Politics

Democrats defend Obama Labor pick by highlighting race

Neil Munro
White House Correspondent

Democrats are defending President Barack Obama’s provocative March 18 pick to head the Department of Labor, Tom Perez, by highlighting his Hispanic heritage.

“This morning: RNC autopsy warned GOP to improve Hispanic outreach. This afternoon: Senate Rs fight Hispanic nominee,” said a tweet from Sen. Harry Reid’s digital media advisor, Faiz Shakir.

Brad Woodhouse, the spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, broadcast a tweet from teachers’ union leader, saying “This is why GOP does so poorly with Latinos. Perez deserves better.”

That tweet was linked to a Washington Post opinion column by a progressive blogger, Greg Sargent.

“Conservatives are already signaling that they are going to tee off Perez’s record to go the lurid and racially charged route … That will create a tricky balancing act for those Republicans who agree with the RNC’s diagnosis of the need to repair relations with Latinos,” said the Post, titled “Attacks on Thomas Perez will do wonders for GOP Latino outreach.”

The Democrats did not try to counter the GOP’s numerous criticisms of Perez, whose management of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division was slammed by a scathing Inspector General report in March.

However, the top-ranked GOP Senator on the panel that will vote on Perez’s nomination is acting cautiously.

“I look forward to meeting with Mr. Perez and examining his record and qualifications,” said the March 19 statement from Sen. Lamar Alexander.

“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.”

Obama announced the nomination March 18, saying “Tom has fought to open pathways into the workforce for everyone willing to contribute, including people with disabilities, LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender] Americans, and immigrants.”

Obama announced the nomination on the day when the GOP was trying to rollout a new outreach to Hispanics, and highlighted Perez’s Hispanic roots during a brief White House appearance.

When appearing with Obama, Perez twice spoke in Spanish to Latino audiences.

That’s unusual on two counts. Obama usually does not allow his nominees to comment during their appearances, and their statements are rarely given in any language other than English.

However, the chosen announcement day and language may not be accidental.

Obama and his aides have often used political conflict to rally their base.

By offering a nominee who is highly likely to draw GOP criticism, Obama is also creating a political conflict in which he can bind Latinos to him by portraying himself as the defender of Latinos from GOP criticism.

GOP Senators can choose to ignore the evidence of misbehavior by Perez. But they face strong pressure from their base to criticize Perez, partly because Perez has played a central role in many partisan actions by the Department of Justice.