Progressive activists haven't always loved Democratic presidents, and they certainly haven't always loved President Obama. At times they've been deeply frustrated with the president and his White House. But at least one senior administration official has remained a progressive hero throughout the entirety of Obama's presidency: Thomas Perez, who ran the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division during the president's first term and has served as secretary of labor since 2013.
Perez has spent the majority of his career inside government, from the staff of Senator Ted Kennedy to the council of Montgomery County, Maryland. But he's always been closely aligned with activists and movements outside of the government. For a time, he was president of the board of directors of CASA de Maryland, a leading immigration advocacy group; even when he hasn't had an official title, he's worked closely with LGBT organizations, civil rights groups, and labor unions.
At the same time, he's a close ally of Democratic politicians; he's spent time campaigning for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 primary, and is sometimes mentioned as a possible VP pick if Clinton wins the nomination.
His office reflects the importance of both insiders and outsiders: the picture behind his desk is of former Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, the namesake of the building where the department is headquartered, but the picture in the anteroom outside his office is of labor leader and activist Cesar Chavez.
Perez's track record has made him something of a lightning rod for the right: when he was nominated for labor secretary, then–Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called him "a crusading ideologue whose convictions lead him to believe that the law simply doesn't apply to him."
In 2015, Vox talked to Secretary Perez about how social change happens — and the role played not just by government and activists, but by individual interactions between people, and by the slow, relentless force of demographics and history. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
What role does government play in social change?
Dara Lind: I think progressives feel a lot of ownership in having you here in the Perkins Building.
Tom Perez: That's why her portrait is right behind my back — because she's the gold standard.
Dara Lind: Over the course of your career, you've been working very closely with a lot of movements, but mostly from the inside. The big question I want an answer to is what role you think government plays in social change. Do you see this role as primarily leading public opinion and instituting things that people can then catch up to? Or is it mostly responsive to people who are already organizing on the ground and demanding that government respond?
Tom Perez: I'm a student of history.
When you look at the history of any successful movement, it's always been a partnership. By partnership, I mean there are external forces at work. Also in the anatomy of every successful movement that has resulted in change, whether it's the Civil Rights Act of '64 or the Voting Rights Act of '65 or movements before that — the Fair Labor Standards Act, under FDR, for example. You look at the work of Frances Perkins leading up to the Fair Labor Standards Act, and you look at the work of the external labor movement at that point.
And I talk about civil rights and labor rights; I mean, the March on Washington was a march for civil rights and a march for labor rights.
Each one of those forces is indispensable to the movement. They’re all really links on a chain. And when you break a link, the chain can be broken.
Dara Lind: How have you seen these kinds of partnerships play out over the course of your career?
Tom Perez: We had a living-wage movement in Montgomery County, and it would not have been successful without progressive businesses, without grass-roots leadership and faith leaders, and without folks inside Montgomery County government who said, "This is the right thing to do."
Or moving the needle on the Hate Crimes Bill, for instance — which was, for me, a 15-year odyssey. I can tell you a lot about that one, because I really did had a front-row seat on that.
Who is more responsible? I'll let historians judge that. But I think I can say, fairly, that it was all of us working together. And if you didn't have the inside-government person, you wouldn't have gotten it done.
What happens when activists are frustrated with their allies inside government?
Dara Lind: In hindsight, throughout history, it often seems there's a partnership between inside and outside. In the moment, there can be tensions. I think both of us have seen this recently, with the immigrant rights movement and the administration leading up to the executive actions in November.
Tom Perez: Oh, sure. And there were tensions in the hate-crimes bill. There was tension during the drafting: there are existing death penalty provisions, and what do you do about that? Those are fair questions. Those are important questions.
The immigrant-rights movement — believe me, these are my very, very good friends. … That doesn't mean, even when you know you have shared values and shared vision, that we haven't had pitched battles. And it doesn't mean that at the end of the day we don't come out with a very clear vision of where to go forward, and sometimes you don't agree at the end. But I think we’re in a good place right now.
Dara Lind: In cases where there is direct pressure on the people who are friends of the movement, when have you seen that kind of pressure be effective in spurring them to do better? When have you seen it entrench attitudes and make people feel underappreciated?
Tom Perez: I consider myself a pretty passionate person, but I have always tried hard not to personalize things. In the heat of the moment, at times, that's easier said than done, so I think it's really important to keep that in mind.
