President Obama is preparing to nominate Tom Perez as the next Labor Secretary. Currently the Justice Department's assistant attorney general for civil rights, Perez, who is Hispanic, has attracted a lot of media attention for being one of the few minorities poised to join a second-term cabinet that's looking increasingly white and male.
But there's much more that's notable about Perez's background, as we'll see during his upcoming confirmation hearings. Here are five things worth knowing about him and his work:
1. Under Perez, the Justice Department opened a record number of civil rights investigations into local police departments accused of brutality and/or discrimination. Perez has been aggressive about launching civil rights inquiries against local law enforcement: As of 2011, his department had already pursued a record number of probes (17) of police and sheriff departments, as my colleague Jerry Markon has reported, and that number has risen since then. The investigations include a lawsuit against Arizona's Sheriff Joe Arpaio, accusing his department of illegally discriminating against Hispanics in its immigration crackdown; an inquiry into Trayvon Martin's death; and the successful prosecution of police officers found guilty of police misconduct in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
2. Perez led the push to challenge voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina: A growing number of states have passed voter ID laws requiring much more rigorous forms of identification, and Perez helped spearhead DOJ's rejection of the laws in Texas and South Carolina on the grounds that they discriminated against minorities. As the AP points out, in the wake of DOJ's challenges, "A federal court later struck down the Texas law and delayed implementation of the law in South Carolina until after the 2012 election." Perez recently discussed the battles over voting rights here.
3. Civil rights groups and labor unions are enthusiastic about the nomination: This track record at the DOJ — along with Perez's earlier work as Maryland's labor secretary — have fueled enthusiasm for his nomination among civil rights advocates and labor groups. "He's been a very accomplished head of the civil rights division — strong on hate crimes, police abuse," says Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office. "He's been visible, saying basically the civil rights division is open for business." Others see the nomination as a sign that the White House will continue to make an aggressive push to raise the minimum wage.
The general sense is that Perez will be a net gain for the Labor Department — and the concern is really about who Perez's replacement at the DOJ's civil rights division will be. "I would really like to see someone as energetic as Tom. This is not a position for a laid-back person," says Murphy.
4. But Republicans in Congress have already raised major concerns about Perez's work at DOJ, which could set the stage for a confirmation fight: In September, Sen. Chuck Grassley and Rep. Darrell Issa launched a GOP-led investigation into Perez's role in convincing the city of St. Paul, Minn. to drop a housing discrimination lawsuit that was slated to go to the Supreme Court. The case involved a group of landlords who were suing the city for forcing them to comply with housing regulations that raised costs in a manner that was unduly burdensome to minority tenants, allegedly violating the Fair Housing Act.
At the heart of the lawsuit was the question of whether housing discrimination could occur simply because of policy rather than intent, which could have major ramifications for DOJ's lawsuits against mortgage lenders, as the American Banker explains. Republicans are accusing Perez and DOJ of arranging a "quid pro quo" deal in which St. Paul agreed to drop the lawsuit in exchange for the federal government's agreement not to back a separate whistleblower's case against the city. Grassley has already indicated that he's going to press the issue against Perez.
5. Perez is a lifelong public servant, but he also has a personal connection to labor issues: Perez has been in public service for his entire professional life, having previously worked as an aide to Sen. Ted Kennedy, a member of Montgomery County Council in Maryland, and an assistant to former AG Janet Reno, in addition to his work in the Maryland Governor's office. But as my colleagues point out, he also has a personal connection to labor issues: "Perez was 12 when his father died of a heart attack, and a friend’s father stepped in as a surrogate. The man was a Teamster who’d lost his job, and the union helped support him."