WASHINGTON – Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez will come home to Buffalo on Tuesday as the Obama administration’s chief advocate for workers, an outspoken voice for job training and fair pay – and a progressive favorite who’s increasingly seen as a possible running mate for Hillary Clinton if she wins the Democratic presidential nomination.
In two and a half years at the Department of Labor, Perez has made his mark through a series of aggressive efforts aimed at protecting workers from everything from unfair overtime practices to conflicts of interest that can wreck their retirement savings.
And progressives have noticed. Just listen to Lynn Woolsey, president of Americans for Democratic Action, a venerable liberal group that has endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is running to the left of Clinton in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Asked about the possibility of Perez serving as the Democratic nominee for vice president, Woolsey said: “I can’t think of anybody I’d like to get it better than he.”
And it’s not just Woolsey, a former member of Congress from a liberal district in California, who says Perez might be a good choice for the second spot on the Democratic ticket. Politico, the influential journal of all things Washington, named Perez as someone Clinton might consider for vice president more than a year ago. And just last week, CNBC, Yahoo News and Rolling Stone ran speculative pieces indicating that Perez would be a strong VP nominee who could help reunite the Democratic Party after the Clinton-Sanders primary battle.
For his part, Perez isn’t saying much about all of that.
Asked during an after-hours telephone interview on Friday if he would consider accepting the vice presidential nomination, Perez said: “I don’t go into hypotheticals. I am singularly focused on this work.”
His sole goal, he said, “is completing the unfinished business of the Department of Labor.”
But to Perez, doing that also means getting Hillary Clinton elected.
“She is ideally situated to build on the progress we’ve made and take it to the next level,” he said.
Perez – who backed Sen. Barack Obama over Clinton in the Democratic Party’s 2008 nomination fight – endorsed Clinton in December. He went on to campaign for her in Iowa and four other early primary states, and he said he plans to travel to other states to stump for her in the coming months.
And all that effort seems to have brought Perez – never before part of the extensive network of political players dubbed “Hillaryland” – closer to the Democratic front-runner.
While a spokesman for the Clinton campaign did not reply to an email seeking comment for this story, Clinton herself has been effusive in her praise of Perez as of late.
“There’s no greater advocate for working families than our secretary of labor,” she said at a rally with Perez in Sioux City, Iowa, in December.
That advocacy for working families is one of Perez’s strongest selling points as a potential running mate, said former Rep. John J. LaFalce, a Town of Tonawanda Democrat who has been touting Perez for the ticket for nearly two years.
“He’s just an outstanding individual in every way,” LaFalce said. “He’s beloved by the labor unions. He’s beloved by the civil rights organizations.”
That’s because, before his union-friendly tenure at the Labor Department, Perez worked as assistant attorney general for civil rights, where he took an aggressive stance against police discrimination and voter ID laws.
That track record would mean that, if Perez were on the ticket, progressives who had been supporting Sanders would likely become much more comfortable with Clinton as the nominee, LaFalce said. And on top of that, LaFalce noted that Perez – the son of Dominican immigrants – is Hispanic, an important Democratic constituency.
Of course, Clinton has other strong options for the second spot on her ticket. Housing Secretary Julian Castro, a former mayor of San Antonio who is also Hispanic, has long been touted as a possible Clinton running mate. And lately talk has centered on Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, a favorite of progressives, and Sen. Tim Kaine, a former governor of Virginia.
And, of course, many progressives dream about the possibility that Clinton will select Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, whose outspoken criticism of big banks would go at least part the way toward blunting criticism of Clinton’s financial ties to Wall Street.
Perez lacks the foreign-policy experience that’s often considered a central qualification for being a heartbeat away from the presidency, but so do most of those other rumored running mates.
But Perez has one possible disadvantage: a lack of experience running for any high office.
He spent four years on the Montgomery County Council in Maryland, but his one attempt at higher office – a 2006 bid for attorney general of Maryland – ended when a state court ruled that he had not been a member of the Maryland bar for long enough to meet the constitutional requirement for the post.
Despite that lack of big-league campaign experience, Perez is an impassioned public speaker with a knack for phrases that might resonate with the working class.
Describing an event in Buffalo with Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul set for Tuesday, in which he will push for paid family leave for workers, he said: “We live in a ‘Modern Family’ universe and we have ‘Leave It to Beaver’ rules on paid leave.”
And in talking about his appearance at Bennett High School at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday – which is open to the public – he said he will be discussing “how we build a community that works for everyone and an economy that works for everyone.”
The event at Bennett High School, sponsored by VOICE-Buffalo and the Niagara Organizing Alliance for Hope, will focus on workforce training for those at the bottom rung on the economy.
“Secretary Perez coming to the public meeting on March 8 shows great promise for the region, and is a huge accomplishment in our efforts to establish new strategies in the area of workforce development,” said Pastor James Giles, president of VOICE-Buffalo, a faith-based coalition of churches, community groups and labor unions.
The Rev. JoAnne Scott, president of NOAH, agreed, saying: “This meeting will make history. Never have we gotten to this level before with the federal government.”
And it probably never would have happened if Perez had not grown up in Snyder and remained close to his friends from Canisius High School, such as Paul Vukelic, CEO of Try-It Distributing Co., who is involved in VOICE-Buffalo.
Perez travels to Buffalo periodically to visit family and friends, and on those visits, Vukelic urged him to come to Buffalo for an official visit focused on job training.
“We’re looking to get at least his moral support for our initiative,” Vukelic said.
Vukelic has seen plenty of Perez over the years – at an annual golf trip he and their other buddies take together, on Perez’s family trips to Buffalo and on Vukelic’s visits to D.C.
And perhaps inevitably, on one of those visits, Vukelic raised the issue of the vice presidency – and made clear that Clinton could get at least one additional vote if she chose Perez as her running mate.
“I’ve told him quite honestly that the only way I would vote for Hillary is if he were on the ticket,” Vukelic said.