Meet the Democratic candidates for Maryland governor: Tom Perez

This interview is part of a series of interviews with the Democratic and Republican candidates for Maryland governor in 2022. In these interviews, WTOP asked all the candidates the same or similar questions on education, public safety and crime, jobs and the economy, and transportation. The Maryland primary is July 19.

Tom Perez (AP/Patrick Semansky)

The candidate: Tom Perez, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and chair of the Democratic National Committee

Running mate: Shannon Sneed, former Baltimore City Council member

Website: TomPerez.com

Tom Perez, former U.S. secretary of labor in the Obama administration, has racked up a string of key endorsements — including local lawmakers in populous Montgomery County and The Washington Post’s nod.

Perez says the next governor needs to be a dreamer and a doer — “someone who can articulate a broad inclusive vision that meets the moment, and someone who has a demonstrated track record of getting results on these key issues that do meet the moment,” and calls himself a proud member of the GSD wing of the Democratic Party — “getting stuff done.”

The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.


Education

WTOP: I think everyone is thinking, after the pandemic, about how their kids are doing, both academically and socially. We have the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future now being implemented in the next couple of years. My question to every candidate is, how will you make sure it is implemented? This is the part that gets into the heavy lifting.

Perez: Implementation is what the blueprint is all about. And here’s what I will do: No. 1, we’ve got to make sure we have funding sources for long-term funding for the blueprint. If we fund it only for a couple of years, then we will have failed. And I have put forth a series of funding sources. So that’s point No. 1.

No. 2 is making sure we bring together all the critical stakeholders, and as somebody who has implemented complex legislation in past chapters of my life, I know how to do that. We’ve got to make sure that educators and education support professionals have a seat at the table. We’ve got to make sure that the business community has a seat at the table. We’ve got to make sure that we’re addressing the psychological needs of our children and our educators, because not only do we have a pandemic right now; we also have a mental health crisis.

And so as we implement this blueprint, we’ve got to dramatically increase our investments in community mental health, because we’ve seen how this pandemic has laid bare the absence of a mental health infrastructure, so the next governor is going to have to do that, in connection with implementing the blueprint.

The focus of the blueprint on cradle-through-career is part of its genius. And we have to make dramatic investments in early childhood education. We need to make dramatic investments in increasing the number of bilingual supports, because we have an increasingly large population of limited-English-proficient students.

So you see, there’s a wide array of issues here. We want to make sure that the career and technical education components of the blueprint (are funded) — and those are some of the most exciting, because as governor, I want to build out an offshore wind infrastructure so that we’re creating $30-$40 an hour union jobs. The blueprint is a critical component in building out that pipeline of diverse talent.

And so in short, the next governor has to be the implementer-in-chief, and he has to understand how to bring people together, how to make sure that business has a seat at the table, educators, health professionals, housing professionals — because if people are housing insecure, and they are not able to focus in school, that’s a problem. These issues are totally interconnected. And having worked on all of these issues at a local, state and federal level, I’m really excited about tackling this challenge of implementation.

WTOP: You said you do have a plan for funding. How different will that look then? Typically we see the geographic formula. What’s different about your plan?

Perez: Well, first of all, we’re going to make sure that we don’t leave any county behind, we don’t leave any jurisdiction behind. In the governor’s most recent budget submission on education, there was a $140 million shortfall. And the two jurisdictions that were totally shortchanged were Prince George’s County and Baltimore City — two counties that have tremendous populations of remarkably talented kids who need assistance. And as a result of advocacy by Democrats, that funding gap was taken care of. I will make sure that never happens. We need different sources of funding for long-term success here.

And I’ve been very clear that I support the legalization of marijuana. I’ve been very clear that there are a number of corporate tax loopholes that we need to close that are just unconscionable that they are still in existence, the combined reporting loophole being one such example. We need to grow jobs, the best way to grow our tax base — or one of the best ways — is to grow our economy. And when we build a clean energy economy, we’re going to be able to create these $30-$40 an hour union jobs and increase our tax base.

Those are the types of things that I would do as governor. And again, there is an implementation and oversight committee that is a critically important component of the blueprint that wasn’t part of the prior blueprints, the Thornton Commission and others that you’re well familiar with, and I’m sure your listeners as well. That is a critical piece that is going to differentiate us.

