President Obama on Monday nominated civil rights attorney Thomas E. Perez to be the next labor secretary, immediately drawing Republican opposition and another contentious confirmation fight on Capitol Hill.
Shortly after Mr. Obama made the announcement, Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, said he would prevent Mr. Perez’s nomination from moving forward until the Justice Department responds to a 2011 letter accusing it of “spotty” enforcement of national voting rights laws.
Mr. Perez, 51, is an assistant U.S. attorney general and a first-generation Dominican-American. If confirmed by the Senate, he would replace Hilda Solis, a Hispanic former member of Congress from California who resigned as labor secretary in January.
At the Justice Department, Mr. Perez runs the civil rights division, which oversees voting-rights issues. Mr. Obama’s selection of Mr. Perez comes less than a week after an audit of the division that found that it had become riven with factions and questioned whether Mr. Perez was completely truthful in information he gave about the decision to dismiss a high-profile voter intimidation case involving the New Black Panther Party in Philadelphia.
Although Mr. Vitter cited the Black Panther case, he also objected to Mr. Perez on another front. He accused him of being involved in a “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.”
In a 2011 letter, Mr. Vitter asked Justice to be consistent in its efforts to enforce the National Voter Registration Act. Writing to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., Mr. Vitter said Justice had filed a lawsuit against Louisiana accusing it of not complying with a section of the law that requires certain government offices, such as those that provide welfare assistance, to provide voter registration forms as well.
But at the same time, Mr. Vitter said, Justice showed no interest in enforcing other sections of the law on purging ineligible felons, illegal immigrants and deceased voters from the rolls.
“Thomas Perez’s record should be met with great suspicion by my colleagues for his spotty work related to the New Black Panther case,” Mr. Vitter said, “But Louisianians most certainly should have cause for concern about this nomination.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney immediately pushed back against Republican complaints about Mr. Perez’s record, arguing that he is “enormously qualified” for the position and citing his leadership in the civil rights division where he settled the three of the largest fair-lending cases against mortgage-lending practices.
“The division has fought to protect the rights of every American student, to achieve the quality education on they will need to compete for the jobs of tomorrow,” he said. “It has dramatically increased the enforcement of human trafficking laws and stepped up its efforts to ensure our nation’s veterans do not lose their civilian job because they are serving our nation.”
In making the announcement Monday, President Obama called Mr. Perez a “consensus builder” and said his “story reminds us of this country’s promise.”
“Like so many Americans, Tom knows what it’s like to climb the ladder of opportunity,” he said. “He is the son of Dominican immigrants. He helped pay his way through college as a garbage collector and working at a warehouse. He went on to become the first lawyer in his family.”
In brief remarks thanking Mr. Obama for the nomination, Mr. Perez twice spoke Spanish before repeating the phrases in English. He stressed his ability to work across the aisle. During his career he said he has learned “that true progress is possible if you keep an open mind, listen to all sides, and focus on results.”
As labor secretary, Mr. Perez would lead the administration’s efforts to raise the minimum wage and would be involved in the overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws.
Mr. Perez’s words about working with Republicans didn’t nothing to assuage them. Besides Mr. Vitter, several other prominent Republican senators immediately criticized the nomination.
“This is an unfortunate and needlessly divisive nomination,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and a member of the Judiciary Committee. “The top priority of the secretary of labor should be to create jobs and higher wages for American workers. But Mr. Perez has aggressively sought ways to allow the hiring of more illegal workers. Mr. Perez has also had a controversial tenure at the Department of Justice where he has demonstrated a fundamentally political approach to the law.”
Mr. Sessions also argued that Mr. Perez’s views on illegal immigration are “far outside the mainstream,” citing his previous role as president of the board of Casa de Maryland. Mr. Sessions charged the group with instructing illegal immigrants on how to escape detection and promoting illegal labor sites and driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.
Under Mr. Perez’s leadership, the civil rights division conducted 17 investigations of police and sheriff’s departments, an all-time record.
One particularly incendiary investigation that will undoubtedly come up during confirmation hearings, was the probe of the nation’s self-proclaimed toughest sheriff, Joe Arpaio of Arizona’s Maricopa County. The Justice Department sued him, as well as his office and the county last year for civil rights violations related to allegations that his department racially profiled Hispanics on immigration patrols.
His nomination had been expected for some time and has the strong backing of Hispanic advocacy groups, who vowed to push for his confirmation and demanded quick Senate action.
“Mr. Perez embodies the wealth of talent and expertise that exists within the nation’s Latino community today,” the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials said Monday. “We look forward to working with the president to support Mr. Perez’s nomination and to identify other Latino voices for Cabinet positions that will build on the legacy of both Secretaries Salazar and Solis,” referring to Interior Secretary Kenneth L. Salazar.
Gov. Martin O’Malley, who picked Mr. Perez to lead Maryland’s labor department, praised his record as a member of his Cabinet.
“Under his leadership in Maryland, he worked diligently to find innovative ways to protect our state’s workforce in the toughest of times,” he said. “From foreclosure prevention to living wage implementation to workforce development and skills training, Tom established an aggressive portfolio that helped Marylanders weather a changing new economy.”