Republicans promptly pounced on the nomination. Senate conservatives cast Perez as a dangerous left-winger who pushed a radical legal agenda at the DOJ and supported illegal immigration through his work with immigrant-rights groups. Breitbart declared that if confirmed, Perez would be the most radical cabinet secretary since FDR’s agriculture secretary, Henry Wallace. “If the GOP Senators cannot stop Tom Perez, they cannot stop anyone,” the website ominously warned.
It took Perez four months to get confirmed by the Senate. But when he finally was, he hit the ground running. He immediately set out to move the stockpile of ambitious rules and regulations that included drastically expanding the federal overtime salary threshold, granting home-care workers protection under minimum-wage and overtime law, pushing out the long-delayed rule that limits workers’ exposure to silica dust, and reining in the retirement advising industry, among others.
From the start, he said the clock was working against him. Perez has won some notoriety among colleagues for knowing at any given time exactly how many days are left in the administration’s second term, often blurting the number out in the middle of meetings. Clearly, he has learned some hard lessons from the experience of his predecessors in previous Democratic administrations: The Carter administration issued its overtime rule so late that President Reagan was able to promptly throw it out upon entering the White House; the Clinton White House pushed out a workplace safety rule and kick-started the home-care rule at the last minute—both of which were quickly repealed by the Bush administration.
In its final year, the Obama administration has pushed out a flurry of rules and regulations—at 195 so far, it’s a rate nearly one-third faster than the three preceding years. The White House’s legacy-shaping has become a sprint against a clock imposed by the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to expedite challenges to rules and regulations within 60 legislative days after they are issued. In the waning months of the administration, lagging regulations would be vulnerable to repeal if a Republican were to win the White House.
An institutional ball of energy, Perez comes to meetings armed with data, facts, and ideas, but he aims to listen more than speak. He is a quick study; a wonk able to quickly grasp the granular details of an issue and their potential consequences, but also zoom out and see the big picture. “He has a real curiosity, which is very good in a leader. In all my interactions with him, I’ve never felt like he’s come in to just make a speech and leave. He’s really wanted to engage people and ask a lot of questions,” says Sarita Gupta, head of the worker advocacy organization Jobs With Justice. “It’s never the Tom Perez show.”
Perez has proven himself a highly effective public face for the department. He often takes his office on the road to lift up the struggles of those he can’t necessarily help with the current rules and regulations. He’s constantly traveling across the country to meet with low-wage workers fighting for a $15 minimum wage, state and local policy-makers considering paid family leave laws, and business leaders who have enacted “high road” policies.
Perez was out in front on the Fight for 15 long before others saw its potential, understanding early on that the campaign wasn’t about raising the federal minimum wage, but rather creating momentum at the state and local levels and putting pressure on private-sector employers to boost wages. “The Fight for $15 is more than a number,” Perez has said. “This is a movement for fairness and voice.”
“The idea that the labor secretary thinks their fight is moral and just is a huge affirmation to them [movement leaders and low-wage workers],” says SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, whose union has invested millions of dollars backing the campaign.
SOLIS'S DOL HAD ALREADY built the scaffolding for some new rules and regulations, but much of it just wasn’t on the White House’s agenda in the first term. During her tenure, the department had done a lot of rulemaking legwork on a rule that would remove the federal overtime and minimum-wage exemption for home-care and domestic workers, who have historically been predominately women of color. The National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and Jobs With Justice teamed up to form Caring Across Generations, which became the most vocal advocate for the rule.
Perez was out in front on the Fight for 15 long before others saw its potential. Here, Perez speaks during the forum AFL-CIO National Summit on Raising Wages, Wednesday, January 7, 2015, at Gallaudet University in Washington.
“When Secretary Perez came into office, those efforts continued to ramp up,” NDWA’s Ai-jen Poo says. “It was [Perez’s] really strong leadership and tenacity that just continued to move the process forward. His team also included some of the best legal and policy minds—they recognized that it was one of the most important advances that administration could be taking on.”
In 2014, the rule was finalized and the implementation period began. It was a remarkable milestone for workers who had long been marginalized by an exemption rife with racial discrimination.
