President Barack Obama is close to choosing assistant U.S. attorney general Thomas Perez as labor secretary, according to two people familiar with the matter, drawing objections from a senior Republican senator.
Perez would replace Hilda Solis and ensure that the Labor Department was led by another Hispanic, according to the people, who requested anonymity to discuss personnel matters that haven’t been announced.
As Obama fills out his second-term cabinet, a process that began in January with his announcement of three white males for the top positions at the Central Intelligence Agency, State and Defense departments, White House officials are working to ensure that his cabinet reflects the coalition of Latinos, blacks and women that helped re-elect him, said the people.
Matt Lehrich, a White House spokesman, declined to comment. Dena Iverson, a Justice Department spokeswoman, also declined to comment on the possible nomination.
Earlier this week, Obama announced his nominations for three cabinet-level positions, choosing Sylvia Mathews Burwell of the Wal-Mart Foundation as director of the Office of Management and Budget, scientist Ernest Moniz as head of the Energy Department, and Gina McCarthy to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, where she’s been an assistant administrator.
Perez, 51, has headed the civil rights division at the Justice Department since 2009.
The possibility of his nomination as the next labor secretary was faulted yesterday by Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican. Grassley’s among lawmakers probing Perez’s role in a decision by St. Paul, Minnesota, to drop a Supreme Court appeal that fair-lending advocates said would harm a central enforcement tenet in housing discrimination cases.
The Justice Department declined to join two whistle-blower lawsuits against St. Paul in exchange for the city dropping the appeal, Grassley said in a September letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, costing the U.S. as much as $180 million in settlement money. The letter was also signed by Republican Representatives Darrell Issa of California, Lamar Smith of Texas and Patrick McHenry of North Carolina.
Justice Department officials said at the time that Perez’s involvement in the discussions was deemed appropriate by ethics officials.
“If Mr. Perez is nominated he should face a lot of tough questions about this quid pro quo deal he appears to have put together,” Grassley said in a statement yesterday. “I shudder to think how whistle-blowers will be treated in the Labor Department if this quid pro quo with St. Paul is any indication of Mr. Perez’s approach to this important area of law.”
Prior to joining the Justice Department, Perez was secretary of the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, which enforces workplace safety laws and wage-and- hour regulations as well as consumer-protection laws.
Before that, Perez was a member of the county council in Montgomery County, a suburb of Washington. He was the first Hispanic elected to the council, where he served from 2002 to 2005, including a one-year stint as its president. He has a law degree from Harvard University and a degree in international relations and political science from Brown University.
With five remaining openings in Obama’s cabinet, administration officials said they are confident he will achieve ethnic and gender diversity. Penny Pritzker, who led fundraising for Obama’s 2008 campaign, remains the leading candidate for commerce secretary, according to the people.
While Obama will probably select a white male, acting Office of Management and Budget Director Jeff Zients, for U.S. Trade Representative, the president is looking for a Hispanic to serve as transportation secretary, the people said.
At the end of his first term, women held eight of the 23 cabinet-rank positions in the Obama administration. If Pritzker is nominated and confirmed, Obama will have six women with cabinet rank in his second term, with openings at the Transportation Department and the Small Business Administration that he still has to fill.
Jobs With Justice & American Rights at Work, a Washington- based group that advocates for collective bargaining, called Perez “a strong advocate for workers, particularly day laborers and low wage, immigrant workers.”
“If nominated, this would send a clear message that the administration is looking out for our nation’s most vulnerable workers,” the group said in a statement released by Ori Korin, a spokeswoman.
Nominating a Hispanic lawyer to lead the Labor Department may signal an increased emphasis by the Obama administration on protecting the wages of workers, said Jared Bernstein, a former economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.
“Given his background, this may be about beefing up the wage and hour division at labor, which is incredibly important in terms of pushing back against wage theft and helping to implement immigration reform,” said Bernstein, senior fellow at the Center on Budget & Policy Priorities, a non-profit group in Washington.