Labor Nominee Draws Union Praise, GOP Wariness

President Barack Obama talks with his nominee for Labor Secretary, Thomas E. Perez, during an announcement, Monday, March 18, 2013. President Barack Obama talks with his nominee for Labor Secretary, Thomas E. Perez, during an announcement, Monday, March 18, 2013. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

This story has been updated. 

Thomas Perez, whom President Obama on Monday nominated as his next Labor secretary, is winning plaudits from organized labor and civil rights groups, but business groups appear lukewarm and some Republican lawmakers are openly critical.

Speaking to a crowd at the White House that included labor leaders and lawmakers from Perez’s home state of Maryland, Obama introduced the nominee as an “outstanding” choice to further the administration’s agenda of growing the economy and strengthening the middle class by “making sure America is a magnet for good jobs, making sure people are equipped with skills to get those jobs and making sure that hard work pays off.”

He described Perez, the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and a former Labor secretary in Maryland, as “the son of Dominican immigrants who helped pay for college by working as a garbage collector and in warehouses.” Obama added that Perez helped Maryland in 2007 enact the nation’s first statewide living wage law, and called for the Senate to confirm him quickly.

The nominee thanked Obama in both English and Spanish and said the Labor Department’s “mission is as important as ever,” adding that “true progress is possible if we keep an open mind, listen to all sides and focus on results.”

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who was in the East Room for the announcement, applauded the choice, saying, “Throughout his career, Perez has fought to level the playing field and create opportunities for working people, whether in the workplace, the marketplace or the voting booth….At a time when our politics tilts so heavily toward corporations and the very wealthy, our country needs leaders like Tom Perez to champion the cause of ordinary working people.”

Equally effusive was AFSCME President Lee Saunders, who urged swift confirmation of Perez at a time when “workers are under attack and deserve a true advocate. Corporate-backed politicians are attacking fundamental American rights on the job, from collective bargaining to workplace safety to retirement security.”

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights issued a statement calling Perez “eminently qualified,” saying “the civil and human rights community commends President Obama for nominating him.”

Business groups appeared more lukewarm toward Perez, who would replace the departed Hilda Solis. “The Department of Labor handles many issues of importance to employers and employees,” said Randy Johnson, senior vice president of Labor, Immigration, and Employee Benefits at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “It is our hope that Mr. Perez will work with the business community to advance policies that promote jobs and economic growth.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, last week issued a statement critical of Perez after release of a Justice Department Inspector General’s report asserting that the Civil Rights Division over the past decade had become politicized.

“I’m especially concerned after learning that political appointees within the Civil Rights Division provided what the inspector general found to be misleading information to the attorney general as a rationale to remove a career attorney,” Grassley said. “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.”

On Monday, Grassley added further skepticism based on Perez's involvement in a federal decision not to intervene in two False Claims Act cases involving low-income housing in St. Paul, Minn. "Nominating somebody who is in the middle of a congressional investigation shows me that the president isn’t very serious about working together," Grassley stated.  "It appears that Mr. Perez may be at the heart of a decision by the Justice Department to make a quid pro quo deal with the city of St. Paul, Minnesota, that ultimately led to the American taxpayer potentially losing hundreds of millions of dollars by declining to intervene in a False Claims Act case that career attorneys had signed off on." 

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., quickly announced an effort to block the nomination, citing Perez’s record at Justice in declining to probe alleged voter intimidation in Philadelphia in 2010 by a group known as the New Black Panther Party. “Thomas Perez’s record should be met with great suspicion by my colleagues for his spotty work related to the New Black Panther case, but Louisianians most certainly should have cause for concern about this nomination,” Vitter said. “Perez was greatly involved in the DoJ’s partisan full court press to pressure Louisiana’s Secretary of State to only enforce one side of the law -- the side that specifically benefits the politics of the president and his administration at the expense of identity security of each and every Louisianian on the voter rolls.”

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said the next Labor secretary “must encourage economic growth and competitiveness by rejecting punitive federal regulations and working with Congress to rein in wasteful spending. Troubling allegations in the media and an independent investigation raise concerns about whether Mr. Perez is the right candidate to lead the Department of Labor.”

But Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, welcomed the choice. “As the Senate author of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Harkin said, “I am particularly pleased with Mr. Perez's long history of strong leadership on disability rights issues, which began when he was the head of the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration, and has continued through his current role.”

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