The DOL had already amped up enforcement of rules forbidding wage theft and worker misclassification under Solis, and Perez was eager to continue bolstering enforcement. He worked successfully to get leading misclassification expert David Weil appointed as Wage and Hour administrator. Weil has since issued new guidelines for employers, outlining when a worker is and is not an independent contractor. The guidelines served as a stern warning for employers whose business models had come to rely on misclassification.
Through enforcement of wage and hour law, the department collected $250 million in back pay for workers in fiscal year 2013, compared with $173 million in fiscal year 2009. Those recovered wages are benefiting workers in more low-wage industries than before. The number of man-hours spent on investigation is up by nearly half. That uptick has held steady under Perez, and Weil has brought a strategic new vision that has led to an increase in agency-initiated investigations.
In June 2015, Obama directed the DOL to develop a rule that would expand overtime protections to all salaried workers making $50,400 or less a year—the level had been stuck at an anemic $23,660 since 1975. Just how much to raise the threshold was hotly debated within the White House; economic advisers were wary of such a big increase. Perez was a persistent voice from within calling to raise it as high as possible. Jared Bernstein, who advocated for a high threshold in White House meetings as the rule was still being shaped, recalls getting a phone call one night as he was getting ready for bed. It was Perez, who enthusiastically gave Bernstein a 15-minute pep talk. “This was the guy who really had the spirit to do the job,” Bernstein remembers thinking.
Updating the threshold for overtime has been a policy priority for worker advocates since as far back as the Carter administration. Carter’s labor secretary, Ray Marshall, had pushed for an expansion of the overtime salary threshold, and after a lengthy internal battle with the OMB, the DOL issued a final rule. But it came so late in Carter’s term that the effective start date was pushed back past Reagan’s inauguration. Predictably, Reagan withdrew the rule. Since then, no administration—including the Clinton White House—had done anything to address the outdated salary threshold.
“[In the Clinton administration] they were always looking over their shoulders, always worrying about what the Republicans in Congress would do and how the business community would react,” says Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, who first outlined the overtime rule change that Obama eventually championed.
“Tom Perez has one of the most anti-labor, anti-president Congresses—and yet he’s getting this rule done,” Eisenbrey says. “He’s persuaded the White House to push ahead.”
Perez shepherded the policy through the DOL’s rulemaking process and met with business leaders to smooth out opposition wherever possible, eventually revising the threshold downward to $47,476. Overcoming continued resistance from the big-business lobby, which insisted that expanding the threshold would force companies to curb hiring and shift salaried workers to hourly pay, Perez prevailed. In May 2016, Obama signed the executive order putting the rule into effect.
Along with the Affordable Care Act, says Bernstein, “the overtime rule may be one of the more important policies coming out of this administration to directly help middle-class people.”
Perez played a critical role in shepherding the administration's overtime rule through the DOL's rulemaking process in the face of business opposition. Here, President Obama, center, surrounded by supporters of the president's memorandum, signs a Presidential Memorandum directing Perez to modernize overtime protections on March 13, 2014.
IN FEBRUARY 2015, OBAMA called on the DOL to use its authority to mandate that retirement advisers put their clients’ best interest, not their own financial interest, first—a part of his package of consumer protections against Wall Street that the White House would bill as a “key legacy achievement.” The administration said that conflicted retirement advice costs account-holders up to $17 billion a year. One study later found that high fees could add on an additional three years before a worker could retire.
The rule, dubbed the fiduciary standard, or the conflict-of-interest rule, had long been a priority for Assistant Labor Secretary Phyllis Borzi, who had a reputation as a strong-willed bureaucrat undeterred by industry pressure. She had first proposed such a rule in 2010, arguing that Americans’ retirement savings accounts were being eaten away by high fees and subpar investment portfolios that promised advisers lucrative perks.
