WASHINGTON – Buffalo native Thomas E. Perez won confirmation as labor secretary Thursday after a bruising four-month confirmation battle that left his young niece in Hamburg saying, “Look at what they’re saying about Uncle Tom!”
What they – the Republicans – were saying is that Perez is a liberal ideologue who is unfit to serve the department that handles unemployment insurance, worker training, workplace safety and an array of other federal programs.
But none of what he heard rattled Perez, who’s planning to start his new job Monday, said his brother, Dr. Jose G. Perez-Brache, of Hamburg.
“I think it was harder on me than it was on him,” said Perez-Brache, whose 16-year-old daughter, Ivana, was aghast to hear GOP senators attacking her uncle on the Senate floor. “He knows the Washington dance, he knows what the politics is. And to be honest, I was listening to the senators, and I was saying, ‘That’s not true!’ ” Perez-Brache said.
The Senate confirmed Perez by a party-line vote Thursday of 54-46, which was the closest such vote of all of President Obama’s second-term nominees.
Perez, 51, could not be reached to comment. But Obama said the man he originally chose as assistant attorney general for civil rights four years ago will do a fine job as labor secretary.
“Tom has lived the American dream himself and has dedicated his career to keeping it within reach for hardworking families across the country,” Obama said after the confirmation vote. “At the Department of Labor, Tom will help us continue to grow our economy, help businesses create jobs, make sure workers have the skills those jobs require, and ensure safe workplaces and economic opportunity for all.”
Perez, the son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, is now the first Cabinet secretary of Dominican descent. He grew up in Snyder and graduated from Canisius High School – and worked for a time on a garbage truck in Buffalo while he was in college.
After graduating from Brown University and Harvard Law School, Perez began a career in public service that saw him serve as a county council member in suburban Maryland, labor secretary in that state and the nation’s top civil rights lawyer.
It was that last job, though, that made him a lightning rod in the middle of the Senate’s bruising battle over Obama’s second-term nominees.
“Based on the evidence, Tom Perez is more than just some left-wing ideologue,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, leader of the Republican minority. “He’s a left-wing ideologue who appears perfectly willing to bend the rules to achieve his ends.”
McConnell criticized everything from Perez’s service on the Montgomery County Council to his decision, at the Justice Department, to file a lawsuit against a Florida abortion protester.
But many Republicans focused mostly on Perez’s involvement at the Justice Department in a deal in which the City of St. Paul, Minn., agreed to withdraw a housing-discrimination case that it could have appealed to the Supreme Court – potentially leading to a result that would have made it harder for the government to bring such cases.
In return for that agreement, the Justice Department vowed not to join two whistle-blower cases against St. Paul that, Republicans said, could have saved $200 million for U.S. taxpayers.
Citing that case, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the committee that handled the Perez nomination, said he couldn’t support the nominee.
“My view of his record raises troubling questions about his actions while at the Department of Justice and his candor in discussing his actions with this committee,” Alexander said.
Meanwhile, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said: “Thomas Perez’s record demonstrates he will be dangerous for the Department of Labor, not positive for the Department of Labor.”
Perez faced plenty of such barbs at his April confirmation hearing, where he defended himself as “a person who has an open and balanced approach” that would serve him well at the Department of Labor.
Asked at the hearing what his top priority would be, Perez said: “Jobs, jobs and jobs.”
“I believe it’s critically important to get Americans back to work, and I believe the Labor Department can play a role in that,” he said.
In particular, he said he would work to streamline federal job-training programs much as he did as labor secretary in Maryland, making sure that people are being trained for jobs that actually exist. In addition, Perez vowed to work with Democrats and Republicans alike and to bring together business and labor for the best solutions for the nation’s workforce problems.
To hear Democrats tell it, Perez is perfectly suited to the job at hand.
“He reformed and rebuilt the Department of Labor in Maryland, and he walked into a very troubled Civil Rights Division at DOJ, and by all credible accounts he returned high performance, professionalism and integrity to that agency,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “So, in a time when we need to do everything we can to protect and grow our shrinking middle class, Mr. Perez is exactly the right person for the job.”
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., agreed.
“The values he learned growing up in Western New York, including his stellar work ethic and his compassion for others, will serve him well in his new role,” Schumer said.
Perez’s brother followed the confirmation battle closely and said he thinks Republicans opposed Perez because of his successes at the Justice Department, which include a $335 million settlement paid by Countrywide Financial in a housing discrimination case.
“It’s a great day for our family – and as much as the other side complained, it’s a great day for the country,” Perez-Brache said. “Tom Perez is a worker. He’s going to get things done for the country.”