Born in Buffalo, New York, Perez is a graduate of Brown University, Harvard Law School, and the John F. Kennedy School of Government. He clerked for Judge Zita Weinshienk in Colorado prior to serving as a federal civil rights prosecutor for the Department of Justice.
He next worked for Senator Ted Kennedy and then served as the Director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services in the final years of the Clinton administration.
Perez was then elected to the Montgomery County (Maryland) Council in 2002, serving as the council’s president from 2005, until the end of his tenure in 2006. He attempted to run for the Democratic nomination for Attorney General of Maryland, but was disqualified for not having sufficient time as a member of the Maryland state bar.
Perez was appointed by Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley to serve as Secretary of the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation in January 2007, until his October 2009 confirmation by the United States Senate as Assistant Attorney General.
In 2013, Perez was nominated by President Barack Obama to be the United States Secretary of Labor, replacing outgoing Secretary Hilda Solis.
After the 2016 elections, Perez announced his candidacy for Chair of the Democratic National Committee in the 2017 party election. After a tight race against Keith Ellison, Perez was elected Chairman on the second ballot and immediately appointed Ellison as deputy chair.
Early life and Education
Thomas Edward Perez was born and raised in Buffalo, New York, to parents Grace and Dr. Rafael Antonio de Jesús Pérez Lara, who were both first-generation Dominican immigrants.
His father, who earned U.S. citizenship after enlisting in the U.S. Army after World War II, worked as a doctor in Atlanta, Georgia, before moving to Buffalo, where he worked as a physician at a Veterans Affairs hospital.
His mother, Grace, came to the United States in 1930 after her father, Rafael Brache, was appointed as the Dominican Republic’s Ambassador to the United States. Brache was initially an ally of Rafael Trujillo, but after a falling out, he was declared an enemy of the state, forcing him and his family to remain in the United States.
Perez is the youngest of five brothers and sisters, all of whom but Perez followed their father in becoming physicians. His father died of a heart attack when Perez was 12 years old. Perez graduated from Canisius High School, an all boys Jesuit school in Buffalo, in 1979.
Perez received his Bachelor of Arts in international relations and political science from Brown University in 1983. He joined the Sigma Chi Fraternity there He covered the cost of attending Brown with scholarships and Pell Grants and by working as a trash collector and in a warehouse. He worked in Brown’s dining hall and for the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights.
In 1987, Perez received a Juris Doctor cum laude from Harvard Law School and a Master of Public Policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government.
In 1986, while a student at Harvard, Perez worked as a law clerk for Attorney General Edwin Meese.
Perez lives in Takoma Park, Maryland, with his wife, Ann Marie Staudenmaier, an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, and their three children.
Perez is Catholic, and recalls that his parents told him, “In order to get to heaven, you have to have letters of reference from poor people.
After graduating from Harvard, Perez worked as a law clerk for Judge Zita Weinshienk of the United States District Court for the District of Colorado from 1987 to 1989.
From 1989 to 1995, he worked as a federal prosecutor in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. He later served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights under Attorney General Janet Reno. Perez chaired the interagency Worker Exploitation Task Force, which oversaw a variety of initiatives designed to protect workers.
From 1995 to 1998, Perez worked as Democratic Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy’s principal adviser on civil rights, criminal justice, and constitutional issues. During the final two years of the second Clinton administration, he worked as the Director of the Office for Civil Rights at the United States Department of Health and Human Services.
From 2001 to 2007, Perez was a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, where he taught in the clinical law and the law and health program. He was a part-time member of the faculty at the George Washington University School of Public Health.
Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights
On March 31, 2009, President Barack Obama nominated Perez to be Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on Perez’s nomination on April 29, 2009, and on June 4, 2009, the committee voted 17-2 to send Perez’s nomination to the full Senate.
Perez’s nomination then did not move forward for several months, amid questions by Republican senators about his record on immigration matters and a controversy over the Obama Justice Department’s dismissal of a voter intimidation case against the militant New Black Panther Party.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) characterized the opposition as foot-dragging and “posturing for narrow special interests”. On October 6, 2009, the full United States Senate confirmed Perez in a bipartisan 72-22 vote. Only two Senators spoke out against the nomination: Tom Coburn (R-OK) and David Vitter (R-LA).