But the rule ran into resistance from the powerful financial-services industry, Republicans, and even some Democrats. More than 200 lawmakers, including then-Democratic Representative Barney Frank, sent letters to the department strongly urging it to withdraw and revise the rule. Industry leaders lobbied the White House’s National Economic Council, compelling the advisers to step in—then-director Gene Sperling later told Bloomberg, “We felt it was important to make sure any steps were balanced, well-targeted, and reasonably coordinated.” Six months later, the DOL announced that it was withdrawing its regulation and would propose a new version in early 2012, after it received more input on the rule.
Many advocates took this as a sign that the fiduciary standard was dead. It seemed impossible to move against the entrenched financial-services industry, especially with a somewhat hesitant White House.
When Perez took over as head of the DOL, he was publicly supportive of Borzi’s rule and said he was committed to seeing the rule through. He made a point of holding dozens of meetings with concerned parties. It was a case study, proponents of the rule say, in his deftness at balancing interests.
Over the course of the rulemaking process, it became clear that Perez might be able to pull the rabbit out of the hat. Reaching back to his days on the Hill, Perez worked tirelessly to address the concerns of Democrats—and to at least hear out the Republicans—and was willing to make adjustments where he saw fit. But he was also boosted by new political realities. Perez had a new White House ally in Jeff Zients, who took over the National Economic Council in 2014. He had a big assist from Senator Elizabeth Warren and congressional progressives, who used their clout to push back against Wall Street’s resistance.
“He did masterful work hearing out business groups, concerned Democrats, and Republicans,” says AFL-CIO Government Affairs Director Bill Samuel. “They’re not going to be able to reverse this.” Despite a steady drumbeat of criticism from The Wall Street Journal, the Chamber of Commerce, and Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, Perez announced the DOL’s fiduciary standard on April 6, 2016, before a packed room at the liberal think tank the Center for American Progress. “The regulatory structure that protects people’s investments has not kept up with the changing landscape,” Perez said. “In a world where people are more on their own in making financial decisions, financial advisers are not required to give advice that is in their clients’ best interest.”
The new rule, he said, “really puts in place a fundamental principle of consumer protection into the American retirement marketplace, which is that consumers’ best interests must now come before the adviser’s financial interest.”
In a testament to how heavy a political lift the rule was, he was prominently joined by Senators Warren and Cory Booker, and notably, the White House’s Zients. He also made sure to credit DOL staffers at the Employee Benefits Security Administration, including Borzi, calling on them to stand amid a wave of applause.
Perez, labor leaders say, was also critical in getting the White House to issue the executive orders, formulated but not promulgated in Obama’s first term, to lift up the millions of low-wage workers employed by federal contractors.
In 2014, Obama signed the first of the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces executive orders, mandating that most corporations with federal contracts must pay their contracted workers $10.10 an hour, disclose past labor law violations, and provide paid sick leave. “Perez was the engineer who helped make it happen,” says Joseph Geevarghese of Good Jobs Nation, a campaign to pressure the federal government on contract worker standards. “He helped move political, legal, and other obstacles inside the White House out of the way, and said, ‘Mr. President, this is the moment you must lead with the power of the pen.’”
While labor leaders tend to effuse over Perez’s tenure at the DOL, it has not been without its complications. While most commend his courage in calling on private-sector companies to do right by their employees, some say he’s remained eerily quiet about Walmart, the largest low-wage private employer in the country, a serial violator of labor law, and the target of a major recent worker-organizing campaign.
As the member of the administration closest to unions, Perez has also been a key supporter of the president’s controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. That has put Perez in an awkward position with much of the labor movement, which has consistently and passionately argued that it will kill middle-class jobs and doesn’t have adequate enforcement mechanisms for the international labor-law framework it establishes. Perez has been sympathetic to the critique, but is convinced that the TPP will be stronger than NAFTA. “He didn’t ignore [labor’s] frustration and the anger,” Gupta says. “Given labor’s real frustration, he did what he could.”
Union leaders have largely been sympathetic to the secretary’s quandary and they insist it has not impacted working relationships on other fronts.