We need to make sure we’re holding everyone accountable to all of the changes that we need to put in place. And again, as your governor, we are the implementer-in-chief. And that is something that I invite people to look at my record of getting really important things done.

When I worked for Gov. O’Malley in 2007, we had the No. 1 ranked public education system in the country. We have fallen short. We’re not at No. 1. I want to get us back to No 1. And I want to make sure that employers who are looking at where to locate know that Maryland has a world-class workforce. That’s one of the best ways to attract even more businesses here is to make sure they know that we have a world-class workforce.



Public safety

WTOP: We’re seeing police accountability boards pop up because of the state law that requires each jurisdiction to do that. How do you feel about the way it’s being implemented? And how do you help communities strike that balance between public safety, the desire to be safe in our homes, in our cars, out on the roads, and the rights of citizens not to be targeted by police?

Perez: I was a former federal prosecutor at the Department of Justice, and I ultimately had the responsibility of leading the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. I’ve been involved in police reform cases, dating back to 1990. I prosecuted an LAPD officer pre-Rodney King. I’ve worked on a lot of these issues. And one of the most important things we need to understand in this context is the need to reject false choices. I hear Gov. Hogan and others ask the question, “Are you on the police’s side? Or are you on the community’s side?” That’s a false choice. “We either control crime or we respect the Constitution” — a false choice.

As your governor, I will be a partner with jurisdictions across the state in fighting crime. And what does that mean? One of the things I will do is make sure that we have a criminal justice coordinating council actively in place. We will bring together federal, state, local resources to bear to address the crime challenges. We will make sure that, if there are hot spots, we have our federal partners there with us to address those hot spots.

We will make sure that we’re tackling the challenge of gun violence. There was a very important law that Democrats passed in the most recent session of the General Assembly to address the issue of ghost guns, which are wreaking havoc in the streets, across the state of Maryland, and, frankly, across the country. But we know that in Washington, D.C., the Congress is incapable of doing anything to address gun violence.

We need to make sure as a state that we are a meaningful partner; we need to make sure that we’re addressing, for instance, the fact that so much of the violent crime committed in this state is committed by people who are on parole and probation. The state can play a really important role in beefing up parole and probation to make sure that you have the proper caseloads moving forward.

One thing I learned long ago as a prosecutor is that the most important tool that a police officer has is the trust of the community. If you have trust, you have everything. And if you don’t have trust, you don’t have those eyes and ears of the community. And that is what I will work collaboratively with — to build those relationships of trust.

We must also make sure we work hard to build out a community mental health infrastructure, because so many people that officers encounter are experiencing mental health crisis. And what we need to do — and I have done this successfully with other jurisdictions when I was a federal prosecutor — is to build out a community-based mental health system, to build out what we call assertive community treatment teams. These are specially trained folks in de-escalation, folks that can make sure that a situation where if you’re encountering a person in a mental health crisis, we’re not sending them to jail, we’re sending them to treatment, so that they can address the issues that are bringing them to this situation.

So again, I think this issue is really important to take somebody who’s been there, done that. I’ve worked very collaboratively across the country with communities to bring down crime and to enhance public confidence in policing. And that’s exactly what I want to do here in Maryland, because we need to make sure that everybody feels safe. That’s imperative.

WTOP: You talked about trust, that people have to trust their police? What about on the flip side: Police who are saying that they do not feel supported, that they are increasingly having trouble recruiting new folks. What are your concerns there? And how do we how do we restore that kind of faith on their end?

Perez: Listen, you know, many years ago, I worked on the Los Angeles Police Department case, that was one of the first big cases. Again, I prosecuted an LAPD officer. Very similar challenges existed there: turnover, a lack of confidence, a lack of faith. And what we need to do here in Maryland is what I’ve seen done elsewhere: We need to make investments in the police departments.

I categorically disagree with anyone who says we need to defund the police. What we need to do is make smart investments in hiring and training, build those partnerships with communities. Make sure that police departments reflect the diversity of the communities that they serve. Hiring from within, building pipelines in high schools, in community colleges, so people can see that this is a remarkable career pathway, a pathway of immense opportunity. These are the things that we can do, and we must do.

