President Barack Obama named Thomas Perez, an assistant U.S. attorney general, as his choice for labor secretary in his second term.
Perez would replace Hilda Solis, ensuring that the Labor Department is led again by a Hispanic, helping the president maintain diversity in his cabinet. Solis resigned in January.
“Like so many Americans, Tom knows what it’s like to climb the ladder of opportunity,” Obama said today in announcing his plan to nominate Perez, the son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Perez will work to promote economic growth and will “make sure that growth is broad-based,” the president said.
If confirmed by the Senate, Perez would probably play a prominent part in pushing Obama’s agenda on items including an immigration overhaul and raising the nation’s minimum wage to $9 an hour from $7.25. Perez might be pressed on both fronts, such as by a proposal to issue visas for guest workers, by Senate Republicans, said Gary Chaison, a labor-relations professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.
“I don’t think that he’s really committed himself one way or another toward a guest-worker program,” Chaison said in an interview. “These are going to be the hearings from hell.”
Perez, 51, has led the Justice Department’s civil rights unit since 2009. He has pursued discriminatory job postings at a Florida health-care company, charges of sex discrimination in hiring by the city of Corpus Christie, Texas, and lawsuits against Georgia for failing to ensure overseas voting rights.
In May, Perez accused Arizona’s Maricopa County and Sheriff Joseph Arpaio of discriminating against Latinos in a lawsuit. Arpaio, who has reinstituted jailhouse chain gangs, said the Obama administration targeted him in an election-year maneuver.
Senator David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, said he will block the nomination until the Justice Department answers a 2011 letter about what he said was selective enforcement by the agency of the voter registration act in Louisiana.
“Thomas Perez’s record should be met with great suspicion by my colleagues,” Vitter said today in a statement.
Labor groups applauded Obama’s choice of Perez to run the 17,000-employee department. Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO labor federation, said the lawyer has been a champion for working people who sought to eliminate discrimination in housing, provide access to education and health care, and crack down on employers who try to avoid paying fair wages.
Perez is a “strong advocate for working Americans, particularly low-wage, and immigrant workers,” Liz Cattaneo. spokeswoman for Jobs with Justice-American Rights at Work, a Washington-based group that advocates for worker’s rights, said by e-mail. “We urge Congress to pursue a swift confirmation process so the agency can move forward with its agenda.”
Perez was the first Hispanic elected to the Montgomery County Council in the Maryland suburb of Washington. He served from 2002 to 2005, including one year as president.
Perez graduated from Harvard University’s law school and holds degrees in international relations and political science from Brown University.
Before taking his Justice Department post, Perez was secretary of the Maryland Labor, Licensing and Regulation Department, which oversees workplace safety laws, wage-and-hour regulations and the state’s consumer-protection statutes.
White House officials said the president is making cabinet choices to ensure that the heads of departments and agencies reflect the political coalition of Latinos, blacks and women that helped him win re-election over Republican Mitt Romney.
Obama chose three white men for the Central Intelligence Agency, State Department and Defense Department. They have been balanced by the nomination of Sylvia Mathews Burwell, of the Wal-Mart Foundation, as budget chief; scientist Ernest Moniz as head of the Energy Department; and Gina McCarthy to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.
Obama’s choice of Perez has drawn opposition from Republicans. Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama called it a “needlessly divisive nomination,” saying that at the Justice Department, Perez took a “political approach to the law.”
Perez “has aggressively sought ways to allow the hiring of more illegal workers,” Sessions said in a statement. “His views on illegal immigration are far outside the mainstream.”
Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, is among lawmakers looking at Perez’s role in a decision by St. Paul, Minnesota, to drop a Supreme Court appeal in a case that fair-lending advocates said would have harmed 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. As a result, the nation didn’t get as much as $180 million from a settlement, he said. 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 has said. “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.”
Remaining vacancies in Obama’s cabinet include secretaries of commerce and transportation, the U.S. Trade Representative and leader of the Small Business Administration.