Democrats defend Obama Labor pick by highlighting race

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
Font Size:

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.

Many of those episodes are detailed in the March 2013 report by the DoJ’s Office of the Inspector General.

The starkest conflict came in May 2010 when opponents say Perez mislead commissioners at the U.S. Civil Rights Commission during a hearing.

The commission was trying to discover if Obama’s political appointees had any role in the controversial decision to drop convictions of four members of the Black Panther party who were caught on tape trying to intimidate white votes at a polling booth in 2008. Perez has said DoJ employees Loretta King and Steve Rosenbaum were responsible for pursuing the case.

The IG’s investigation, however, concluded there was extensive involvement by political leadership in the decision.

“Higher level political appointees, including Associate Attorney General Perrelli and Deputy Associate Attorney General Hirsch, participated … they set broad outer limits on the discretion of Division leadership to dismiss all of the defendants, rejected the idea of amending the complaint, and edited motion papers submitted to the court … Attorney General Holder was briefed on and generally indicated his approval of the decision,” the report said.

When he was questioned by the department’s IG abut his incorrect 2010 claim, Perez insisted that political appointees were not responsible for the case being dropped. “In his OIG interview, Perez said he did not believe that these incidents constituted political appointees being ‘involved’ in the decision,” said the report on page 74.

The OIG did not accept Perez’s excuse.

“We believe that these facts evidence ‘involvement’ in the decision by political appointees within the ordinary meaning of that word, and that Perez’s acknowledgment, in his statements on behalf of the Department, that political appointees were briefed on and could have overruled this decision did not capture the full extent of that involvement,” concluded the IG’s report.

Several Senators have said they intended to question Perez about his role in the Black Panther decision, and in numerous other controversial decisions.

GOP Sen. David Vitter announced that he’ll block Perez until he gets an answer to a letter he sent in 2011 about “spotty enforcement of the National Voter Registration Act in Louisiana.”

“Perez was greatly involved in the DOJ’s partisan full court press to pressure Louisiana’s Secretary of State to only enforce one side of the law – the side that specifically benefits the politics of the president and his administration at the expense of identity security of each and every Louisianian on the voter rolls,” said Vitter’s statement.

Sen. Jeff Sessinos criticized Perez for his legal support of illegal immigrants.

“This is an unfortunate and needlessly divisive nomination,” said Sessions’ March 18 statement.

“The top priority of the Secretary of Labor should be to create jobs and higher wages for American workers. But Mr. Perez has aggressively sought ways to allow the hiring of more illegal workers. Mr.Perez has also had a controversial tenure at the Department of Justice where he has demonstrated a fundamentally political approach to the law.”

Follow Neil on Twitter