And again, when we begin by rejecting false choices — “Whose side are you on, the police or the community?” — I am on both sides. And that’s what everyone should be. I want my police department to be equipped to do its job, and I want to make sure that the community feels safe in calling a police officer. We can accomplish this, but we need to redouble our investments in these partnerships. And I’ve seen it work. It’s never easy, but I’ll tell you, it can be done. As a governor, the most important thing I feel I need to do is to make sure that we are demonstrating through our investments that we truly believe that we can indeed build these partnerships that are going to be successful.

Jobs, economy, transportation

WTOP: A lot of people are taking a look at everything from gas prices to just inflation when they go to the supermarket. They’re very concerned. The current governor has been successful in getting tax breaks. What would you do to help the economy, that sense that people have … about how far their money goes? And then I’m going to ask you, within jobs and economy, about how we often hear how transportation in this area either attracts businesses, or says to them, “No way, do I want to go to the DMV, if you will, because the traffic in the area is so terrible.”

Perez: Let’s start with the jobs issue. We just got another jobs report recently, and it’s showing that, notwithstanding this pandemic, we have a resilient economy. We have tremendous opportunities here in Maryland for people to punch their ticket to the middle class. … In health care, you know, we have a major shortage of nurses, and we need to build out that pipeline. We have a major shortage of educators. And one aspect of the implementation of the blueprint is inspiring more people to enter the education field. The opportunities in clean energy to work in places like offshore wind — these are $30 -$40-an-hour union jobs. The bipartisan infrastructure bill is bringing unprecedented opportunity to create good middle-class jobs here in Maryland.

And the next governor — and I hope it’s me — is going to be working really hard. I used to say when I was Labor Secretary, we’re like Match.com — you know, we match job seekers who want to punch their ticket to the middle class, with businesses who want to grow their business, and we use the special sauce of training.

There are so many opportunities right now for Marylanders to punch their ticket to really, really good jobs. You got to be able to get through those jobs, and the second part of your question is about transportation. We need balanced solutions to our transportation challenges. And we have a climate change imperative to make sure that we are growing a clean energy economy. The Purple Line debacle here was a case of gross mismanagement, unfortunately, by the Hogan administration, and it’s costing taxpayers over a billion dollars and it’s delaying the project. I live very close to the project — it’s delaying it by years. The next governor needs to make sure we complete that project, and we need to invest in balanced solutions here around the nation’s capital.

We have to end gridlock — and one thing we have to do is replace the American Legion Bridge. That’s an imperative. It’s really dangerous. We need to then come up with solutions that are, again, balanced. We need major investments in rail. Because you look at the MARC system — people commuting from Hagerstown and Frederick into the DMV area. You have three trains a day and if it’s a holiday, you got zero. We’ve got to increase our MARC traffic; we’ve got to invest in bus rapid transit. We have a remarkable opportunity with this infrastructure bill, to really make incredible progress. But I don’t think we need to widen the Beltway to make it work.

WTOP: No widening the Beltway or 270? And what do you think about these managed toll lanes?

Perez: Here’s what we can do — and again, you know, we’ve seen the amount of money that’s been wasted in this Purple Line debacle. And the lesson to learn from it is we have to start out by asking the question: What is our philosophy moving forward on this issue? And our philosophy has to be that we need balanced approaches to ending gridlock.

Again, Northern Virginia has a number of different solutions here that we should be studying. … First of all, we have to be more transparent because there’s so many backroom deals that seem to be cut where the community feels like they’re left out. And so what I would do — just very, very briefly on how we end gridlock here — is, we want to start out by what we know we need to do. We need to replace the American Legion Bridge. We can then go and extend the HOV lane from the Maryland-Virginia line all the way up to the 270 spur.

We don’t have to expand I-270 to eliminate gridlock. You can have lanes not that dissimilar to what you see in Virginia, where they are reversible lanes so that during rush hour, one way they go in one direction and then they go in the other direction. We can do that — and what we also have to do up near Clarksburg is, we need to widen it I-270 up Clarksburg to Frederick. The current proposal calls for nothing in that area. But then what we also have to do is make sure we’re investing in hiker-biker trails — the first mile, the last mile, really, really important. And I really think that we have to articulate a vision, and the vision is one of balance. The vision is one that understands that commuting patterns are changing in the post-pandemic world. People don’t go into work five days a week; I’m not sure they’re ever going to go back to work five days a week. We want to encourage people — first mile, last mile — to use hiker-biker trails, things of that nature. We need to do all of this.

