VP chatter turns to Tom Perez, a pick that could help Clinton with progressives

Hunter Walker
·White House Correspondent
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Hillary Clinton laughs as U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez endorses her during a campaign stop in Sioux City, Iowa, Dec. 4, 2015. (Photo: Nati Harnik/AP)

U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez likes to bring up the exact number of days left to take action in Barack Obama’s presidency. Perez even keeps a countdown calendar on his desk identifying Jan. 20, 2017 — the next president’s first day in office — as the day his “weekend” begins.

But Perez might have to wait for his weekend, as there’s growing buzz he could be an ideal vice presidential pick for Hillary Clinton if she wins the Democratic presidential primary.

Clinton is still in the midst of a tough fight against Sen. Bernie Sanders. While her campaign remains focused on that race, her huge victory in South Carolina’s Democratic primary on Saturday vaulted Clinton back into frontrunner status and polls indicate she’s set to widen that lead on Super Tuesday this week. So now Democrats are beginning to speculate about who she might tap as a running mate. Perez, according to some in the party, could singularly help Clinton appeal to progressives energized by Sanders’ campaign and help unify the party once he bows out.

Most of the early Clinton “veepstakes” chatter has focused on another member of Obama’s Cabinet, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., has also generated considerable vice presidential speculation, as has Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., both of whom have been campaigning for her. Yahoo News has heard three other names when inquiries were made about who might be in the mix: Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, and Perez.

Of these men, it is Perez who seems to have the most potential to appeal to the left flank of the party that has rallied around Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

Already, one influential liberal Democratic senator was heard speaking privately on the Senate floor about what a “great pick” Perez would be for Clinton, according to two Democratic sources familiar with the conversation. A longtime Democratic Hill aide described Perez as a choice that would “satisfy the Warren wing of the party.”

Perez has emerged as a high profile and active surrogate for Clinton. Since endorsing her last December, Perez traveled to all four early-voting states to campaign for Clinton. He also hit the spin room for Clinton after the Democratic debate in Wisconsin on Feb. 11.

Both Perez’s office and the Clinton campaign declined to comment on this story.

The son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Perez grew up in Buffalo, New York. His father passed away when he was 12 years old, and Perez later put himself through Brown University by working in the school’s dining hall, at a warehouse, and as a garbage collector. From there he went on to Harvard University, where he obtained graduate degrees in law and public policy.

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President Obama listens as Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, right, speaks during a conversation at the White House Summit on Worker Voice in 2015. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

Perez began his career working as a prosecutor in the Department of Justice’s civil rights division. In the 1990s, he served as the principal adviser to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy on civil rights issues. Perez also served in the administration of Pres. Bill Clinton, as director of the Office for Civil Rights at the United States Department of Health and Human Services. After a stint teaching law during the administration of Pres. George W. Bush, Perez got involved in Maryland politics and served on the Montgomery County council. He went on to lead Maryland’s Department of Labor licensing and regulation before returning to the DOJ in 2009 as the assistant attorney general heading up the civil rights division. Obama nominated Perez to become labor secretary in 2013, and he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in a bipartisan 72-22 vote.

Picking Perez would have “great value” for Clinton, one former Obama adviser told Yahoo News. The adviser, who requested anonymity to candidly discuss the strengths and weaknesses of various potential picks, cited Perez’s inspirational biography, Latino heritage, Spanish fluency, and relative youth. Perez is 54 years old, while Clinton is 68.

“He’s got a great personal story. I think he certainly was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” the adviser said. “In addition to being a bridge to the Latino community, I think he’s seen as a true progressive … kind of a new generation of rising Democratic stars.”

The former Obama adviser met Perez late last year and came away impressed.

“I was prepared to think that he would be a standard-issue Cabinet secretary, kind of message points and very careful and cautious, and I found him to be unbelievably genuine and shooting from the hip,” the adviser said.

Leading progressive lobbyist Robert Raben has known Perez for over 20 years, having met him during Perez’s time as a senate aide. While Raben said he would be “excited” to see a Latino on the ticket, he described Perez’s experience working on civil rights and labor issues as the most important thing he would bring to the table. Raben described these areas of expertise as an ideal complement to Clinton’s foreign policy experience.

“I think he’s, on the merits, an awesome, awesome pick,” Raben said of Perez.

