Perez brings activist views

Attorney general candidate focuses on health, diversity

Maryland Votes 2006

August 23, 2006|By ANDREA F. SIEGEL | ANDREA F. SIEGEL,SUN REPORTER

When Thomas E. Perez sought a seat on the Montgomery County Council four years ago, he mobilized Hispanic voters and engaged a burgeoning network of liberal activists to win a victory that surprised many.

"Nobody saw it coming," said Sally Sternbach, the head of a county economic development group who lost to Perez in the contest. "Those are things that are not going to show up on campaign reports."

Perez, a son of Dominican Republic immigrants, became president of the Montgomery County Council in 2004, which made him the highest-ranking Latino holding an elected office in Maryland for the year he was in the position.

Now the 44-year-old Takoma Park resident is taking that below-the-radar approach and his message of a "new Maryland" statewide as he campaigns for attorney general. He is running to replace longtime Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who is retiring.

A big part of Perez's message - which includes a Spanish-language appeal on his campaign Web site - is that government priorities must reflect the needs of the state's increasingly diverse population.

Calling himself a "change agent," the University of Maryland law professor and past director of its student public-interest law clinics has vowed to bring activist approaches to such issues as health care and environmental protection. Both topics, he says, can often be approached as civil rights matters.

"We should be making sure that nonprofit providers behave like nonprofits," he told a recent gathering of voters in Prince George's County, as he promised to probe complaints of noncompetitive pricing by health care and insurance companies.

Poor and minority children in run-down urban neighborhoods suffer most from the health threat of lead poisoning, he said. He said he would ask lead paint manufacturers to help pay for their dangerous product to be removed or sealed in old homes. If they refuse, he said, the state should consider suing them - as other states have done.

Some of his students have worked on individual cases at the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning in Baltimore. Perez praised their work but said a solution to the problem must be broader.

Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the coalition, agreed: "It is always important to look at the big picture and how you approach things," she said.

Critics say that although Perez might be a good fit for a district that includes left-leaning Takoma Park and the immigrant sections of the east side of the county, he might be too liberal - he prefers the term "progressive" - for the rest of Maryland.

Perez routinely criticizes Republican moves to reduce social programs.

His approach on the council to two recent high-profile issues was polarizing, they say.

In 2004, Perez championed a plan to allow Montgomery County residents to buy prescription drugs from Canada and elsewhere at lower cost.

But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is based in Montgomery County, contends such plans are illegal. The county requested an exemption from a federal importation ban but was denied by the FDA.

Officials are appealing, but Perez wants the plan enacted regardless of the federal government's position. That stance has drawn criticism.

"His attitude is `Let them come along and sue us if they think it's illegal,'" said Tom Reinheimer, the chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee. "That's wrong."

Perez doesn't think so, noting that other communities have forged ahead with similar initiatives. "If it's so illegal, why don't [federal authorities] sue them?" Perez said. "The legal issue is indeed muddled."

In another contentious debate, Perez was the lead sponsor of a bill to impose stricter penalties on lenders who charge higher interest rates to minorities. Lenders threatened to pull out of the county and sued to block its implementation; the legal challenge is pending.

"Tom has allowed the issues to be demagogues," said Steven A. Silverman, the Democratic County Council president who is running for Montgomery County executive. Silverman supports Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler in the attorney general primary.

Still, Silverman voted for the amended predatory lending bill, and he credits Perez for making the effort to address the problem.

Tall and slender with thinning curly black hair, Perez was raised in Buffalo, N.Y., the youngest of five children. Democratic politics was a constant dinner-table topic.

His father, Rafael Perez, who became a U.S. citizen after a stint in the Army, worked as a physician for the Veterans Administration. He died when Perez was 12.

One of Perez's closest friends then was Jim Springer, a medical device sales representative who now lives in Salisbury.

A longtime Republican who changed party affiliation to vote for Perez, Springer offered a portrait of a dogged teenager: "Tom was a pitcher. He couldn't throw hard enough to pop a paper bag or a piece of paper. But he could throw the ball in different ways."

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