Public Service Innovators -- Thomas Perez, MPP 1987: Making a Difference in Local Government

March 27, 2003
Julia Hanna

Montgomery County Councilman Tom Perez, MPP 1987, is on his way to a rally for the Purple Line, a proposed light-rail system that will benefit the low-income residents of his Maryland district who depend on public transit. The problem, ironically enough, is that he's stuck in traffic.

"If we don't have adequate roads and public transportation, our community suffers," Perez says in a phone interview from his car. "The rubber meets the road at local government. It's where you can make a difference in the lives of ordinary people."

Although Montgomery County's Hispanic population is the largest in Maryland, Perez, a Democrat, is the first Latino elected to its Council. Fluent in Spanish, he went door-to-door and used bilingual campaign literature and a multicultural coalition of volunteers to get out the vote.

A lifelong public servant with a joint degree from Harvard Law School, Perez has worked as a federal prosecutor in the civil rights division of the Justice Department and served as director of the civil rights office at the Department of Health and Human Services under Donna Shalala.

He credits his parents, natives of the Dominican Republic, for inspiring his strong sense of commitment to public service, and hopes to instill the same values of "passion and compassion" in his three young children.

Teaching, says Perez, is one way to instruct and lead by example. "I tried to use the campaign as a learning opportunity for my six-year-old," he says, describing how he took his daughter along on a speaking engagement at a center serving those with developmental disabilities. "That night we sat on the bed and I explained what it means to have a disability. I don't want to bore her too much-but she's old enough to understand."

Not surprisingly, education is Perez's number one priority-for grown-ups as well as kids. "A child's learning is directly linked to how much a parent can help him or her," he explains. "Thousands of people who live in this county are not proficient in English; we need to establish a task force that will reinvent how we deliver education services so that adults are job-ready and able to help their kids with homework."

Four months into his term, Perez is well aware of the challenges he faces at a time of severe budget deficits, but says he hasn't lost his sense of purpose or idealism. "So far, I've learned that it's possible to make a difference in small ways that will never be reported in the newspapers-and that's fine. You create change by ensuring government works and is accessible to everyone."

Meanwhile, large-scale, coalition-building projects like the Purple Line demand Perez's attention as well. "I hope the governor says he's with us in the next week," he says. "From there, we should be able to break ground by 2005 and move people by 2008. In transportation terms, that's not bad."

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