His Toughest Test Yet

Can former Montgomery County Council member Tom Perez bring together a fractured Democratic party?

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Photo by Michael Ventura

A decade before he achieved prominence in national Democratic Party circles and became a frequent lightning rod for GOP legislators on Capitol Hill, Tom Perez’s closest political friend and ally was a Republican.

It was 2002, and Perez had just been elected to the Montgomery County Council from Silver Spring/Takoma Park-based District 5 following an upset victory in the primary. On the council, he became close with veteran officeholder Howard Denis, the council’s only Republican. The pair soon became known as “the odd couple” around the Council Office Building. 

“It’s hard to explain where friendships come from, but in terms of background, we couldn’t have been more different,” says Denis, a Jewish native of Brooklyn. Perez, more than 20 years younger than Denis, was from the other end of the Empire State. The son of Dominican immigrants, he was raised in Buffalo and attended a Catholic high school.

Their shared interest in baseball resulted in trips to Baltimore to watch the Orioles. Denis grew up following the Brooklyn Dodgers; Perez played baseball in high school and later umpired games to make money during his summers home from college. There were collaborations in the council chambers in Rockville, as well: Both were former congressional aides, and they teamed up to sponsor field hearings and push several pieces of legislation.

With the council’s eight Democrats split down the middle, Denis became the deciding vote in a 5-4 majority that unexpectedly elevated Perez to the presidency of the council in 2005, making him the highest-ranking Latino elected official in Maryland. Denis, long a member of the GOP’s moderate-to-liberal wing, was even among the speakers at a Silver Spring rally a year later, as Perez launched what turned out to be an abortive bid for the Democratic nomination for state attorney general.

“In significant ways, I’d like to think we were—and are—simpatico, because I would say that people like Tom, and I would include myself, like to get things done in a collegial way,” Denis says. That’s what he was ready to tell a Senate committee when a partisan battle erupted in 2009 over President Barack Obama’s nomination of Perez to head the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division—the agency where Perez had worked as a young attorney before his days in Rockville. 

“I would have said something like, ‘You haven’t met Tom Perez. He’s someone I could work with, and [when] he goes into these issues he’s fair-minded and diligent,’ ” Denis adds. “What more do you want in a public official?” 

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