Perez revamped Justice Department efforts in pursuing federal settlements and consent agreements under the Americans With Disabilities Act. One of Perez’s main focuses was on the discrimination of individuals with HIV/AIDS, saying that it is “critical that we continue to work to eradicate discriminatory and stigmatizing treatment towards individuals with HIV based on unfounded fears and stereotypes”.
Perez oversaw the division responsible for the implementation, and training of local enforcement in response to the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act; including overseeing the first hate-crime conviction under the law, in the racially motivated murder of James Craig Anderson. Perez endorsed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in 2009, citing it one of his “top priorities”, and at his first testimony after being confirmed as Assistant Attorney General, he said, “That LGBT individuals not being currently protected against discrimination in the workplace is perhaps one of the most gaping holes in our nation’s civil rights laws.”
Secretary of Labor
On March 18, 2013, President Barack Obama nominated Perez to be Secretary of Labor, succeeding outgoing Secretary Hilda Solis. Perez’s nomination was criticized by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Pat Roberts (R-KS), as well as the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, for his decision not to intervene in a whistleblower case against Saint Paul, Minnesota, in return for the city’s dropping a case before the Supreme Court (Magner v. Gallagher), which could have undermined the disparate impact theory of discrimination.
Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) opposed the nomination because of Perez’s views on immigration and his association with CASA de Maryland, calling the nomination “an unfortunate and needlessly divisive nomination”. Perez’s nomination was supported by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), the Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, the committee that oversees the Department of Labor. His nomination was also supported by labor groups, such as the AFL-CIO and the United Farm Workers of America as well as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Women’s Law Center.
Full Interview: DNC Chairman Tom Perez
Thomas Perez at his Senate confirmation hearing for Secretary of Labor
Before holding a hearing on the nomination, Republican members of the United States House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform subpoenaed Perez’s personal e-mails and released a 64-page report into Perez’s actions in the St. Paul whistleblower case, saying that Perez “manipulated justice and ignored the rule of law”.
At his confirmation hearing on April 18, 2013, Perez was questioned about his role in Magner v. Gallagher and the NBPP case as well as the Obama administration’s plan to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour.]
The confirmation vote was delayed to May 8 to give Senate Democrats more time to review Perez’s role in Magner v. Gallagher, and then to May 16, at which time Perez’s nomination cleared the committee on a party line vote of 12–10. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) postponed a full Senate vote on the nomination until July.
As Senate Democrats pushed in July 2013 to eliminate the filibuster for all executive-branch nominees, senators struck a deal for a Senate vote on Perez’s nomination. On July 17, 2013, the Senate voted 60–40 for cloture on Perez’s nomination, ending the filibuster. On July 18, 2013, the Senate voted 54–46 to confirm Perez as Secretary of Labor. It was the first Senate confirmation vote in history in which a cabinet member’s confirmation received a party-line vote, something many press observers termed “historic”.
During the 2016 presidential election, Perez was mentioned as a possible running mate on the Democratic ticket with Hillary Clinton, but was ultimately not selected. Perez later campaigned for the Clinton-Kaine ticket.
Chair of the Democratic National Committee
Perez with José Tomás Pérez, Dominican Republic Ambassador to the United States
Perez announced his candidacy for Chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) on December 15, 2016. He argued that the party needs to go to the suburbs, the exurbs and rural America and to talk to people. Perez gave the keynote speech for the Maryland Democratic Party annual legislative luncheon on January 10, 2017, in Annapolis. Perez promised not to take money from federal lobbyists, foreign nationals, or current Labor Department employees. His candidacy was endorsed by former Vice President Joe Biden and other Obama administration officials.
On February 25, 2017, Perez was elected DNC chair. Perez won on the second ballot with 235 votes, beating nearest rival Representative Keith Ellison who earned 200 votes. After winning the election, Perez’s immediate response was to make a motion to suspend the rules and recreate the (largely ceremonial) role of Deputy Chair, and to install Ellison into the office. Perez is the first Dominican-American to chair the Democratic National Committee. He undertook a Unity Tour in 2017 with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders to promote the DNC.
Following the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses, Perez received pressure from outside groups, including presidential candidate, Tulsi Gabbard, to resign as the DNC chair. Perez as of February 10, 2020, has refused to resign, citing the amount of elections Democrats have won since he assumed the chairmanship in 2017.
In 2014, Perez received an honorary Doctorate of Laws from Brown University, an honorary Doctorate of Laws from Drexel University School of Law, and an honorary Doctorate of Humanities from Oberlin College.
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