Perez has spent his career working on issues that have exploded into the national conversation in recent years and are now among the top domestic issues this election. While leading the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, Perez increased focus on prosecuting hate crimes. Under Perez, the division also did more work investigating police misconduct and voting rights issues than at any other time in its history. Perez’s work on civil rights issues also included obtaining some of the first convictions for hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity. All of which would sit well with Clinton’s focus on breaking barriers and tackling “systemic racism.”

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U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez greets head cashier Christinia White at an Ace Hardware store in Washington, D.C., 2014. Perez visited the store to push for the raising of the federal minimum wage. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Bakari Sellers, a Clinton supporter, CNN commentator, and former legislator in South Carolina, told Yahoo News he’s a “big Perez fan.” As a “young black millennial,” Sellers said he finds the prospect of Perez joining a ticket with Clinton “invigorating,” particularly due to Perez’s expertise on civil rights.

“I haven’t met anybody that’s nearly as smart or nearly as articulate that can speak to the issues so prevalently on civil rights and civil justice, and speak directly to the hearts of many persons of color in this country,” Sellers said.

Perez, who is the first Cabinet member of Dominican descent, also emerged as a strong advocate for Latinos during his time at the DOJ. He investigated Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz., a high profile opponent of immigration reform and now a supporter of Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, for discrimination against Latinos. The DOJ filed suit against Arpaio’s office for allegedly declining to cooperate with the administration in 2012. Last July, the county voted to settle as Arpaio’s office agreed to change its policies. Perez also fought Arizona’s SB1070 immigration law, the most sweeping and tough anti-illegal immigration that received nationwide attention when it was signed in 2010. Perez had the DOJ file a legal challenge to the law that went all the way to the Supreme Court in 2012 and resulted in some portions of the law being struck down.

And perhaps most importantly to the so-called Warren wing of the Democratic Party, Perez has strong liberal credentials on economic issues. At the Department of Labor, Perez has pushed for workers rights — including minimum wage increases, union organization, and paid sick leave. National labor leaders have praised Perez’s performance and suggested he enjoys strong support among their membership. Perez has also worked directly with Warren to push a conflict of interest rule that would mandate financial advisers working on retirement accounts sign a legally binding agreement that requires them to act in clients’ best interests and make greater disclosures of any third party commissions they receive. This so-called fiduciary rule has been a bête noire of the Wall Street lobby.

Raben, the lobbyist, said that, in spite of having developed a reputation for being an aggressive defender of workers’ rights and Wall Street regulation, Perez “has figured out how to be a progressive candidate and get along with people who disagree with him.”

“What makes him very compelling to me — because I’m sort of in the business of public policy, I’m not in the business of banging my shoe on the table and hoping that my friends are excited by my leadership — he gets along really, really well with conservatives and with businesspeople,” said Raben. “He learned that from Senator Kennedy. Well, it may be natural — but that’s how Senator Kennedy trained people.”

While Raben didn’t reject the idea that Perez could help Clinton win over Sanders supporters and the “Warren wing,” he suggested that’s not the main reason he thinks Perez would be “a fantastic candidate.”

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Pi Pizzeria kitchen manager Freddie Melgar, left, shows U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez how they make pizzas during a tour of the kitchen, Miami Beach, 2015. (Photo: Wilfredo Lee/AP)

“I know and I understand that narrative and I don’t quibble with it. I think everything is relative, and when Mrs. Clinton is paired up against the Republican nominee, whether it’s Cruz, Rubio, or Trump, her progressive bona fides will be unflinching,” Raben said. “I’m just not in the business of saying she needs to do that because she needs to lock up a progressive wing. I don’t think Mrs. Clinton needs to do anything. I think he’s a great choice. He may well do that and be very, very attractive — but he’d also be really, really attractive to Latino conservatives. You know, he’s a religious guy.”

While he may attract other constituencies, Perez’s appeal to progressives —an appeal that has largely eluded Clinton in the primary — is evident.

The former Obama adviser said having Perez on the ticket would be a “big plus” for Clinton.

“I think he does represent the future and he’s not going to back down on his progressive principles,” the adviser said. “Sometimes there are progressives who might get picked kind of early and say, like, ‘Well, s***, now I’m on the fast track, so I’ll do whatever I have to do.’ I don’t think Perez would be like that.”