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Labor Nominee's Civil Rights Work Draws Praise, Controversy

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Labor Nominee's Civil Rights Work Draws Praise, Controversy

Labor Nominee's Civil Rights Work Draws Praise, Controversy

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. President Obama's choice to lead the Labor Department has been one of the most aggressive advocates for civil rights in decades. Tom Perez prosecuted a record number of hate crimes cases. He extracted huge settlements from banks that overcharged minorities for home loans. Some Republican lawmakers say his aggressiveness makes them reluctant to confirm Perez as a cabinet member. His confirmation hearing comes this week and NPR's Carrie Johnson has more.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: As the son of Dominican immigrants and a guy who put himself through Ivy League schools by working as a garbage collector, Tom Perez knows something about climbing the ladder.

TOM PEREZ: Over my career I've learned that true progress is possible if you keep an open mind, listen to all sides, and focus on results.

JOHNSON: About those results. For more than three years, Perez has run the civil rights unit at the Justice Department - where he's sued Texas and South Carolina over voting rights and searched for abuses in more than a dozen police departments. Perez has done something else too, says Mark Perriello of the American Association of People with Disabilities.

MARK PERRIELLO: All the work that he has done to secure the rights of people with disabilities to live independently in the community, to have access to polling, to have access to simple things like technology and watching Netflix with your family at home at night has been nothing less than stellar. He is making a huge difference.

JOHNSON: Perriello and dozens of other disability rights advocates have just launched a campaign to support Perez as Labor Secretary. It's support the nominee may need to counter vocal opposition from Republican lawmakers like Iowa Senator Charles Grassley.

REPRESENTATIVE CHARLES GRASSLEY: This person's going to have trouble. Both through the committee process and on the floor. He's got a lot of questions to answer.

JOHNSON: Grassley and two House Republicans have subpoenaed a personal email account belonging to Perez. The lawmakers want to know more about Perez's role in what they call a quid pro quo last year when the Justice Department agreed not to support a big whistle-blower lawsuit against St. Paul Minnesota for mishandling federal money.

And St. Paul leaders agreed to drop their Supreme Court challenge to a legal tool that Justice often uses in discrimination cases. Grassley says that kind of deal is not against the law, but....

GRASSLEY: But it looks pretty bad right now when somebody at that high level of government makes a quid pro quo that costs the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars just for the purpose, for philosophical or ideological purposes, to get a case to the Supreme Court dropped.

JOHNSON: And are you saying at this point you'd be prepared to block Tom Perez's nomination?

GRASSLEY: I'm at least prepared to resist any attempt to bring it up until we get all of our questions answered.

JOHNSON: At his Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday, Perez will face even more questions about his management at the civil rights unit at Justice. The department's inspector general recently concluded the atmosphere there is filled with partisanship and bullying, though watchdogs say most of that trouble dates back a decade, before Perez arrived.

The Republican-led House Judiciary Committee is planning its own hearing this week on those issues. Supporters of Perez say the White House knew all about those controversies when it nominated him to lead the Labor Department. President Obama says he wants Perez to play a big role in such issues as long term unemployment, immigration, and the minimum wage.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: His story reminds us of this country's promise, that 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.

JOHNSON: Perez is in line to become one of the highest profile Latino cabinet members in recent memory - if he can get past Senate Republicans. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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