WASHINGTON -- The Republican appointee who once held Thomas Perez's current Justice Department post has written a letter to Senate leaders in support of the Democrat's nomination for labor secretary, running counter to GOP attacks on Perez's record as assistant attorney general for civil rights.
John R. Dunne, who headed the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division under George H.W. Bush, hired Perez to the division in 1990. In his letter to Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Dunne praised Perez as a "person of legal and moral integrity."
"I had the opportunity both to review his legal-based memoranda and to engage in a number of intense debates as to what should be the Division's final course of action," Dunne wrote in the letter, dated Monday. "As a result of those experiences, I found Tom to be an excellent lawyer, a dedicated public servant with a deep commitment to the common good."
The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, chaired by Harkin, will hold a confirmation hearing for Perez on Thursday. Although Democrats expect Perez will eventually win confirmation, Labor Department and White House officials are concerned the nominee may get bruised in what's expected to be an ugly hearing. Republican lawmakers released a 63-page report on Sunday designed to undermine the nomination, much of it focused on one case during Perez's tenure at the civil rights division.
Perez helped broker a deal with city officials in St. Paul, Minn., last year. In exchange for the city withdrawing a housing discrimination case before it could be taken up by the Supreme Court, the Justice Department declined to join a pair of whistleblower suits against the city. While Republicans have decried the deal as an abuse of power, civil rights advocates say an unfavorable decision from the Supreme Court in the housing discrimination case could have undermined the department's efforts in other such cases.
The GOP report, issued by Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Reps. Darrell Issa (Calif.) and Bob Goodlatte (Va.), said the arrangement "was inappropriate and potentially violated Perez's duty of loyalty to his client, the United States." Democratic lawmakers, however, have maintained that Perez acted "professionally to advance the interests of civil rights," and the Justice Department has said Perez's decision was "in the best interests of the United States."
The St. Paul case has become the GOP's primary cudgel against the Perez nomination, though it comes with political perils. Well-regarded by civil rights and labor leaders, Perez, the son of political exiles from the Dominican Republic, has put together a lengthy track record aggressively pursuing voting rights and discrimination cases. Just as the GOP is trying to rebrand itself as more welcoming to a growing Latino voting bloc, high-ranking Republicans are launching an attack on a nominee who's set to become the lone Latino secretary in Obama's cabinet.
Not everyone on the right is displeased with the Perez nomination, however. The Senate HELP committee has received a letter in support of Perez from a group of state attorneys general, two of whom are Republican. The nomination also has the backing of some groups in the business community, including the the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Chamber of Commerce for Maryland, where Perez previously served as state labor secretary.