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.comments powered by Disqus