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After stumble, Perez on the rise

His connections to the Obama team, growing profile in Annapolis could lead to larger role

December 08, 2008|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

"I think he's driven to be in public service for the right reasons," said Karen H. Rothenberg, dean of the University of Maryland's law school. "Some people are in government because they're into the power, and he's not that."

But Perez has not been able to stay completely above the political fray. Known for progressive stances, he raised eyebrows in liberal circles when a study he led came out in favor of expanded gambling, and he became one of the O'Malley administration's champions for slots. And when he tried to move the state's adult education programs under his agency, the proposal became a lightning rod for conspiracy as some wondered whether O'Malley wasn't behind the proposal to undermine his nemesis, state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

Enright says the education proposal was Perez's idea. Perez lobbied lawmakers to get the legislation passed over the Education Department's objections, and he and Grasmick co-chaired a transition council. Enright also says O'Malley did not prompt Perez to take a pro-slots posture. Perez said he feared drastic cuts to education and health care if the state did not get a share of the slots proceeds.

But it was his disqualification from running for attorney general that Perez characterizes as among his most difficult moments. He says he tried to handle with dignity the court's decision, which found that he lacked the 10 years of legal experience in Maryland required by the state constitution, even though he disagreed with it. Besides, he said, through an "ironic twist of fate," his position as labor secretary has enabled him to tackle consumer protection and other issues he wanted to address as attorney general.

"Who would have guessed I would have come right in the beginning of a housing meltdown that put this agency center stage in a way it has never been before?" he said.

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