Perez draws attention for attorney general

Labor Secretary recently cleared contentious Senate confirmation

September 29, 2014|By John Fritze | The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON — — Marylander Thomas E. Perez, who has served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor for a little more than a year, is now being eyed for an even more prominent position in President Barack Obama's second-term Cabinet: successor to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

Perez, a former Maryland labor secretary and Justice Department official, is emerging as a candidate in part because of his extensive legal background but also because he has a close relationship with the president and shares a similar political worldview, supporters said.

White House aides declined to discuss the process publicly, but an official familiar with the effort confirmed Perez is one of several people under consideration. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. and Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in New York, are among others whose names have been floated for the job.

Perez, a 52-year-old Takoma Park resident, joined the Justice Department in 1989 and was named head of the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation under Gov. Martin O'Malley in 2007. He returned to Justice in 2009 to lead the department's civil rights division.

He also served on the Montgomery County Council and worked for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat, who died in 2009.

"He understands the importance of fairness and opportunity," said Victoria Schultz, associate dean at the University of Baltimore School of Law, who worked for Perez at the civil rights division. "He doesn't make decisions lightly, and he likes to listen to everybody around the table."

Despite many strengths, Perez's selection also would pose serious challenges for the Obama administration. As a practical matter, shifting Perez from one Cabinet post to another would require two confirmation battles in the Senate — one for Perez at Justice and another for his replacement at Labor.

And if Perez's confirmation to lead Labor last year is any indication, he would likely face resistance on Capitol Hill. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell referred to him then as a "crusading ideologue," and he was confirmed only as part of a broader deal to avoid wholesale change to Senate rules.

Republicans, led by Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, criticized Perez over what they described as a "shady" deal in which the Justice Department allegedly dropped a lawsuit against the city of St. Paul, Minn., in 2012 in exchange for the city dropping separate civil rights litigation against the federal government.

Perez was confirmed last summer on a strictly party-line, 54-46 vote after Democratic and Republican leaders agreed to allow up-or-down votes on a handful of Obama's nominees.

The next attorney general will inherit a Justice Department that is not only steeped in civil rights issues — from the review of police practices in Ferguson, Mo., to ballot-access cases around the country — but also increasingly consumed with national security matters.

Under Holder's tenure, the department prosecuted several high-profile terrorism cases and also wrote the legal justification for using drone strikes to kill Americans abroad if the administration deems them to be an imminent threat to the country.

Holder, who has been widely criticized by conservatives for withholding documents related to the gun-trafficking controversy known as Fast and Furious, is one of only three members of Obama's original Cabinet still in office. The others are Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Holder, the nation's first black attorney general, has agreed to stay on until his replacement is confirmed. He announced his resignation Thursday.

Some Republicans, anticipating their party will capture control of the Senate in the November midterm elections, want to push the confirmation process into next year. It's not clear how quickly the White House intends to announce a nominee.

If nominated and confirmed, Perez would be only the second Latino, after Alberto Gonzales, to hold the job.

Perez has had a hand in crafting much of the president's economic message for the past year. Both have pushed for an increase in the federal minimum wage and a reduction in college debt. And the two have frequently traveled together.

The son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Perez is one of three Hispanics in Obama's current Cabinet. The others are Julian Castro, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and Maria Contreras-Sweet, who leads the Small Business Administration.

"He's a visionary leader," said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA de Maryland, where Perez was a board member from 1995 to 2002. "In every place he goes, he makes a revolution."

A Labor Department spokeswoman declined to discuss speculation about Perez as a nominee but said in a statement that the secretary "has plenty of unfinished business here to take care of — including expanding opportunity for more Americans to join and remain in the middle class."

A Buffalo, N.Y., native, Perez put himself through college with scholarships and jobs as a trash collector and in a warehouse after his father, a doctor, died when he was 12.

"His story reminds us of this country's promise," Obama said when he nominated Perez for labor secretary last year. "If you're willing to work hard, it doesn't matter who you are, where you come from, what your last name is — you can make it if you try."

Perez launched a brief run for Maryland attorney general in 2006. He was knocked off the ballot by the state Court of Appeals, which found he lacked the 10 years' legal experience in Maryland required by the state constitution.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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