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If President Barack Obama names Thomas E. Perez as his next secretary of Labor, Senate Republicans will have a lengthy and contentious Washington track record to examine as they decide whether, or how strongly, to object to his nomination.
Perez, the assistant attorney general who heads the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, has served in that role since October 2009, when the Senate confirmed him on a bipartisan vote, 72-22. Since then, however, Perez has led the Obama administration’s notably aggressive prosecution of civil rights laws, frequently taking legal positions that have put him at odds with Republicans both in the states and in the halls of Congress.
His three-and-a-half-year tenure at the Justice Department is likely to be the subject of much scrutiny if he is nominated to lead the Labor Department — a job that itself could prove contentious as ongoing debates over the National Labor Relations Board, the federal minimum wage, immigration and other workplace-related issues begin to heat up.
“Secretaries of Labor haven’t been flash points for confirmation hearings at all,” said Cathy Ruckelshaus, legal co-director at the National Employment Law Project in New York, which is supportive of Perez as a potential nominee. But she warned that “it’s hard to tell what would happen in this context,” particularly given that Obama’s recent nominees to lead the Pentagon and CIA faced protracted battles before being confirmed.
The White House has declined to comment on the weekend’s widespread media reports that Obama will soon nominate Perez.
The Harvard-educated Perez, whose family emigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic, would be the only Latino in Obama’s second-term Cabinet if he is named to succeed Hilda L. Solis, who resigned in January. He previously worked as Maryland’s Labor secretary, in the Office of Civil Rights at the Health and Human Services Department and as a special counsel to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
But it is his time at the Justice Department and, in particular, his experience in the middle of several controversial voting issues, that is likely to draw the most attention. Perez was the first Democrat since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act to oversee the once-a-decade redistricting process and approve state-drawn maps.
He also led the department’s legal challenges against Republican-backed voting laws in Florida, South Carolina, Texas and elsewhere in 2012, often bluntly criticizing measures he said were intended to disenfranchise minorities, the poor and other voters. Republicans defended those measures as sensible efforts to protect the integrity of state elections from fraud.