What You Need to Know About Obama's Labor Secretary Pick, Thomas Perez

Matt Vasilogambros
March 19, 2013

President Obama has chosen Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, as the next Labor secretary. The nomination, announced Monday, will require Senate confirmation.

(Related Story:Perez in 3 Charts)

In a ceremony to unveil the pick, Obama said Perez was someone who is committed to championing important causes on behalf of labor and to protecting the rights of immigrants. Obama also said Perez would be a point person in advocating for a rise in the minimum wage. “I'm confident that Tom's going to be able to work to promote economic growth, but also make sure that that growth is broad-based,” Obama said in the East Room of the White House. “He's going to be an integral part of our overall economic team.”

Perez, at times speaking in his parents’ native Spanish, said he looked forward to working with organized labor, the business community, and grassroots organizations to make progress on the economy. “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. I look forward to taking these lessons with me, if confirmed, to my new role as secretary of the Department of Labor.”

Here is what you need to know about Perez:

He was behind many of the big Justice Department cases of the last four years. Perez worked closely with Attorney General Eric Holder on several civil-rights cases in the president’s first term. Holder hopes to make accomplishments on civil rights part of his legacy at Justice. Perez’s Civil Rights Division oversaw the Justice Department objection to two similar laws that required voters to show a photo ID in Texas and South Carolina, saying the states did not adequately prove the laws comply with the Voting Rights Act. Both states filed lawsuits against the Justice Department in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to restore their laws. The court agreed with the department's objection to the Texas law, while it upheld South Carolina’s law, rulling, however, that it cannot go into effect until this year.

Perez’s division has also sued famed Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona’s Maricopa County for what the Justice Department has said was racial profiling of Latinos in his border county. That case was one of 17 probes of police and sheriff’s departments across the country, the most cases in the division’s history.

Labor loves him. Perez, a Harvard Law graduate, has a long history of working on labor issues. From 2007 to 2009, he served as the Maryland labor secretary under Gov. Martin O’Malley, before he was tapped for his current position at Justice. During his tenure, he helped write a reform package that was aimed at addressing the state’s foreclosure crisis. Perez has specialized in civil-rights law throughout his career, serving as a Justice Department attorney and a special counsel to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. He also held two civil-rights positions in the Clinton administration. In Obama's State of the Union address, he proposed an increase in the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour. If Perez gets the job at Labor, he will likely play a prominent role in pushing this proposal on Capitol Hill.

He has Republican critics. Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said in a statement that Perez “should face a lot of tough questions” over his work at the Justice Department. Republicans have criticized Perez's role in a deal between the city of St. Paul, Minn., and the Justice Department, which lawmakers called a "quid pro quo agreement." Republicans hold that in exchange for the city to drop a lawsuit that threatened to negate some provisions in the Fair Housing Act, the department agreed not to sue the city on two unrelated housing matters. If the Justice Department had gone through with its lawsuit, it could have won upwards of $180 million, Republicans say.

In his last confirmation battle in 2009, Perez's nomination was held up for several months by Sen Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., over his ties to immigration advocacy groups. Perez was eventually confirmed, 72-22, with strong Republican support.

He could play an important role in immigration policy.  The Labor Department could be involved in some aspects of the immigration debate, including helping to shape proposals on how employers could hire guest workers from other countries. If confirmed, Perez could be the only Latino in Obama's second-term Cabinet. Two Latino Cabinet secretaries, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, are leaving the administration.