OBERLIN — The election for Maryland attorney general was about two weeks away in 2006, and Thomas Perez was feeling good about his chances.
Then he received a call notifying him that the Maryland Supreme Court ruled him ineligible due to a technicality.
“A guy running for attorney general apparently doesn’t know how to read the law. It was a totally public humiliation,” Perez told 675 Oberlin College graduates at their Monday commencement at Tappan Square in Oberlin. “I was going 60 mph and I hit a brick wall.”
Perez, appointed U.S. secretary of labor in July, said the fiasco taught him about the inevitability of failure and how to overcome it. The ouster led to Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley appointing Perez Maryland’s labor secretary before the U.S. labor secretary appointment. In the late 1980s and 1990s, Perez served as assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Department of Justice.
Oberlin President Marvin Krislov said Perez was chosen as the commencement speaker because he epitomized the college’s liberal values. Krislov said Perez as a prosecutor led multiple investigations into police brutality and workplace discrimination against AIDS victims.
“Thomas Perez has worked tirelessly to promote social justice, equality and fairness for all Americans,” Krislov said. “He has said that even in today’s politically divisive landscape, ‘True progress is possible if you keep an open mind, listen to all sides and focus on results.’”
Perez, whose family emigrated to the U.S. fleeing political repression in the Dominican Republic, recalled how his mother struggled to raise him after his father died in 1974, when Perez was 12. In his 25-minute address, Perez quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “fierce urgency of now” reference in a call for graduates to consider entering public service.
“When I meet people in all the jobs I’ve had the privilege of doing, I see that the need is so palpable,” he said. “They can’t afford to wait for tomorrow because they’re struggling today.”
Perez asked graduates to reject “ideological echo chambers,” put community values before individualism and help fill “opportunity gaps” in America and around the world. “Whether you’re in Zambia or whether you’re in Zanesville, people need your help,” he said.
Perez began his remarks on a lighter note. Perez said he recognized that many commencement speeches are cliché-ridden and quickly forgotten by graduates.
“I may not have graduated from your remarkable institution, but to quote a former president, Ich bin ein Oberliner,” he said, paraphrasing President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 lost-in-translation quote at the Berlin Wall. “I wasn’t sure if that was, ‘I am a jelly donut’ or not.”
The humor was likely appreciated by graduates who traditionally have a laid-back approach to graduation. Among the graduates who marched from Finney Chapel to Tappan Square before Perez’s speech was one man dressed in an all-red body suit. Another man wore a black cocktail dress while another wore overalls, work boots and a construction hard hat.
Krislov echoed Perez’s call for community building and stressed the need for hard work and patience. Krislov said that while graduates are leaving school, they would remain part of the Oberlin family.
“We want you to stay in touch and we want you to come back and visit when you can,” he said. “We wish all you all good lives full of family, friends, learning and love.”
Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or firstname.lastname@example.org.