Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez (right), a Hispanic American, speaks March 18 after being nominated as the next secretary of labor by President Obama during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Perez would replace Hilda Solis, who resigned the Labor Department's top position in January. (Jewel Samad / AFP)
WASHINGTON—President Obama has picked the Justice Department’s top civil rights enforcer, Thomas Perez, to be his next Labor secretary.
Obama noted that under Perez, the civil rights division settled the three largest fair-lending cases for unfair mortgage lending practices. Perez also challenged voter identification laws in South Carolina and Texas and substantially increased enforcement of human trafficking laws.
Perez has a long career in public service. Before he was appointed to run the civil rights division at Justice in October 2009, Perez was chosen by Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley to head the state’s Department of Labor. He also served on the Montgomery County, Md., Council, spent time as an aide to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, and spent nearly 12 years in federal government. Most of that time was spent as an attorney in the civil rights division.
“Tom’s knowledge and experience will make him an outstanding Secretary of Labor,” Obama said. “We are going to have to work very hard to make sure that folks find jobs with good wages and good benefits. We got to make sure that our veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan have a chance to put their incredible skills and leadership to work at home. We need to build an immigration system that works for every employee and every family and every business. I am confident that Tom is going to be able to promote economic growth, but also make sure that that growth is broad-based.”
But his nomination, which requires Senate confirmation, is expected to face tough scrutiny from Republicans following a Justice Department Inspector General report released last week that was sharply critical of Perez.
The report determined that Perez gave incomplete testimony to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 2010 when he testified Justice’s political leadership was not involved in the decision to dismiss three of the four defendants in a lawsuit the George W. Bush administration brought against the New Black Panther Party,
“We found that Perez’s testimony did not reflect the entire story regarding the involvement of political appointees,” the report said. “We did not find that Perez intentionally misled the commission. Nevertheless, given he was testifying as a department witness before the commission, we believe that Perez should have sought more details.”
Following the release of the report last week, Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, was sharply critical of Perez.
“The Attorney General should demand unbiased advice from department attorneys and the Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Civil Rights Division, Tom Perez, who appears to also have been woefully unprepared to answer questions in front of the Civil Rights Commission on a subject matter he told the Inspector General he expected questions on,” Grassley said in a statement.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala, on Monday called Perez “the wrong man for this job.”
Sessions noted that Perez previously served as president of the board of Case de Maryland, an immigrant advocacy group that provides day labor centers and other services in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Sessions charged the organization is “a fringe advocacy group that has instructed illegal immigrants on how to escape detection, and also promoted illegal labor sites and driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.”
“This is an unfortunate and needlessly divisive nomination. The top priority of the Secretary of Labor should be to create jobs and higher wages for American workers,” Sessions said. “But Mr. Perez has aggressively sought ways to allow the hiring of more illegal workers.”
A few of Obama’s second-term Cabinet and agency appointees have already faced tough confirmations. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was grilled about past comments he made about Israel, and CIA Director John Brennan’s confirmation was slowed over questions about the agency’s drone program.
United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, who Obama was considering to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton at the State Department, removed herself from consideration after facing blistering criticism from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
The senators blasted Rice for inaccurate comments she made in the days after the Sep. 11, 2012, terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.
In brief remarks Monday, Perez struck a conciliatory tone and said he will reach out to senators on both sides of the aisle to talk about the Labor Department’s “key role in protecting and growing the middle class.”
“Over my career, I have found that true progress is possible if you keep an open mind, listen to all sides and focus on results,” Perez said.
If confirmed, Perez, 51, will replace Hilda Solis, who announced her resignation from the post in January.
The pick could also ease pressure on Obama from Hispanic groups who have been urging the president to appoint a Latino to a Cabinet-level position after the departures of Solis and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who also recently announced he was stepping down.
“Thomas Perez is an eminently qualified public servant who has the professional experience and compelling personal story to serve at the highest levels of the administration,” said Janet Murguía, president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights group. “Mr. Perez’s impeccable legal background in civil rights issues, particularly workers’ rights, as well as his decades of service as an elected and appointed official make him uniquely prepared to address the policy complexities and management responsibilities at the Department of Labor.”
Perez also has a remarkable personal biography. He is a Harvard-educated lawyer and the son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. His father died when he was 12, and he worked his way through undergraduate years at Brown University by working in a warehouse and as a garbage collector.
“His story reminds of this country’s promise,” Obama said. “If you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, what your last name is, you can make it if you try. Tom has made protecting that promise for everybody the cause of his life.”
Aamer Madhani writes for USA Today.