Laslo Boyd: Secretary of Labor Tom Perez

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By Laslo Boyd: 

Those words sound really good, don’t they? Tom Perez’s confirmation last week was cheered by his many friends in Maryland after several turbulent months in which it looked like Republicans in the United States Senate would not allow his nomination to come to a vote.

With apologies to Barbara Mikulski, Ben Cardin, members of the House Delegation, and Presidential aspirant Martin O’Malley, Perez may well be the most significant Marylander in national politics today. As Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, he has been in the middle of many of the most important issues facing the country, including voting rights challenges in a number of different states. As the incoming Secretary of Labor, he will play a key role as the debate about immigration reform continues. And those examples barely scratch the surface of his involvement in national affairs.

Perez’s journey to his new position reflects much of what is good about this country as well as much of what is seriously broken. He is the son of Dominican Republic immigrants who moved to the United States in search of opportunity and a better life. By a combination of his brilliant mind and incredibly hard work, Perez earned degrees from two of the most prestigious universities in the nation, Brown and Harvard. With his impressive credentials in hand, Perez choose a career in public service over what would have been a road to much higher salaries in the private sector.

Marylanders know Perez best for his years as a member of the Montgomery County Council and then as Governor O’Malley’s Secretary of Labor, License and Regulation. In the later position, he took what has historically been largely an overseer of disparate regulatory bodies and transformed it into a major policy advocate for the poor and disadvantaged, labor and immigrants. He also handled whatever pressing political challenges the Governor asked him to take on.

An interesting footnote to Perez’s career trajectory is that, before he landed in O’Malley’s cabinet, he had his sights set on becoming Maryland Attorney General. A Court ruled that he didn’t meet the Constitutional requirement of 10 years in the Maryland Bar and the rest is history. That decision certainly cleared Doug Gansler’s path to victory in 2006 and to his upcoming announcement of his candidacy for governor in 2014.

Perez, throughout his career, has been a strong advocate for those lacking economic and political resources. He has plunged into controversies that others might have ducked and has not been afraid to battle long odds.

In many respects, Tom Perez can be seen as a great American success story. He comes from an immigrant family, has worked hard to achieve success, has devoted himself to giving back to his country through public service and is passionate in his convictions.

That history earned him not a single Senate Republican vote when he was confirmed as Secretary of Labor last week. It turns out that his confirmation is the first time in history that the vote broke down totally along partisan lines.

Republicans should be embarrassed by their petty behavior. Their obstructionism, foot dragging, and unprecedented use of the filibuster to block executive nominations are part of a broader pattern. The deal that was brokered last week to allow votes on a number of Presidential nominees in exchange for not changing the rules on filibuster is hardly an example of a new era of bi-partisanship. It was, rather, a one-time deal made for political expediency.

Yet, even after the deal, Senate Republicans were unwilling to be gracious, to acknowledge that the President has the right to pick people who agree with him on major policy issues, and to recognize the extraordinary skill and talent that Perez will bring to the position.

Frankly, the top spot at Labor has not been filled by great leaders much of the time. Republicans have tried to minimize the role of the department and it has been a second tier agency even under most Democrats. That’s going to change with Tom Perez’s ascension to the position of secretary. He is likely to be one of the stars of Barack Obama’s second term.

Meanwhile, back in Maryland amidst the applause from Democrats, there has been the usual silence among Republicans. Let me offer some free political guidance to candidates from a party that will never win major offices unless they are able to attract votes from registered Democrats. And forget those pipedreams about there being “Reagan Democrats” out there. Ronald Reagan would have trouble finding a spot in today’s tea-sipping party.

That free advice: come out publicly in support of Tom Perez’s confirmation as Secretary of Labor. Show that you are not merely marching in lockstep with a national party that is driven by its most extreme members. Show some guts. Show some leadership. Show some independence.

Be more like Tom Perez.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.