PEREZ IS THE CHILD OF POLITICAL refugees who fled dictator Rafael Trujillo’s vicious rule in the Dominican Republic. His maternal grandfather was the republic’s ambassador to the United States but was exiled after speaking out against the dictatorship’s massacre of thousands of Haitians. Perez’s father, a doctor, also fled the country for the United States, where he went on to serve in the Army as a physician. His parents both ended up in Buffalo, New York. Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Perez had a front-row seat to the devastating effects of deindustrialization that swept through Rust Belt cities. Buffalo was hemorrhaging jobs and its middle class was disintegrating—in the 1970s alone, the city lost more than 100,000 residents. It’s left an impression on him politically as he’s been quick to critique the shortcomings of NAFTA.
Perez addresses an audience at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials on Thursday, June 18, 2015, in Las Vegas.
Perez’s father died of a heart attack when Perez was 12, throwing his family into economic uncertainty. Shortly after, his mother was hospitalized. The American dream his immigrant parents had built seemed to be in peril. “I’ve had better summers than the summer of 1974,” Perez said during a 2014 talk at Brown. “Kind of like Richard Nixon, I bet.”
He found a father figure in a friend’s father, who was an unemployed Teamsters union member, and Perez saw firsthand how important the union’s safety net was for the family.
Perez excelled in school, but there were times when his family’s ability to pay for college was in question. When he was accepted to Brown University, he relied on work-study programs and Pell grants. To help pay his way through, Perez worked in a warehouse, a cafeteria, and as a trash collector. It was at Brown where the “Catholic boy from Buffalo,” as he calls himself, was first exposed to the diverse array of people and perspectives that have shaped his personal values. “I hate the word tolerate. I tolerate Brussels sprouts,” he said in 2014. “Brown taught me to embrace diversity.” He found a close mentor in Ed Beiser, a New York City Orthodox Jew and political science professor, for whom Perez became a teaching assistant for a course on the politics of the legal system.
After graduating from Brown with a concentration on political science and international relations, Perez set his sights on law school. It was a divergence from his older siblings, who were all doctors like his father—he quickly realized that the medical profession wasn’t for him when he almost fainted as he watched his brother operate in surgery.
“I knew I wanted to do something where I could make a difference, change the world for the better. So I looked around and saw the change agents tended to be lawyers,” Perez said during a 2013 interview with Brown Alumni Magazine. He went to Harvard Law School, where he was editor of the Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review.
After graduating cum laude in 1987, he worked as a law clerk for a federal judge in Colorado, then became a career prosecutor in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. He quickly made a name for himself for his prosecution of a gang of white supremacists in Texas who went on a shooting spree that targeted African Americans in an attempt to spark a “race war.” In the Clinton administration, he earned a top post as deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division, where he chaired a Worker Exploitation Task Force that developed initiatives to protect vulnerable workers.
In the mid-1990s, he went to work for the Senate Judiciary Committee as a special adviser to Senator Ted Kennedy on civil rights, criminal justice, and constitutional issues. “He had a reputation as a deeply committed and energetic advocate,” says Ronald Weich, who was Kennedy’s chief counsel at the time and has since become close friends with Perez.
Kennedy surrounded himself with the smartest, most ambitious young progressive minds—John Kerry called his Massachusetts colleague’s staff “the farm system for the Democratic Party for a generation.” Amid a competitive field of staffers all vying for Kennedy’s ear, Perez quickly distinguished himself and became one of the senator’s closest advisers. He built a reputation as a sharp legislative strategist and displayed a knack for developing good working relationships within both parties on the Hill. He was the architect of legislation that would eventually expand federal hate-crime protections to include violence against women and gay people.
When George W. Bush took office, Perez left the federal government and became a law professor at the University of Maryland, where he taught a clinical law class that took students into the community to survey victims of predatory lending.
In 2002, he became board president at CASA de Maryland, which at the time was a small organization that provided services to Central American immigrants. Perez had an ambitious vision to bolster the group’s educational services while also turning CASA into a political advocate for immigration reform in the state. His plan impressed Gustavo Torres, CASA’s longtime executive director.
“We never imagined we would ever be as big as we are now,” Torres told me at CASA’s headquarters, which sits in the heart of a Latino community in Prince George’s County, Maryland. “But because Perez was exposed to many people at the national level, he brought those ideas to our organization.”
