He was a force behind bolstering the power of minority voters in New York City.
He was a central warrior in the defeat of a Hazleton, Pa. ordinance that, many years before Arizona, called for going after undocumented immigrants at the local level.
And he’s a major reason that Latinos who are shorter than 5-foot-8 are New York City cops.
“If you see short Puerto Rican cops on the street of the city, it’s because of César Perales and the group he founded, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund,” said Angelo Falcon, president and founder of the National Institute for Latino Policy.
“He fought against the height requirement the city had for police, he said it discriminated against Puerto Ricans because many were shorter. He and PRLDEF were innovative, he took on strong cases.”
Meet New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s nominee for Secretary of State.
César Perales, 70, is known far and wide among Latino civil rights activists in the Northeast for charging at what he has seen as injustices against Latinos like a bull at a matador’s cape.
Latino civil rights advocates decades his junior describe the native New Yorker as a role model.
“He’s the Northeast’s César Chavez,” said Cid Wilson, a Wall Street analyst who is a civil rights activist and sits on LatinoJustice PRLDEF’s Board of Directors. “César Perales is a civil rights icon, the things he’s accomplished have had national significance.”
Many Latinos see Perales's nomination as recognition that is long overdue.
“It’s about time,” said Martin Perez, head of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey. “I think he’ll be excellent in the position. He’ll serve the whole state without regard to political party or ethnicity.”
In a statement announcing the selection of Perales, Cuomo said: “César Perales has devoted his life to public service. He is one of our most distinguished New Yorkers and will be an exceptional Secretary of State. I look forward to working with César in making New York stronger and restoring dignity and honor to our state government."
For Cuomo, the choice of Perales makes perfect sense to many Latinos.
Cuomo has been under fire for what many Latinos have seen as an apparent lack of interest in hiring Latinos.
In Perales, he has a candidate who generally is well respected, who’s an avowed Democrat – he served under Cuomo’s father, Mario, when he was governor -- and who has navigated the gray flannel world of state government, having hung up his agitator-activist hat at various times to don political appointee ones.
Perales was deputy mayor of New York City under David Dinkins, a general counsel under former Mayor John V. Lindsay, and assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Jimmy Carter.
“He’s shown he can do both things, be in both worlds,” Falcon said. “He can be an outsider and an insider.”
Perales's working knowledge of politics helped him know how to get results for his causes, those who know him say.
“He was always very politically savvy,” said his newly named successor at LatinoJustice PRLDEF, Juan Cartagena, a constitutional law and civil rights attorney. “César has not only a knowledge of civil rights law, but a good political sense of what needs to be said and how it needs to be said.”
But Perales has been careful – sometimes controversially so – not to mix politics with activism when his boss is the government, Falcon noted.
“When he’s played that [political] role, he was very much a company man,” he said, “very establishment. He wasn’t an advocate of the Latino community, he’d be an advocate of whomever he was working for.”
During one of his political stints, Falcon said, some Latinos sarcastically renamed Perales “César Paralysis” because the feeling was that “if you took at Latino community issue to César when he was being a government bureaucrat, it would just go into a black hole.”
Perhaps mindful of that perception, Cuomo's announcement about Perales included a quote by Assemblyman Félix Ortíz, chairman of the Assembly Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force, that said, "This is a great opportunity for the Hispanic community to have a representative in such a prestigious position working on their behalf."
"Mr. Perales is a legend in our community, who truly understands the struggles and issues affecting our Hispanic families. I am confident that he will work hard and advocate for the Hispanic community."
Those who express mixed reviews about Perales – who could not be reached for this story -- nonetheless say his contributions to the struggle for Latino civil rights cannot be overstated.
The son of a Puerto Rican father and Dominican mother, Perales, a civil rights attorney, co-founded the non-profit PRLDEF in 1972, modeling it after NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Early on, PRLDEF focused mainly on Puerto Ricans, the predominant Latino group in New York.
In New York, his fight for more influence for minority voters led city officials to delay a primary election and to change legislative boundaries after his organization waged fights in courts.
But later, it expanded its work to include other Hispanics, as the Latino population in New York, and around the country, became diverse and immigration a contentious national issue. It changed its name to reflect its broader mission, adding “Latino Justice.”
Perales kicked the broader artillery into high gear when he and PRLDEF took on Hazleton, Pa., which passed an ordinance that – like Arizona today – made national headlines when it called for punishing landlords and employers who knowingly rent to or hire undocumented immigrants. Local officials nationwide watched the Hazleton case closely, many of them considering pushing for similar ordinances.
PRLDEF filed a lawsuit charging that it was unconstitutional. Several courts agreed.
Perales was keenly aware of the larger ramifications of the Hazleton lawsuit, which became the group’s most high profile victory.
Before a 2007 court decision regarding the Hazleton ordinance, Perales told reporters: “At least 100 other cities that have passed and are considering passing laws like the one in Hazleton. . . what happens. . .in that trial is going to affect the entire nation.”
Also a few years ago, Perales led the fight against a New Jersey town that he argued was harassing day laborers – many of them undocumented – with questionable ordinances. Officials of the Borough of Freehold ultimately relented, conceding that its loitering ordinance and practice of allowing police officers discretion in handing out tickets to the day laborers were unlawful.
“This is a great step forward for day laborers and all Latinos across New Jersey,” Perales said to reporters after town officials repealed the ordinance. “Many town officials across the country are trying to drive day laborers out of their towns, and many have resorted to illegal tactics to do so.”
“This decision demonstrates that they have to respect the rights of day laborers just as they do for anyone else.”
This year, Perales was closely monitoring the bills in state legislatures around the nation that aimed to crack down on illegal immigration. He was particularly concerned about laws that sought to end automatic U.S. citizenship to the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants -- a direct violation, he said, of the 14th Amendment.
He vowed to sue any state that passed such a bill, adding that the motivation behind such measures "smacks of racism.”
Many Latinos say they were surprised by Perales’s nomination because when he stepped down recently from PRLDEF – where he was president, and which he’s left and returned to several times – he said it was time for new blood at the organization, and spoke about writing a book and perhaps teaching at a college.
Though Perales is returning, if his nomination is approved, to the corridors of government buildings as a denizen, not an agitator, another Perales will be fighting the fight.
Perales’s daughter, Nina Perales, is herself a highly-regarded civil rights attorney. Earlier this year she was named litigation director for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, or MALDEF.
Still, César Perales’s admirers are glad to see him on his way to a high Albany post.
“He’s been a tireless leader in our community, especially in the Northeast,” said Julissa Gutierrez, Northeast Director of Civic Engagement for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund. “He’s helped insure that Latino are protected and empowered.”
“He’ll be able to bring expertise and a strong record to the job of Secretary of State,” she said. “He will be only the second person of Hispanic descent in the Cuomo administration. We would like to see more appointments of Latinos.”