WTOP: Does that preclude tolls? No tolls?

Perez: No. What I would do — because the governor has said that we can’t afford anything but a public- private partnership; I don’t think that’s accurate. I think what we need to do is to put out, in a very transparent way, proposals. One could potentially be a public-private partnership. I’m not against public-private partnerships, per se; I’m against bad ones. I’m against public-private partnerships that abdicate our capacity to take care of ourselves. I also think that it’s entirely conceivable that we can pay for this without having to enter into a public-private partnership.

The reason it’s so important to ask that question is because, you look at other public-private partnerships — Chicago had a P3 program for their parking system. It was a disaster. They ended up getting fleeced at the end of the day. I don’t want that to happen here in Maryland. And again, don’t forget, with the unprecedented amount of infrastructure dollars, we have an ability to borrow almost half of the project costs at the Treasury rate, which is exceedingly low — it’s far lower than a P3 would be able to get in the open market. So I really think it’s important for us as a fiscal agent to take a look at that.

I also think it’s important for us, as a climate imperative, to be looking at the impacts — and this is a legal requirement — we have to look at the impact of any proposal on climate change and on racial equity. Those are requirements of federal legislation. And I don’t think we’ve done that. I don’t want us to be mired in litigation, and that’s the danger of going ahead and signing this P3 and trying to commit us right now to doing things that are not consistent with our values and are not consistent with the legal requirements.

WTOP: The Chesapeake Bay Bridge — what are your thoughts on that? The latest from the federal government was the greenlighted the pathway for further study that would take a third span, pretty much in the similar footprint of the current bridge.

Perez: Well, I want to make sure, again, that we engage the community in this; I want to make sure that we are looking at all of the issues. For instance, how do we account for bikers who want to cross the bridge? There’s a bridge project down in Southern Maryland, the Nice Middleton Bridge. It’s a 75-year project; the governor committed to having a hiker-biker trail on that, and then at the 11th hour, they reneged on that commitment. And if you look at the hiker-biker trail while crossing the Wilson Bridge, there’s more traffic on the hiker-biker trail than many roads across this region. That was a really shortsighted decision.

We need to make sure we’re asking the right questions. And whether it’s the Bay Bridge question that you’re asking here, or whether it’s here in the D.C. area, do we have a full understanding of the project? Its impacts? And are we looking at the next generation? What does the future utilization look like, as opposed to looking at projects through the rearview mirror? What sort of provisions would be in a Bay Bridge project that would enable, for instance, commuter or other bus traffic to get through in an expedited fashion? What other issues for, again, bikers? I want to make sure that we are looking forward and not in the rearview mirror when we’re scoping these out.

Background

WTOP: I know this is fairly open-ended and you’ve hit on some of this. But what in your background qualifies you to be governor and makes you the best choice? There is no shortage of choices for Democrats in this primary election. What do you think stands out? And what do you bring that’s different?

Perez: I think the next governor needs to be both a dreamer and a doer — someone who can articulate a broad inclusive vision that meets the moment, and someone who has a demonstrated track record of getting results on these key issues that do meet the moment. I’m a proud member of the GSD wing of the Democratic Party; I want to Get Stuff Done. And that’s what my life has been about: getting stuff done in the civil rights context. All the issues we’ve talked about, whether it was police reform, job creation, health care, environmental concerns — these are issues that I had the privilege of working on, whether it was the Montgomery County Council, whether it was as your state labor secretary, or whether it was leading the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department where I once served as a career prosecutor, or as your secretary of labor for the United States.

We cannot have a governor who needs an apprenticeship period for this governorship, because we have so many challenges right now. We also have so many opportunities, and that’s why I am running — and that’s why I believe that my proven track record of accomplishment in so many different areas that really do meet the moment will enable us — my running mate, Shannon Sneed, and I — to hit the ground running on Day One.

Interview conducted by Kate Ryan; editing by Jack Moore

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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