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Obama nominates top civil rights lawyer to lead Labor Department

March 18, 2013|By Kathleen Hennessey
  • President Obama with Thomas Perez, his nominee to be Labor secretary.
President Obama with Thomas Perez, his nominee to be Labor secretary. (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated…)

WASHINGTON -- President Obama has nominated civil rights lawyer Thomas E. Perez to lead the Department of Labor, calling the former state labor official a defender of middle class workers and a consensus builder.

Announcing his choice in the East Room on Monday, Obama noted Perez’ work implementing a state minimum wage law while leading the Maryland labor department and cast him as a leader able to find compromise.

“He's worked with CEOs, he's worked with labor leaders, he's worked at federal, state and local government levels,” Obama said. “And throughout, he understands that our economy works best when the middle class and those working to get into the working class have the security they need on the job, a democratic voice in the workplace, everybody playing by the same set of rules.”

Perez is currently the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. During his tenure, the division has stepped up enforcement of human trafficking laws and efforts to ensure that veterans can keep their civilian jobs while serving in the military. 

On Monday, Perez, a Harvard-educated lawyer and son of Dominican immigrants, began and ended his remarks in Spanish, thanking the president for the honor and opportunity to serve. If confirmed, Perez will replace former California congresswoman Hilda Solis in the top job at the department and will be the only Latino in Obama’s second-term cabinet.

“My parents taught my four siblings and me to work hard, to give back to our community and to make sure that the ladder of opportunity was there for those coming after us,” Perez said. “Over my career I've learned that true progress is possible if you keep an open mind, listen to all sides and focus on results.”

Neither Perez nor Obama directly referenced what will be the most prominent policy challenge waiting for the new secretary – the Labor Department will play a role in crafting and implementing elements of immigration legislation, including any temporary worker program.

Perez has some experience dealing with immigration politics. From his post at the Justice Department, he filed a lawsuit against 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 move and other controversial cases are certain to come up in confirmation hearings. Sen. Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the judiciary committee, last week objected to Perez' likely nomination saying Perez cost the U.S. "potentially hundreds of millions of dollars" by failing to intervene in a Minnesota lawsuit involving whistle-blowers.

Another key senator offered a measured statement Monday.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said he looks forward to reviewing Perez' record.

"Any nominee for this position should be ready and able to work with both parties in Congress to make it easier for the private sector to create good jobs for the 12 million workers still unemployed now more than three and a half years after the recession ended," Alexander said in a statement.

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