On Monday, President Obama nominated Thomas Perez to serve as Secretary of Labor. He praised the son of Dominican immigrants as a "consensus builder" whose life story "... reminds us of this country's promise." Immediately, conservative lawmakers and commentators began pushing back, calling Perez a radical, political choice. "This is an unfortunate and needlessly divisive nomination," said Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL).
What is unfortunate and needless is GOP opposition to the only Latino chosen for the president's second-term cabinet. Perez is ready to lead the Department of Labor, based on his track record of fighting discrimination and of protecting worker and voter rights. The GOP should tread lightly, for attacking Perez will do nothing for their Hispanic outreach effort.
Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) said Perez' record "should be met with great suspicion," which is ironic coming from a politician who was once embroiled in a scandal involving a Washington D.C. brothel.
The fact is that Perez is a strong candidate for the Department of Labor, where raising the minimum wage and immigration reform will be on the agenda. As Maryland's Secretary of Labor, he cracked down on the improper classification of employees as independent contractors. At the Department of Justice (DOJ), he won the largest fair housing settlements in history from banks. He challenged Voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina, and sued Arizona's Sheriff Joe Arpaio for racial profiling of Hispanics.
Perez's nomination enjoys support from labor, Hispanic groups, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Still, conservative commentators have already begun their ugly personal attacks. Syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin called Perez "Obama's Nominee for Secretary of (Illegal Alien) Labor." On his radio show, Rush Limbaugh said, "He (Perez) may as well be Hugo Chavez."
Perez is being subjected to such putdowns only days after the GOP unveiled their "autopsy" of what went wrong in the 2012 presidential election. The report called for the GOP to be more inclusive and to reach out to Hispanics. Yet apparently Sen. Sessions didn't read the report. In a press release, he criticized Perez for his work at CASA de Maryland, which he termed "a fringe advocacy group that has instructed illegal immigrants on how to escape detection." For the record, CASA de Maryland is the state's largest immigrant advocacy organization, and has received numerous awards for public service.
Sen. Vitter opposes Perez' nomination because of "his spotty work" on the New Black Panther Party case. This was an incident of Philadelphia voter intimidation that was wildly hyped by conservative media, and then exhaustively investigated by the Department of Justice. The case was dropped in May 2009, and two separate investigations by the DOJ later found that there were no improper motives in dismissing it. What's more, Perez did not even join the DOJ until October 2009.
Yes, there may be legitimate concerns over Perez' nomination. The Department of Justice has suffered from internal turmoil, most of which occurred before Perez arrived. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) has raised questions about whether Perez improperly persuaded the City of St. Paul to drop a Fair Housing suit at the Supreme Court, in exchange for the DOJ not intervening in another case. These issues deserve to be explored in a respectful confirmation process.
The key word is respectful; Republicans would not benefit from a racially charged hearing attacking a Hispanic nominee. The optics would be terrible, and it would likely further alienate Latino voters from the GOP. Consider that Sonia Sotomayor's 2009 confirmation hearing offended many Hispanics due to their highly partisan and borderline bigoted nature. Not only are there now even more Latino voters, they are more politically engaged and aware than ever.
Perez is eminently qualified to lead the Department of Justice. He is the best man for the job, and the GOP opposes his nomination at its own peril.