Earlier today, President Obama nominated Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez to be the next Secretary of Labor. Perez is eminently qualified for this job, having served in a similar role for the state of Maryland before becoming the top civil rights attorney in the Justice Department. As head of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, Perez restored that office’s historic commitment to protecting voting rights — something that was notably absent during the Bush Administration. In 2012, Perez’s division claims to have brought “the largest number of new [voting] litigation matters in any fiscal year ever” — 43 new voting rights cases — many of them protecting the voting rights of the very same minority groups the GOP claims it wants to form relationships with. Perez also brings a compelling personal story to the Department of Labor. As the President explained in his speech nominating the Secretary-in-waiting, Perez is the son of Dominican immigrants and helped pay for college by working as a garbage collector.
So, of course, several top Republicans are already trying to scuttle his nomination.
Before the President even announced Perez’s nomination, Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III (R-AL) released a statement attacking him for serving as President of the Board of an organization that advocates on behalf of low-income immigrants and Latinos. The words “illegal immigrant” appear three times in Sessions’ statement, which is barely more than a paragraph long.
Not long thereafter, Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) raised the specter of Perez supposedly sticking up for scary black men. According to Vitter, “Thomas Perez’s record should be met with great suspicion by my colleagues for his spotty work related to the New Black Panther case,” an allegation that does far more to discredit Vitter than Perez. Two separate investigations, one of which was released just last week, concluded that DOJ acted entirely without improper motive when it dismissed this case. And even if DOJ had acted inappropriately, it is hard to see how these actions impugn Perez. The decision to drop most of the allegations against the New Black Panther defendants — the decision that many on the far right now object to — happened on May 18, 2009. Perez did not take over the Civil Rights Division until the next October.
Vitter’s statement, which also criticizes Perez for not doing more to purge voters from voter registrars, indicates that the senator will block Perez’s nomination.
It’s important not to exaggerate the importance of these two senators’ statements. Sessions has a long history of opposition to civil rights. Many of his future senate colleagues voted to reject his nomination to the federal bench after a DOJ attorney revealed that Sessions once called the NAACP and the ACLU “un-American” and “Communist-inspired.” Four years ago, when Justice Sonia Sotomayor was up for confirmation, Sessions was also critical of the future justice for sitting on the board of an organization that advocates on behalf of Latinos. So, Sessions represents the Senate GOP’s right flank on issues of race and civil rights, and Vitter isn’t too far behind.
Sessions and Vitter’s crusade against Perez is certain to have powerful supporters among the GOP’s most powerful messengers, however. Rush Limbaugh compared Perez to “Hugo Chavez” on his radio station today, and he claimed that nominating Perez to head Labor is the same thing as a Republican nominating the “Grand Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan a cabinet position where he would be deciding on discrimination lawsuits.” If nothing else Perez’s nomination gives Vitter and Sessions’ colleagues an opportunity to show that they are serious about reaching out to minority communities by refusing to buy into race-baiting and nativist-baiting tactics. It will also show the American people whether these senators stand with civil rights and communities of color or whether they stand with Rush Limbaugh.