Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez plays gatekeeper to some of the most contentious Congressional maps and holds the keys to Members’ political futures.
He oversees the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, where racial discrimination and voting rights issues play out prominently in a redistricting cycle. What makes Perez’s role particularly unique: He is in charge during the first Democratic administration to monitor redistricting since Congress passed the Voting Rights Act 46 years ago.
In Perez’s two years leading one of the most controversial departments in the administration, the bureaucrat has already attracted ire from many Members. In a wide-ranging interview, Perez stressed to Roll Call that his department is supposed to be apolitical in its enforcement of the Voting Rights Act and even called his own work educating state lawmakers on the process “heroic.”
But in an environment where House Republicans are hunting for any ammunition they can use against Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department, the process can quickly become politically charged.
Perez’s division has become one of the GOP’s most prominent targets as the division considers new voting laws passed by GOP-controlled state legislatures and hires dozens of new career civil rights attorneys who Republicans charge are too liberal.
“One of my principal goals in coming here, not only in the voting section, but across the board, is to make sure that politics doesn’t infect the decision-making process,” Perez told Roll Call last week. “Now, when we make decisions, do they affect how elections are carried out? Undeniably, because that’s what the Voting Rights Act is about.”
The Voting Rights Act empowers the Justice Department to approve or challenge changes to voting laws, including Congressional maps, in several key political states such as Texas, Virginia and Arizona. Under Section 5, several states with a history of discrimination must get preclearance before their new Congressional maps take effect this year.
Preclearance is a deeply complicated process, and Perez noted several factors go into his division’s analysis and decisions. Certain House districts must have a combination of the right minority voting age population, turnout performance, candidate crossover appeal and racial community cohesion.
“There’s no magic numerical formula. It’s a very holistic analysis that involves looking at prior elections, voting age data, things of that matter,” Perez said. “We’re trying to demystify the process.”
In that effort, Perez took the unprecedented step of addressing both chambers of the Louisiana Legislature about redistricting. It might not be a coincidence, he suggested, that the Department of Justice approved the Louisiana map on its first preclearance attempt — unprecedented in the Bayou State’s history.
The Louisiana meeting is one of several outreach efforts Perez said he’s made with state leaders, including Texas’. It’s part of his self-described “aggressive” and “heroic efforts to educate people about the do’s and don’ts of redistricting.”
But the preclearance process remains one of the department’s toughest duties. It’s one reason 33 House Members voted against reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act in 2006. The effort was passed by a Republican Congress and signed by Republican President George W. Bush. Still, the testy politics of race and voting is why a handful of states led by Republicans asked the federal courts to rule on preclearance for their maps instead of Perez’s department.
Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), chairman of a House Judiciary subcommittee that oversees federal civil rights and who voted against the VRA reauthorization, said it’s “ludicrous” his state still has to endure the burden of preclearance.
“I think it’s obviously insulting to us,” Franks said. “Our record on civil rights is today and in the past is far better than some of the other states.”
But Perez pointedly said that, “We’ve come a long way in the road to equal opportunity, but as Congress itself noted, discrimination persists.”
Perez spoke to Roll Call in his office, which sits behind a large conference room that once housed former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s workspace. His path to his current position followed a circuitous route around the Beltway.
Born to immigrant parents from the Dominican Republic, Perez is a graduate of Harvard Law School. He began working for the Department of Justice in 1986 and eventually became a deputy to Attorney General Janet Reno in the Civil Rights Division.
In the mid-1990s, Perez worked in the office of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). Two Kennedy photos are prominently placed on his office wall, including one black-and-white snapshot of Perez with the late Senator.
“It was any civil rights lawyer’s dream job,” he said. “The most iconic figure in United States Senate history for civil rights, and you have the opportunity to work for him.”
Perez then made the unusual jump from a federal position to local government.
In 2002, Perez ran in the Democratic primary for Montgomery County Council against three opponents. One of them, Sally Sternbach — a Silver Spring, Md., activist — told Roll Call that in a field of three white women and one Latino man, Perez’s life story stood out.
With the support of organized labor, Perez won easily with 44 percent in the primary and breezed through the general election to become the council’s first Hispanic member.
Sternbach said that even nine years ago, it was clear Perez had his eye on higher office. “This was a stepping stone for him,” she said. “His ultimate goal was federal. And he’ll run for Congress at some point.”
Toward the end of Perez’s tenure on the council, political operatives such as Ike Leggett, then the chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, encouraged him to look statewide. Leggett told Roll Call that there was a push from people like him to convince Perez that “there are bigger places and bigger venues that you need to be a part of.”
In 2006, Perez did move toward higher office, running for Maryland attorney general. But his bid was thwarted by the state’s Court of Appeals, which ruled he didn’t meet the eligibility requirements because he had not practiced law in the state for a decade.
That didn’t keep Perez from a statewide position for long. He served as Maryland’s secretary of labor, licensing and regulation from 2007 to 2009.
Perez explained that his municipal résumé is a boon to his current position. “Frankly, it makes me a better fed to have worked in state and local government because I have a very acute appreciation of the challenges” that they face, Perez said.
Perez turned 50 on Friday, which means there’s likely space for a few more lines on his résumé before his career ends.
Asked about a potential return to elective office, Perez deftly dodged the question: “I’ve loved every job I’ve ever had. I am a firm believer in knowing what’s right for me at any given time.”