Thomas E. Perez is President Obama's choice to run the Labor Department. (Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg )
WASHINGTON — President Obama on Monday named the nation's top civil rights lawyer, Thomas E. Perez, to lead the Labor Department, setting up the next confirmation fight with congressional Republicans who vowed to investigate the nominee's record on voting rights and immigration.
Perez, the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, would replace Hilda L. Solis, the former California congresswoman who stepped down after four years. If confirmed, Perez would be the only Latino so far in Obama's second-term Cabinet. He would lead the department as the administration pushes for sweeping changes to the immigration system that could create millions of newly legal workers.
Announcing his choice at the White House, Obama cast Perez, the son of Dominican immigrants and a Harvard-educated lawyer, as a defender of equal rights for workers and a classic example of American opportunity.
Perez "helped pay his way through college as a garbage collector and working at a warehouse," Obama said. "He went on to become the first lawyer in his family. So his story reminds us of this country's promise: that 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."
Republicans seized on Perez's record to raise objections. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) issued a statement calling Perez "a needlessly divisive nomination" and saying he "had a controversial tenure at the Department of Justice, where he has demonstrated a fundamentally political approach to the law."
Perez is connected to the fallout from the Justice Department's decision not to prosecute members of the New Black Panther Party accused of voter intimidation outside a Pennsylvania polling place in 2008.
An inspector general's report released last week found insufficient evidence to support Republican charges that racial or political motives were involved in dismissing the cases, but it detailed political rancor and dysfunction in the Civil Rights Division. The report also noted that Perez's testimony to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights "did not reflect the entire story" regarding the involvement of political appointees in the matter, but said there was no evidence that he intentionally misled the commission.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) said he believed Perez was culpable for "spotty work" on the New Black Panther Party case and accused Perez's division of focusing only on voter suppression cases, rather than potential voter fraud. Vitter vowed to block the nomination until Perez answered more questions about a voting rights case in his home state.
Perez will also face questions about his role in a Justice Department decision not to intervene in a St. Paul, Minn., lawsuit in which whistle-blowers claim the city misused federal housing funds, a case Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) has been investigating. Grassley said he would have "tough questions" for Perez.
Democrats have largely hailed Perez's tenure at the Civil Rights Division, during which the department moved to block state efforts to require voter identification at the polls and announced major settlements with banks accused of unfair lending practices. And under his leadership, the government sued Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff known for targeting illegal immigrants. The federal lawsuit charges Arpaio's department with a "pattern of unconstitutional conduct" against Latinos.
That record drew praise from labor and Latino groups. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement, "Our country needs leaders like Tom Perez to champion the cause of ordinary working people."
In remarks that he began and ended in Spanish, Perez said his parents taught him "to make sure that the ladder of opportunity was there for those coming after us."
"Over my career," he said, "I've learned that true progress is possible if you keep an open mind, listen to all sides and focus on results."