Perez takes up new role in old workplace
State's former labor secretary back at Civil Rights Division
Thomas E. Perez planned to spend his first day on his new job Thursday getting his identification card and walking around to see old friends at the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division.
For nearly a decade in the 1980s and 1990s, Perez, who until Wednesday was Maryland's secretary of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, had served as a federal prosecutor in the division.
"I feel like I'm coming home," Perez, who turned 48 on Wednesday, said in a telephone interview.
Now he returns as the director of the division, after the U.S. Senate confirmed him Tuesday on a 72-22 vote.
"Many people I worked with are still here," Perez said. "These are people who taught me to be a lawyer, really."
Perez, who was appointed to his state post in January 2007 by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), was nominated March 31 by President Barack Obama (D). On June 4, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved his appointment, but Senate Republicans held up the confirmation until this week's vote.
Perez will take over the division at a time when Attorney General Eric Holder has said he intends to make civil rights a priority. Senators said the division languished under President George W. Bush's administration, with many vacancies filled by attorneys opposed to civil rights enforcement.
The Civil Rights Division prosecutes violations of federal civil rights laws from discrimination in hiring practices to housing to human trafficking.
U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Baltimore, who criticized Bush's operation of the Civil Rights Division, said Perez would get it "back on track and enforce this country's civil rights laws to combat discrimination, protect minorities and hold violators accountable."
On Sept. 22, O'Malley announced Alexander Sanchez, a United Way of America executive, as the new DLLR secretary to succeed Perez.
Perez said he intends to follow his instructions from Holder to revitalize the Civil Rights Division. The delay in his confirmation gave him an opportunity to think about what needs to be done.
"I'm excited to begin," he said.
Perez, a former Montgomery County council member, said he knows that a number of Republican political appointees were placed in the division at the end of the Bush administration.
"One of our goals is to make sure hiring is depoliticized," he said. "I want to return it to its nonpartisan roots."
Perez said he was proud to have served in the department previously under Republican and Democratic administrations.
"We're going to work with everybody we have," he said.
Attorneys in the division who are not effective at civil rights enforcement will be held accountable, "whether Republican, Democrat or independent," Perez said.
The Takoma Park resident said his term on the Montgomery County Council, where he served from 2002 to 2006, helped show him the importance of enforcing civil rights laws.
"You understand the plight of vulnerable people," he said.
Perez will have a strong supporter in his corner in U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D) of Pikesville, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Tom Perez has been an aggressive champion for justice and the public good his entire career," Cardin said. "The Civil Rights Division is our nation's moral conscience and, with Tom's leadership, will again be empowered to take action against those who violate our laws."