Tom Perez’s political career did not begin behind the dais at the County Council building in Rockville, but in the basement of a church in Takoma Park.
Perez rose from a community activist turned County Council member to a President Obama appointee. Elected as the new Chair of the Democratic National Committee on Feb. 24, Perez is one of the main voices of opposition to President Donald J. Trump.
Perez served one term in the County Council from 2002 to 2006 before being appointed by then Gov. Martin O’Malley to be Maryland’s Secretary of Labor. But Perez’s political rise did not start with the County Council or his appointment to run a state agency, but in the basement of a small non-profit in Takoma Park.
“He's a people person and can communicate with the president or with a day laborer,” said Gustavo Torres the board president of CASA in Action.
While many know CASA now as one of the largest immigrant advocacy groups in the state, frequently lobbying on behalf of the large immigrant community in Maryland and the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Region, 16 years ago, it was a seven member non-profit organization that met in the basement of Takoma Park Presbyterian Church.
Perez transformed the group from its humble beginnings with seven to nine people meeting in a basement, to a 150-member strong organization spread out over three states with its own headquarters.
Perez, originally from Buffalo and the son of Dominican immigrants, joined CASA in 2001 as a member of the board of directors. At the time, the main mission was to provide services like food and housing to poor immigrants living in the County, but Perez thought CASA could do more -- it could get political.
“That is the kind of vision he brought to CASA,” Torres said. “From a traditional non-profit to more of an organization that not only provides services but organizes the community.”
Torres, who sat in the basement board meeting with Perez, credits the organization’s rise to Perez who he said had ambition for the organization to become a political player because immigration was not just a local issue, but a national one.
“We didn't realize the entire concept of immigration…the entire immigration politics on a national level, all of that was brought in by Tom,” Torres said.
Eventually CASA’s board of directors made Perez its president, where he was able to transform CASA, by bringing on fellow attorneys to represent immigrants, split CASA’s budget in two – one for providing services, one for advocacy – and used his public speaking skills to turn CASA into much more of a local political player.
In 2002, Perez, somewhat of a political outsider, made a run for the County Council. At the time, he had no endorsements according to County Executive Ike Leggett. Leggett, who was on the County Council at the time, said he was impressed by Perez’s intelligence the first time he met him.
“He has the intellect, the drive, all the right managerial skills,” Leggett said.
Leggett said Perez was an outstanding campaigner who, unlike his opponents, was able to connect with the populace through his ability as a public speaker and his one-on-one connection with voters.
“He's a smart, likeable person,” said Robin Ficker, a longtime political activist in the County and current Republican candidate for County Executive. Ficker, who is usually outspoken with his criticism for local politicians, heaped praise on Perez.
Ficker, unlike some of his national Republican colleagues, only had praise for Perez saying he was pleased to see someone from the County become a player on the national political scene.
Ficker said he first met Perez when Perez was running for County Council in 2002. Though he disagreed with many of Perez’s positions on taxes and spending as a County Council member, Ficker said Perez is “a quick read” and a great public speaker.
“I think Tom is brilliant, I think he follows through on what he thinks is best for the future,” Ficker said.
Perez was elected DNC Chair at a tumultuous time for the party. During the party’s presidential primary, its former chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), resigned amid accusations of favoritism toward former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
In Clinton’s defeat to Trump in the presidential election, many accused the party of being out of touch with America’s blue collar voters in the Midwest losing the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives and numerous state houses and governor’s mansions to its Republican rival during the last few election cycles.
During his campaign for DNC Chair, Perez was seen as a party insider by many who said his ties to the Obama administration, serving as an assistant attorney general and then his Secretary of Labor, should have disqualified him from contention. Many instead wanted Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), someone who backed Sanders in the Democratic Primary and predicted – unlike many Democrats – Trump’s victory in November.
After he was elected DNC Chair, Perez positioned himself as an opposition leader to Trump, saying it was his duty as DNC Chair to see that he does not win another. But Perez also put the focus on rebuilding and unifying the party by selecting Ellison as vice chair.
“Our mission of this party, this committee, is to elect people from the school board to the Senate and the best way to do that is to help do that party-building that Congressman Ellison did in Minnesota and we see being done elsewhere,” Perez said in a press conference after his victory. “We’ve got to do that, because we lost a lot of seats – over 900.”