MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
In the east room of the White House today, union leaders sat side by side with civil rights luminaries as President Obama announced his choice for secretary of Labor. The nominee, Justice Department lawyer Thomas Perez, has a back-story the president finds irresistible.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Like so many Americans, Tom knows what it's like to climb the ladder of opportunity. He's the son of Dominican immigrants. He helped pay his way through college as a garbage collector and working at a warehouse.
BLOCK: But as NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, more recent episodes in the Perez story may pose a problem for his Senate confirmation.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Over three years at Justice, Tom Perez has filed enough voting rights challenges and hate crime prosecutions to be considered one of the most aggressive government lawyers in decades. But today, President Obama put the emphasis on work Perez has done for the most vulnerable.
OBAMA: Tom has fought to open pathways into the workforce for everyone willing to contribute, including people with disabilities, LGBT Americans, and immigrants. And he's helped settle some of the largest cases ever on behalf of families targeted by unfair mortgage lending.
JOHNSON: Perez would be one of the highest profile Latinos ever to serve in the cabinet, a fact he underscored today with this message of thanks.
THOMAS PEREZ: (Speaking foreign language)
JOHNSON: Perez is no stranger to labor issues. He ran the Labor Department in his home state of Maryland, where he helped push one of the first so-called living wage laws, a requirement that jobs pay enough for people to live on 40 hours' work.
Perez portrayed himself today as a consensus builder.
PEREZ: Over my career I have learned the true progress is possible if you keep an open mind, listen to all sides, and focus on results. I look forward to taking these lessons with me, if confirmed, to my new role as secretary of the Department of Labor.
JOHNSON: But there are questions about his route to confirmation. Congressional Republicans point to a watchdog report issued just last week. That report portrayed the Justice civil rights unit as a hotbed of partisanship and bullying. And though most of what was described happened before Perez arrived, he was not held blameless for the current state of the division.
The report by the Justice Department's own inspector general criticized Perez for testimony he gave about a controversial case involving members of the fringe New Black Panther Party. That case was brought and mostly dismissed before Perez got to Justice.
Within minutes of his nomination, GOP lawmakers outlined other concerns with his record. Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama took issue with Perez's past work on the board of a Latino advocacy group, which Sessions said wanted to permit the hiring of more illegal workers. Quote, "we need a secretary of Labor who fights to create jobs for American workers, not one that undermines legal work requirements."
Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, another Republican, said he planned to block confirmation because of a lawsuit DOJ filed in Louisiana alleging violations of the National Voter Registration Act.
But civil rights groups also say they're willing to go to the mat for Perez. Nancy Zirkin works at the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights.
NANCY ZIRKIN: What's being raised are the old conspiracy theory canards by people who don't necessarily want to advance civil rights.
JOHNSON: Zirkin says some of the people who could make things rough for Perez are in the U.S. Senate.
ZIRKIN: Unfortunately, it looks as though he could have a rough ride. And we certainly hope not but we will be there, and many in the progressive community, to help him get confirmed.
JOHNSON: Perez says he'll begin the customary round of courtesy meetings with lawmakers from both parties soon.
Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.
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