Perez helped the organization establish worker centers—which provided services for day laborers and vocational training in partnership with local community colleges—in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., and in Baltimore.
After he had left the federal government in 2001, Perez began thinking about running for public office. He lived with his wife and children in Takoma Park, Maryland, a D.C. suburb with a reputation as an incubator for progressive politicians. He ultimately decided to run for a seat on the Montgomery County Council. Perez ran as a progressive challenger to an establishment candidate backed by the county executive. He ran an aggressive campaign, door-knocking across the district and introducing himself as a full-throated progressive. In a close race, Perez narrowly came out on top—a landmark victory, as he became the first Latino to sit on the council.
During his tenure, Perez pushed ambitious legislation on issues not yet in the political mainstream. In 2005, he sponsored and steered to passage a bill to protect minority communities from predatory lenders. The ordinance soon ran into political headwinds when the Bush administration said it would “usurp federal authority to establish uniform rules.”
He also fiercely advocated for the rights of day laborers in the county, and fought for legislation to establish local centers for workers to congregate. “That was a political hot potato,” Torres says. He didn’t care about that. He just said, ‘These are human beings, they are making a contribution.’”
Perez in 2012, as assistant attorney general for civil rights, announcing a lawsuit against Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona.
Perhaps most boldly, he embarked on a crusade to allow Montgomery County residents to purchase prescription drugs from Canada. The council overwhelmingly passed the ordinance. The move was seen as a direct challenge to the Montgomery County–based Food and Drug Administration, which contended that such laws violated federal law—a claim that a U.S. district court eventually upheld.
By the third year of Perez’s term, his colleagues on the council selected him to serve as council president—a testament to his leadership skills and vision, says Montgomery County Councilmember George Leventhal. Perez’s allies say he left an indelible mark on the county’s political culture, opening the door for more people of color to follow in his footsteps and widening the scope of the local progressive policy imagination.
Through the course of his term, Perez had become a rising star in Maryland politics, and it became clear his political aim was set higher than the local level. When his term ended in 2006, he ran for Maryland’s open attorney general seat. He was waging a formidable campaign—having raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and garnered support from unions—when the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that he didn’t meet the required ten years of legal experience in the state.
What could have been a devastating blow to Perez’s young political career soon proved to be a minor speed bump. When Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley won the Maryland governor’s race that year, he recruited Perez to head the state’s Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, a backwater agency often described as an octopus with regulatory tentacles reaching into different sectors of the state. Like a traditional labor department, it was charged with workforce development and training; but it also had various regulatory functions in the state’s banking and mortgage industries.
Perez saw his appointment as an opportunity to work on groundbreaking policy, and quickly attracted a talented staff eager to follow his leadership. Foreshadowing his later work at the DOL, Perez targeted Maryland employers who were misclassifying workers as independent contractors to avoid paying for Social Security and Medicare and to skirt labor laws like the minimum wage. He also hired more safety and health inspectors, which helped “remove 97,235 workers from hazardous conditions,” a 2008 report found, and he cracked down on predatory lending.
“Tom and his team were doing some of the most creative policy stuff. Very, very quickly, he moved to the front of the line in terms of cabinet secretaries we were most reliant on and putting out in front,” Matthew D. Gallagher, O’Malley’s onetime chief of staff, says. “He’s so passionate and articulate, and has an ability to explain things in ways legislators can understand, but also the man and woman on the street.”
“I think that Tom turned a lot of people on to the idea that this second-tier agency that was kind of this hodgepodge of regulatory and workforce functions really had the capacity that people didn’t really understand or appreciate to help people’s lives,” Gallagher says.
WHEN BARACK OBAMA WON the presidency in 2008, Perez was primed to head the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, a position he had been working up to since the 1990s. Civil-rights advocates wanted a quick confirmation in order to fix a division that had become dysfunctional and hamstrung by politicization during the Bush years. Obama nominated Perez in March of 2009. Republicans, however, quickly obstructed his confirmation. They voiced concern about Perez’s involvement with so-called radical groups like CASA.
