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WASHINGTON – President Obama's choice of Buffalo-area native Thomas E. Perez as labor secretary drew the praise of the union and civil rights movements Monday for the same reason that a Republican senator promised to block his nomination: Perez's record as assistant attorney general for civil rights.

Perez's three-plus years at the Justice Department – in which he aggressively pursued fair-housing cases and fought GOP attempts to make it harder to vote – foreshadow a tough confirmation battle ahead for a nominee whose work has made him a hero to the left and a villain to the right.

For proof, just witness what senators on opposite sides of the aisle have to say. “Mr. Perez has served as a voice for the most vulnerable and reinvigorated the enforcement of our most critical civil rights laws,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which will hold hearings on Perez's nomination. “Mr. Perez brings significant experience and expertise to this position, and I am confident that he will serve ably if confirmed.”

Meanwhile, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., vowed to put a hold on Perez's nomination, saying the assistant attorney general had sued Louisana for refusing to make voter-registration materials available at welfare offices while ignoring another section of the National Voter Registration Act that requires states to purge felons and dead voters from the rolls.

“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,” Vitter said. Vitter's comments came after a White House ceremony in which Obama lauded Perez as a self-made success and a lifelong defender of workers' rights.

“I'm confident that Tom is going to be able to work to promote economic growth, but also make sure that growth is broad-based,” Obama said. “And he's going to be an integral part of our overall economic team.” The son of Dominican immigrants, Perez delivered remarks at the ceremony both in Spanish and English. Calling his nomination “a remarkably humbling and exciting phenomenon,” he also reached out far beyond the Labor Department's typical labor constituency.

“I am confident that together with our partners in organized labor, the business community, grassroots communities, Republicans, Democrats and independents alike, we can keep making progress for all working families,” Perez said. If confirmed by the Senate, Perez faces a complex agenda ahead – especially if, as expected, Congress passes comprehensive immigration reform. The Labor Department would oversee implementation of any such law as it pertains to the workplace.

Obama said Perez is clearly up to the job. As a civil rights attorney, an aide to Sen. Ted Kennedy and as a member of the County Council in Montgomery County, Md., “Tom fought for a level playing field where hard work and responsibility are rewarded and working families can get ahead,” the president said.

Perez also served as labor secretary under Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, winning strong support from the labor movement along the way.

O'Malley attended today's White House ceremony, as did AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who said: “At a time when our politics tilts so heavily toward corporations and the very wealthy, our country needs leaders like Tom Perez to champion the cause of ordinary working people.”

Meanwhile, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights issued a statement lavishing praise on the nominee. “Perez has been a champion of voting rights, disability rights, and educational equity, and has prosecuted some of the most heinous hate crimes in recent memory, as well as ramped up efforts to prosecute police misconduct,” the civil rights group said. “During his tenure, he also settled the three largest fair-lending cases in the history of the Fair Housing Act.”

Much of that makes Perez anathema, though, to conservatives, who are expected to focus their fury on the Civil Rights Division's handling of voting rights cases – and on a recent Inspector General's audit that found “deep ideological polarization” in the division dating back to the administration of President George W. Bush.

“This is an unfortunate and needlessly divisive nomination,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican. “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.” Sessions also criticized Perez for chairing Casa de Maryland, an advocacy group for immigrants, and said that in the past he has favored U.S. driver's licenses for illegal immigrants as well as allowing them to work.

The right-wing chattering classes were even more critical. Radio raconteur Rush Limbaugh and conservative bloggers railed over the fact that the Civil Rights Division, while under Perez's leadership, refused to pursue a possible voter intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party.

“He may as well be Hugo Chavez,” Limbaugh said, comparing Perez to the late neo-Marxist president of Venezuela. “He is a classic, classic radical leftist.”

Given the controversy that has already ensued, Perez's nomination is likely to be contentious to the end, said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law and an expert on the confirmation process. “I think he's done a really admirable job, but not everyone agrees,” Tobias said.

Still, Republicans who choose to challenge Perez's nomination will have to confront a politically difficult fact. Nominated on the very same day that the Republican Party issued a scathing self-assessment that said it must improve its outreach to minorities, Perez would be the only Hispanic nominated so far to serve in Obama's second-term cabinet.

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 Affairs Medical Center.

Perez's siblings became doctors, too, while he went on to Brown University and Harvard Law School – which is why his brother, Dr. Jose G. Perez-Brache, jokes that Thomas Perez is the “failure” in the family.

In all seriousness, Perez-Brache said he was enormously proud to watch on television as his brother was nominated to serve in President Obama's cabinet.

“He's the leader type,” Perez-Brache, a physician at Kenmore Mercy Hospital, said of his brother. “He doesn't stand back. He gets people to work with him. He'll listen to people and work to do the right thing for the country.” Knowing that, Perez-Brache said he couldn't recognize the man Limbaugh portrayed as his brother on the radio on Monday.

“I heard that and thought: Rush, you just don't know Tom,” Perez-Brache said.



email: jzremski@buffnews.com