WASHINGTON – President Obama is poised to nominate Thomas E. Perez, a Buffalo-area native who now serves as assistant attorney general for civil rights, as the next U.S. secretary of labor.
Sources familiar with the pending appointment confirmed Perez’ selection today. He would replace Hilda Solis, who resigned.
The appointment guarantees that the Obama administration – which has been criticized for a lack of diversity in some of its top-level cabinet picks – would continue to have a Hispanic serving as labor secretary.
Perez, 51, could not be reached for comment, and Matt Lehrich, a White House spokesman, declined to comment on the nomination.
Yet the choice of Perez quickly became an open secret in the Capitol, with liberals praising him for his strong record at the Justice Department and a conservative senator indicating that the nomination of Perez could be contentious.
Perez oversaw voting rights lawsuits against South Carolina and Texas during his tenure at the Justice Department. In addition, under his leadership, the Civil Rights Division conducted 17 probes of police and sheriff’s departments – the most in its 54-year history, the Washington Post reported.
For example, the Justice Department is suing Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County in Arizona, a right-wing hero, saying his department engaged in racial profiling against Hispanics.
“He has done an outstanding job” at the Justice Department, former Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, said on Facebook. “Tom has potential to be best Labor Sec since Frances Perkins,” who shepherded modern-day labor law into existence during the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
But Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, criticized Perez’s role in persuading St. Paul, Minn., to drop a case it was set to take to the Supreme Court involving housing discrimination. In exchange for the city dropping the case, the Justice Department agreed to stay out of two whistleblower lawsuits against the city.
The Justice Department was concerned that the fair-housing case could have damaging ramifications in other such cases, but Grassley and other Republican lawmakers have complained that the decision could have cost the government up to $180 million in settlement money.
“If Mr. Perez is nominated he should face a lot of tough questions about this quid pro quo deal he appears to have put together,” Grassley said in a statement. “I shudder to think how whistleblowers will be treated in the Labor Department if this quid pro quo with St. Paul is any indication of Mr. Perez’s approach to this important area of law.”
If confirmed by the Senate, Perez would be the first Buffalo-area native to serve in a cabinet position since Maria Cino, who served as acting secretary of transportation under President George W. Bush.
Perez’s parents were immigrants from the Dominican Republic who settled in Snyder after his father, a doctor, got a job at the Buffalo Veterans Affiars Medical Center.
“We were the Chamber of Commerce for all Dominicans in Buffalo when I was a kid,” Perez said in a 2009 interview with The Buffalo News. “There weren’t that many Dominicans living in Buffalo then, and every time a new family came, we got a phone call.”
Perez left Buffalo to attend Brown University and then Harvard Law School.
He later served in a lower-ranking position in the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department during the Clinton administration and as an aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. He also served as Maryland’s secretary of labor, licensing and regulation and on President Obama’s transition team.
Buffalo schooled him well for his career as a civil rights lawyer, Perez told The Buffalo News in 2009.
“What makes Buffalo great, and always has and always will, is the people,” Perez said. “What I learned growing up in Buffalo was the importance of hard work, the importance of community. Buffalo has had tough times, but the people are very dogged – and civil rights is about being dogged.”