In October of 2009, Perez was finally confirmed and set out to reform a division in disarray. Under Bush, the division was accused of ousting career prosecutors who were insufficiently conservative and punishing those who didn’t leave. In his early months, it reportedly wasn’t uncommon for staffers to break down in Perez’s office as they recalled the trauma. Within a year, Perez turned around morale and transformed the division into a formidable enforcement machine.
One of the division’s hallmarks was its aggressive investigations into rampant misconduct in American police departments—an issue that was systemically ignored by Bush’s DOJ. Perez led investigations into Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, and Puerto Rico’s police forces, to name just a few. By 2011, the division was investigating 17 police and sheriff departments—the most in the DOJ’s history.
President Barack Obama applauds in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday March 18, 2013, where he announced he would nominate Perez for labor secretary.
For Perez, it was personal. “There was a lot of lawlessness in the Dominican Republic,” Perez told Mother Jones in 2012. “What my parents taught me was that the hallmark of a thriving democracy was an effective and respectful police force.”
“Now when people see law enforcement gone wrong, they think: Can the DOJ do something?” says Samuel Bagenstos, Perez’s former principal deputy. “That wasn’t the case 10 years ago.”
Perez was thrust into the public eye in 2012 when he sued Arizona’s Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his department after a three-year investigation uncovered systematic discrimination against Latinos in traffic stops and targeted immigration raids, as well as rampant harassment of Latino inmates. Many were surprised that the DOJ actually took up the case, which was both politically and legally complex. Legally, it required identifying racial discrimination within the realities of immigration enforcement near the Mexican border. Politically, it put the Obama administration in the middle of a tense national debate over illegal immigration. Perez was confident in the case’s strength, and also recognized the symbolic opportunity to highlight the intersecting issues of racial discrimination and immigration and to send a clear message to local authorities that they couldn’t bully minority communities. In 2015, the DOJ reached a settlement with the department, though it hasn’t backed off on other legal fronts.
Those who know Perez say he remains a trial lawyer at heart, someone who knows the importance of weaving a compelling narrative. It’s a skill that’s served Perez well not only at the DOJ, but is also one he’s leaned on at the DOL. He knows how to look at a hodgepodge of facts on a particular issue and determine which threads to pull out to weave a compelling story.
PEREZ'S DEDICATION TO IMMIGRANTS' rights has at times put him in a seemingly uncomfortable position. Even as the Obama administration battles in the Supreme Court over its use of executive power to grant amnesty to undocumented immigrants (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Childhood Arrivals, or DAPA/DACA), his administration has continued launching deportation raids—since 2009, it has deported more than 2.5 million undocumented immigrants.
I asked Gustavo Torres, Perez’s longtime friend and CASA director, whether he thinks Perez has struggled with Obama’s deportations. “Absolutely. I truly believe so,” he says. “I’m very sure that he has been suffering tremendously for this situation. I am very sure that if we pass DAPA/DACA, he is going to be so relieved. Because if not, what is going to happen is the legacy of this president will be two million deported. That is not a pretty legacy for him or anybody in his administration.”
“He’s walking a very fine line,” Gupta says. “Given his own history and knowing how much of a big advocate for working people he is, I imagine there have been moments in his tenure that have been hard. I think he’s done remarkably well to push as far as he can. It’s got to be a hard path.”
Even so, Perez has not shied away from struggles in immigrant communities. He’s met with undocumented workers—like carwasheros and domestic workers in New York City—to hear about the challenges and fears they face as they try to organize on the job. Perez has also pushed his department to vigorously uphold its arrangement with the Department of Homeland Security to protect undocumented workers who are organizing in the workplace, exposing themselves to the risk of deportation.
His family’s history has instilled within him a deep devotion to easing immigrants’—and all Americans’—struggles. “This country gave so much to my parents,” Perez said in the Brown Alumni Magazine interview, “who were exiled from the Dominican Republic, so they didn’t have a country. And in turn they made sure that their kids understood that the ladder of opportunity should always be down.”
This article has been updated.