Thomas E. Perez's political career seemed on the rocks when he was tossed off the ballot for Maryland attorney general days before the 2006 primary and shortly after took a job running a low-profile agency that licenses plumbers and monitors elevator safety.
But two years later, his political star is rising. The former civil rights lawyer is playing a key role on Barack Obama's transition team, and some Annapolis insiders are speculating that his connections - including a friendship with Eric H. Holder Jr., the president-elect's pick for U.S. attorney general - will land Perez a spot in the new administration.
Even if he does not make the move to Washington, some say Perez could capitalize on his growing profile to advance his career, perhaps including a run for governor. Perez says only that he would not challenge Gov. Martin O'Malley in a 2010 Democratic primary and that he wants to continue to effect reforms and "help people who can't help themselves."
"My own self-actualization is not dependent on being an elected official," Perez said.
Perez, 47, the Harvard-educated son of Dominican immigrants, has built his resume as labor secretary by taking an aggressive stance on regulations and legal actions to help stem the foreclosure crisis. He also has stepped into political quagmires by coming out strongly in favor of legalizing slot machines and by advocating for a change in adult education oversight that evolved into a turf war with state education officials.
While Perez is clearly ambitious, those close to him say that he is driven by what he believes is good policy and not by raw politics.
"There were a few critics who said, 'Well, you know, Tom is political,' " said Michael Enright, O'Malley's chief of staff, who vetted Perez before he was tapped for a Cabinet position. "And I found it to be completely to the contrary. What really gets him fired up is government operations and getting policies in place that he believes to be the right policies."
Colleagues say that Perez, who is helping the incoming Obama administration by reviewing personnel and policies at the Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development, can rapidly digest information and often views issues through the lens of civil rights. He usually does not rely on written notes or speeches when appearing in public and frequently sends e-mail after midnight.
Raised in Buffalo, N.Y., he was the only child who did not follow his father into the medical profession; three siblings are doctors, and another is a clinical psychologist. He turned instead to public service, harking back to an earlier generation of his family, that of his grandfather who was a Dominican ambassador to the United States.
His worldview was shaped by both generations that lived under the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. His grandfather was declared persona non grata by the regime and lived in exile in the United States; his father was active in the anti-government student movement in the Dominican Republic and also sought refuge here.
Perez became a trial attorney in the civil rights division of the Justice Department in the late 1980s. He prosecuted a case involving corruption on a drug task force in Oakland, Calif., and another against a group of white supremacists accused in shootings in Lubbock, Texas. Adding to his civil rights credentials, Perez was on loan to work on hate crime legislation and other issues for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat.
Later, as head of the civil rights office at the Department of Health and Human Services, Perez ran across cases involving a maternity ward in New York City segregated by how patients paid - a proxy for race and class, he said - and a hospital in McAllen, Texas, on the Mexican border, that chose uniforms for its security guards that resembled those of the Border Patrol, presumably to ward off illegal immigrants without insurance.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that "of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane," Perez notes.
"He's quick to absorb facts about complex health issues," said Diane Rowland, executive director of the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, a health research group in Washington on which Perez has served. "He's keenly interested in helping the poor and most vulnerable."
Perez says he left federal service at noon Jan. 20, 2001, the moment President George W. Bush took office. He went to work at the University of Maryland's law school and the next year became the first Latino elected to the Montgomery County Council. He served as council president for a year and worked on affordable housing, development limits and a plan to import prescription drugs from Canada - later rejected by federal officials.
"I think he's driven to be in public service for the right reasons," said Karen H. Rothenberg, dean of the University of Maryland's law school. "Some people are in government because they're into the power, and he's not that."
But Perez has not been able to stay completely above the political fray. Known for progressive stances, he raised eyebrows in liberal circles when a study he led came out in favor of expanded gambling, and he became one of the O'Malley administration's champions for slots. And when he tried to move the state's adult education programs under his agency, the proposal became a lightning rod for conspiracy as some wondered whether O'Malley wasn't behind the proposal to undermine his nemesis, state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.
Enright says the education proposal was Perez's idea. Perez lobbied lawmakers to get the legislation passed over the Education Department's objections, and he and Grasmick co-chaired a transition council. Enright also says O'Malley did not prompt Perez to take a pro-slots posture. Perez said he feared drastic cuts to education and health care if the state did not get a share of the slots proceeds.
But it was his disqualification from running for attorney general that Perez characterizes as among his most difficult moments. He says he tried to handle with dignity the court's decision, which found that he lacked the 10 years of legal experience in Maryland required by the state constitution, even though he disagreed with it. Besides, he said, through an "ironic twist of fate," his position as labor secretary has enabled him to tackle consumer protection and other issues he wanted to address as attorney general.
"Who would have guessed I would have come right in the beginning of a housing meltdown that put this agency center stage in a way it has never been before?" he said.