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.