President Barack Obama today nominated Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, who has led the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division since 2009, to serve as the next secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor.
At a White House event Monday, Obama touted Perez and the work he did at DOJ, urging the Senate to confirm him as quickly as possible.
"In his current role as the head of the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, Tom has fought to open pathways into the workforce for everyone willing to contribute, including people with disabilities, LGBT Americans, and immigrants," Obama said. "Now, while he's tackled plenty of tough issues, Tom has also spent a career as a consensus-builder."
In brief remarks, Perez built on the theme of the necessity of consensus.
"As you well know, our nation still faces critical economic challenges, and the Department's mission is as important as ever," Perez said. "I am confident that together with our partners in organized labor, the business community, grassroots communities, Republicans, Democrats and independents alike, we can keep making progress for all working families."
Under Perez's watch, the Civil Rights Division took aim at lending intuitions and settled its three largest fair lending cases ever. They included the $355 million paid by Bank of America Corp. to resolve allegations that Countrywide Financial, one of the bank's units, systematically discriminated against qualified black and Hispanic borrowers.
In May 2012, SunTrust Mortgage Inc. agreed to a $21 million settlement related to allegations of discrimination that occurred between 2005 and 2009, which affected more than 20,000 black and Hispanic borrowers.
The DOJ unit was involved in several other types of high-profile matters during Perez's reign. In May 2012, DOJ sued Maricopa County, Ariz. Sheriff Joseph Arpaio for alleged discriminatory law enforcement actions toward Latinos. A year before, the division intervened on behalf of a Sikh inmate in California whose right to practice religion was allegedly violated when he was punished for refusing to cut his hair and beard.
By several metrics, the Civil Rights Division has been resurgent since Perez took over.
From January 2009 to May 2011, more than a dozen attorneys who left the division during the George W. Bush administration returned to the division. It showed that the department was refilling its ranks with lawyers, many of whom had experience working for civil rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP.
It's clear that Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. has valued the Perez's leadership. Late last year, when asked about his legacy during a speech at the University of Baltimore School of Law, Holder spotlighted the work of the Civil Rights Devision.
According to a recently released DOJ internal watchdog report, Perez faced big personnel-related obstacles when he took over the division.
The DOJ Office of the Inspector General report released last week detailed "polarization and mistrust" within the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division. While the report did not find that attorneys in the section made enforcement decisions based on race or partisan leanings, it did conclude that the bickering harmed the functioning of the section.
"Without question, the Voting Section in January 2009 had low morale and an unacceptable degree of staff conflict, which we believe were largely a product of the illegal hiring, transfers, case assignments, and other personnel practices that occurred in the Division from 2003 to 2006," Perez said in a written response to the report.
Perez added in his response that since 2009, "the Civil Rights Division and the Voting Section have undertaken a number of steps to improve the professionalism of our workplace and to ensure that we enforce civil rights laws in an independent, evenhanded fashion."
Perez was no stranger to the Civil Rights Division when he was confirmed to his post, having served as a prosecutor there from 1989 to 1994. He then served as special counsel to former Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) from 1995-1998. Most recently, before rejoining DOJ in October 2009, Perez was secretary of Maryland's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
Republicans delayed Perez's confirmation to his current post in part because of his involvement with a case that included charges of voter intimidation in Philadelphia. But he was ultimately confirmed 72-22.
It was not immediately clear whether Perez will encounter increased opposition in the Senate to his new nomination. Some Republicans wasted little time expressing their concerns with Obama's selection.
Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) called Perez "the wrong man for this job." He said that Perez "had a controversial tenure at the Department of Justice where he has demonstrated a fundamentally political approach to the law."
Sessions slammed Perez's labor record, especially as it relates to immigration. Sessions said that Perez's views on illegal immigration are "far outside the mainstream…It is plain that if the policies of Mr. Perez were to be enacted, jobs for Americans would be harder to come by and wages lower."
But much of the reaction on Capitol Hill, especially from Democrats, was positive. In a statement, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said that Perez is "uniquely suited to serve in this important post at a critical time when Congress will be considering issues like immigration reform, reducing unemployment, and continuing our economic recovery. He is a dedicated public servant, and since 2009, he has worked hard to restore the reputation of the Civil Rights Division."