In every debate I had when I was at the County Council, I saw folks on the left and folks on the right who'd do this: when they disagree with you, they also disagree with who you are. They add, "You're morally bankrupt," or something like that. And, you know, we just have different visions of America at times when we see things differently.
One thing I learned from Senator Kennedy, and from Senator Paul Simon, and others whom I watched firsthand as a staffer, was that you can disagree without being disagreeable. You can be passionate in your views, but you've got to remember that you have got to work with folks. If you're attacking their integrity as opposed to attacking their point of view on an issue, it just makes it harder to get to the finish line.
I think people understand that. But people are human. And as a result, sometimes we do things that perhaps don't move the ball forward.
Can you change society through the executive branch?
Dara Lind: The president’s made some substantial changes recently through executive action — on immigration, for example, or raising the minimum wage for federal contractors. There’s often a belief in DC that changing policy through the executive branch isn’t as permanent as getting it done through legislation or waiting for public opinion to come around. Do you feel that's a concern? Or do you feel that changes like this set a standard that society will then rise to meet?
Tom Perez: I see them as both. When I look back on the most important civil rights developments in the last hundred years, in the top three for me would be President Truman's executive order integrating the Armed Forces. And I couldn't help but note the parallels in rhetoric with some opponents when he did that, and when we were talking about "Don't ask, don't tell," — "military readiness," and this and that.
I had a trial down in Texas when I was prosecuting hate crimes. It was a horrible hate-crime case. I got to be good friends with the attorney for one of the defendants, and he's a World War II veteran. He said once that he grew up in the segregated South, he grew up with attitudes about African Americans, and the singular thing that changed his life was when he fought side by side with them. So I think executive action can be transformational.
There's no substitute for comprehensive immigration reform. DACA was transformational, but not sufficiently so. I met a DACA kid [see sidebar] yesterday down in Carolina when I was there, and she inspires me. She absolutely inspires me. But she can't get in-state tuition, and, you know, there's a ceiling for her, even though she's better off now than before. So I look at executive action and legislative action as two tools in our toolbox of expanding opportunity.
How can progressives organize people who don’t have the time for political activism?
Dara Lind: What are the lessons you learned while working and serving on the CASA board that you took with you when you went back to working for the government?
Tom Perez: It was something that I understood intuitively as a student in the civil rights movement, but then when you live it, you see firsthand: that change happens from the bottom up. You build things from the bottom up, you organize, and that's how you effect change. And so I'm trying to bring that operating principle to our paid-leave discussion; to our skills movement; to the working families, businesses, nonprofits, faith leaders, and educators working side by side.
I just talked to 400 community college presidents and trustees this morning. And we have tremendous opportunities. The wind is at our back economically. But we've got to make sure we have shared prosperity, and the long-term key to that is we need to upskill America. We need to equip Americans, workers, with the skills to compete. And the community I hear the most about this issue from is the business community. And I said to them, "We need to build a movement around this. I dream of a day when I hear — and, more importantly, Congress hears — as often from the business community about skills as they do about trade or other issues."
If you were to commission a poll of 500 employers right now, skills would be in the top three of their priorities. But we haven't built a movement around it. We're building a movement right now around paid leave and childcare. We live in a Modern Family world, but we have these Leave It to Beaver principles that are still all too frequently in place. I mean, Rebecca, the woman who sat in the box with the first lady at the State of the Union — to put a finer point on their situation, they have two kids under the age of five, their mortgage is $1,400 a month, and their child-care bill is $1,900 a month. You can't survive like that for any long period of time.
Dara Lind: The question that raises is: what happens when you have someone who's working to support a family and doesn't benefit from paid leave, or needs to work two jobs because he or she isn't being paid minimum wage — who might not have the energy to be the forces on the ground? How does it affect the ability to build a movement when the people who are most likely to benefit may not be able, or just may not be terribly motivated, to make change happen, because they’re focused on their daily lives?
Tom Perez: That’s a huge question. When you look at where we were 100 years ago and you look at where we are now, there was a lot more attachment to institutions — your union, the Elks, the Eagles, bowling, your church or other place of worship. Today, there is more bowling alone. In that context, how do we build movements?
