SILVER SPRING -- Saying he has the breadth of experience to protect consumers, the environment and minorities, Montgomery County Councilman Thomas E. Perez announced his candidacy for attorney general yesterday.
The Democrat and former U.S. Justice Department lawyer said he wants to continue and expand upon the legacy of retiring Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. He said he would guarantee civil rights, stamp out public corruption and help ensure that all Marylanders have access to quality health care.
"This campaign is about experience, vision and character," Perez told a crowd of about 80 supporters yesterday morning in downtown Silver Spring, one of three stops he made to announce his candidacy. "The attorney general has a wide range of responsibilities, and the job requires somebody with a wide range of experiences. Anybody can say that they will fight for consumers, that they will be a voice for the environment and all of these wonderful things. I have talked the talk, and I walked the walk, and I have the battle scars to prove it."
Perez is the second major Democratic candidate in the race to succeed Curran, and the second from Montgomery County. Douglas F. Gansler, the Montgomery state's attorney who announced his candidacy this month, has amassed $1.5 million in campaign funds and has aggressively worked for years to develop statewide political connections.
As of January, Perez had $230,000 in his campaign account. Frederick County State's Attorney Scott L. Rolle, a Republican who entered the race this month, had $6,000 on hand.
The speeches at the campaign announcement included a number of veiled references to Gansler, whom critics call an aggressive self-promoter. Perez and his backers -- including several prominent politicians -- didn't mention Gansler by name. But they emphasized Perez's selflessness and devotion to the citizens he serves.
"I have always remembered the words of a former boss, [U.S. Attorney General] Janet Reno, who said, 'We're in this business to make a difference, not to make a headline,'" Perez said. "I will always put the public interest and the law first. I will always ask the question: What is in the best interest of the case or issue, as opposed to what is in the personal interest of Tom Perez."
Mike Morrill, a spokesman for the Gansler campaign, welcomed Perez to the race but declined to comment on the councilman's candidacy or his implied criticism of the state's attorney.
"Doug's out there talking about his qualifications and his plans as attorney general, and that's all we're going to be talking about," Morrill said.
Perez, 44, has worked in public service jobs for his entire career, including stints as a prosecutor and later deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Justice, an office he joined in 1989. He was also director of the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and is now an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore.
Perez has been a member of the Maryland bar only since 2001, however, raising questions among some political observers about whether he had the 10 years' state legal experience required by the Maryland Constitution for the job. The attorney general's office issued an opinion last week concluding that Perez's federal service satisfies the requirement.
The Maryland attorney general's office has long been held by members of the Baltimore legal community, but so far no one from the area has emerged as a contender for the job.
All three announced candidates have been backed by prominent politicians with statewide stature. Gansler received the endorsement of former U.S. Sen. Joseph D. Tydings, and Rolle has the backing of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Yesterday, Perez was introduced by Stephen H. Sachs, a former U.S. attorney and Maryland attorney general. Sachs said he has talked with Perez in depth about the attorney general's office and believes that the county councilman has the right experience to succeed Curran. He said Perez understands that the job is more than one of law enforcement, that it must protect those who have been wronged and serve as an honest broker between competing interests and agendas within state government.
"I am drawn to Tom Perez because of what I'm going to call character," Sachs said. "Surely Tom's unquestioned integrity -- he is the straightest of straight shooters -- is part of it. But there is more. It is his principled fidelity to the causes in which he believes, sometimes at substantial political risk. Tom Perez, to borrow a timeless phrase, does not trim his conscience to fit this year's fashion."
Last weekend, Perez got the support of the Maryland State Teachers Association, and Monday he won the endorsement of the Service Employees International Union.
Yesterday, the chairs of two legislative committees -- Del. Sheila E. Hixson of Montgomery County and Del. Dereck E. Davis of Prince George's County -- spoke on Perez's behalf, as did former Democratic Party Chairman Isiah Leggett and Montgomery County Councilman Howard A. Denis, a Republican and former candidate for lieutenant governor.
"I'm living proof that Tom Perez can work with anyone," Denis said.
Perez lives in Takoma Park with his wife, Ann Marie, and their three children. The son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Perez grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., and attended Brown University, Harvard Law School and Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
If successful, he would be the first Hispanic elected to statewide office in Maryland. Two Spanish-language television stations, Telemundo and Univision, sent news crews to his Silver Spring announcement and conducted interviews with him afterward in Spanish.
"Vamos a hacer historia," he said, which means, "We are going to make history."