I'm inspired by people like Sarita Gupta [executive director of the workers-rights advocacy group Jobs With Justice], and others, who have recognized that we can organize low-wage workers and we can partner with businesses. She's doing the same thing you and I are talking about. And she's working on behalf of exactly the cohort you described: people who understand at a basic level that their life is a struggle, that the playing field isn't level, but they don't have time to go to the rally or go to the union hall, and they may not necessarily have the wherewithal. They need help. That's the voice we have to give.
That's why our work is so important. Because there are folks out there with a lot money to spend who are saying, "I wake up every day figuring out how I can screw unions."
We’ve got to understand this: that there are folks who wake up every day who believe we get ahead in America by squelching workers’ voices, by making it harder for workers to organize and creating more top-down stuff. And I just refuse. The Gilded Age was not a golden age in America. That’s why we do what we're doing here: to service that voice. That's what gets the president out of bed every morning.
These are hard battles, because the people we're fighting on behalf of are working two and three jobs. It's not realistic, oftentimes, to ask them to come down to Capitol Hill to do Hill visits.
Is progressive change inevitable, or is it under threat?
Dara Lind: On the one hand, you're saying there are people who are working against the ones you are working for. But on a historical scale, attitudes change: people who would have been opposed to integrating the Armed Forces 70 years ago aren’t opposed today. Do you think that kind of change of winning hearts and minds is inevitable?
Tom Perez: Usually, I'm optimistic. I believe the moral arc of the universe bends not only toward justice but also toward those who seek to expand opportunity, rather than contract opportunity. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a big debate about whether to have free access to public education K–12. "You're going to give out free high school degrees? You don't need that. Come on." I suspect some of the descendants of those folks are the ones who fought Medicare 50 years later. "Medicare," you know? "You don’t need that."
There's an album you should look at: Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine. There's actually an album. I think I still have the album cover. I gave it to Diane Rehm one day because I was on her show. Not only did Reagan say Medicare would lead to socialized medicine, he said Medicare would lead to socialism in America. That's what he said in the album.
And 50 years later I've met all these people. I met a guy, Ward, in Nashville who got his ACA coverage March 1 and got his liver transplant two weeks later. I met a guy, Victor, two weeks ago in Salt Lake; kidney cancer. And what they both wanted more than anything — "You know what I want to do most now?" they say. I'm like, "No, what?" I don't know what they're going to say. "I want to work, I want to get a job again, because I was so sick I couldn't work."
It just makes me ask the question: what's in it for opponents of the ACA for Ward and Victor not to be able to work? And then they have to become a ward of the state. How is that good for the economy? How is it good for health-care delivery to have the ER be their primary care physician? How is that good on any metric of success, putting aside the moral and ethical aspects of that?
So I have optimism. Because we are on the right of the facts and we are on the right side of history, and that's how the moral arc has historically bent. It doesn't bend on its own. We are talking about movements and movement building.
Dara Lind: Over the course of your career, do you think there are any issues that have suffered setbacks — where you’re now fighting just to get back to where things were when you started out?
Tom Perez: I'm going to Selma in a couple of weeks to commemorate Bloody Sunday and 50 years after Bloody Sunday and almost 50 years as we come up. [He looks toward a corner of his office.] I'm looking over there right now because it's John Lewis, one of my favorite people, in the photo. I find it impossible to believe that 50 years after folks fought, struggled so hard, and gave their lives in some cases, the biggest problem in the voting space is in-person voter ID fraud. That is, as Colin Powell said, "How can a problem be so widespread and yet so undetected?"
I firmly believe we should have a pitched battle about policies. Democracy is all about having passionate debate — respectful but passionate debate. And then at the end of the day, what we should be doing is making sure everybody gets the opportunity to vote.
That's why I had some friends on the left who asked me when I was in the civil rights division, "Why do you spend so much time making sure that veterans, service members, can vote? Because don't you know they vote Republican?" And I said, "First of all, I don't know how they vote. Second, I don't care how they vote. And third, I'm offended by that. Because these folks are serving our country and we need to make sure everyone gets access to the ballot. I'm just thoroughly offended by that suggestion."
So we should be having this debate, and then at the end of the day we should all be working together to make it as easy as possible for eligible voters to vote. As opposed to a world in which the strategy is, "I’ve got to make it harder for my perceived ideological foe to exercise his franchise."
By the way, you might win a short-term victory here and there, but you are swimming into an un-winnable headwind of demographics that will be a tidal wave. And it's totally inconsistent with our values as a nation.